Songs for a womanifest-oh!

Women’s History Month is 40 years old this March. Our playlist celebrates the profound contributions to music that have been made by women over the centuries.

For centuries, music history has marginalised women. Sometimes men claimed their compositions. Unequal access to publishers and performance venues also deprived women of the recognition they deserved.

Our playlist presents a tiny sampling of these significant personalities and their works. Whilst it spans centuries and covers multiple musical genres, certain themes recur. These include women’s sexual, spiritual, political and personal freedoms.

During the 20th century, music and words began more overtly to address issues of independence from men, equal rights and status, exploitation, and physical and mental abuse.

It is clear that winning rights takes bravery, tenacity and resilience but safeguarding them requires active vigilance.

March of the Women

Appropriately, the playlist opens with composer Ethel Smyth’s ‘March of the Women’ (1911). It became the anthem of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) led by the famous suffragist, Emmeline Pankhurst. Its rousing lyrics call for solidarity while encouraging more women to support the cause.

Hildegard von Bingen

Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), one of the earliest composers whose works have survived, led a remarkable life. She influenced powerful figures in both secular and Church spheres where she established her own convent and wrote entrancing liturgical music. You can hear an example of this within the playlist.

Innovative and Creative

Many women were creative and innovative in the classical music genre. The song by Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677), ‘Sete pur fastidioso’, has a conceited man asking why a woman has spurned his unwanted advances. Virtuosic and stylish instrumental works for harpsichord and other instruments were composed by Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729).

Also represented is piano music by the unjustly neglected composer Hélène de Montgeroult (1764-1836). Her better-known successor, Clara Schumann (1819-1896) was an extraordinary composer and pianist. Clara gained more prominence during her lifetime partly through her famous husband, Robert.

Florence Price (1887-1953) was the first female African-American composer to have her music performed by a major symphony orchestra. The playlist includes just one movement of her 1st Symphony – listen out for the train whistle!

Women were Instrumental

It is now recognised that the making of musical instruments, seemingly dominated by men, actually relied upon often less visible female participation, partners, and leadership.

For example, one of the best-known makers of early pianos was Nanette Streicher (1769-1833). Streicher’s instruments found favour with Beethoven, amongst others, and her home became a cultural centre for Vienna’s leading musicians. The playlist includes a piece by Jan Václav Vorísek played on one of her surviving instruments.

Women Rock

One playlist cannot possibly represent all the women in jazz, rock, country, folk, soul and gospel who have written and performed bold, groundbreaking music. We have highlighted just a few here.

Joni Mitchell, who recently turned 80, shows a commitment to social and sexual justice in a lesser-known early song, ‘Magdalene Laundries’. The 1970’s liberation of women from their traditional childbearing role by the arrival of birth control is celebrated by Loretta Lynn in ‘The Pill’.

Work and spirituality

Dolly Parton pointedly recounts the exploitation of women in the workplace in ‘9 to 5’. The power of female spirituality is unwrapped in Daymé Arocena’s two songs to goddesses of the uniquely Cuban Santeria religion. Lady Gaga’s many-layered mantra, ‘Born This Way’, not only conveys the importance of safeguarding the gains of earlier generations, but also the need to keep pushing forward.


Some of the playlist selections have rightly achieved legendary status for their impact and enduring pertinence. These include Lesley Gore’s ‘You Don’t Own Me’ and Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’.

Marlena Shaw’s powerful ‘Woman of the Ghetto’ stands out for its explicit call to legislators to heed repressed voices and to initiate change. This messaging is as relevant today as when it was written in 1969. The immortal Aretha Franklin concludes the playlist with ‘Sisters are Doing it For Themselves’.

Hear the playlist below or every Tuesday in March at 3.30pm in the Music Gallery.

Lead image: Michelle Ding via unsplash