From Elvis Presley to Mick Jagger, the rock star pose has often been filled by men, all swagger and slither, brandishing their guitars and larger than life personalities with equal rock n’ roll prowess. While men have a much longer history of living out the most idealized of public personas, the concept of “women in rock” is still not quite familiar enough that the phrase has become altogether passé.
It may seem like a thing of the past, but there was a time when it was men who dominated the airwaves and women that remained on the sidelines as the last in line to lead their own band, revolt at the establishment or garner a number one record. It’s only since the 1960’s that women have really come into their own, combining their unique talent with some hard-headed resistance in order to shift the tides and shape the future, providing the musical world with an eclectic mix of admirable figures from genres across the board.
Whether it’s the diverse style of Canadian musician Joni Mitchell who broadened the horizons for folk music or Courtney Love of Hole fame who managed to bring her own vision of punk music to the forefront of 90’s rock and her infamous reputation along with it, the following women have plotted out their very own spot in the annals of music and made new things possible for those who frequent the playlists of today.
10 PJ Harvey
While “Down By the Water”, released in 1995, might be the only song released by PJ Harvey that’s familiar to mainstream audiences, Harvey is still among the most inimitable female singers of all time. Born on October 9, 1969 in Dorset, England, Harvey developed her love for music early on with her parents interest in artists like Captain Beefheart and Bob Dylan, but it wasn't until finishing her studies in visual arts that she went on to pursue a career in music for herself. With a ferocious honesty and abrasiveness, albums like “Rid of Me” and “Dry” made Harvey stand out from her peers, and her chameleon-like evolution and musical vision has kept her at the top of critic lists since the 1990’s.
9 The Raincoats
Formed in the punk milieu of London in 1977, The Raincoats are among the most influential of British bands in history for their straightforward post punk style. Often considered the “Godmothers of Grunge”, Ana Da Silva and Gina Birch were inspired by the punk scene of the time but used it as a format to channel their distinctly female vision. While the band reformed in 1994 after the group experienced a resurgence due to Kurt Cobain’s fandom, their early work also garnered praise from one of punk’s most prominent icons John Lydon, who said in 1980 that “rock’n’roll is shit…music has reached an all-time low – except for The Raincoats.”
8 Kathleen Hanna
Kathleen Hanna, born November 12, 1968, has served as the most familiar feminist and musical icon of the riot grrrl explosion of the early 1990’s. While Hanna’s first inkling for activism started at Evergreen College in the late 1980’s, it was the formation of Bikini Kill in 1990 that put her on a national stage. Consisting of Hanna, Tobi Vail, Kathi Wilcox and Billy Karren, the band played punk music with a radical feminist perspective that was contrary to the male dominated hardcore music that was popular at the time. Though Bikini Kill broke up in 1996, Kathleen Hanna has released music with Le Tigre and The Julie Ruin and remains one of the most formidable figures in recent years.
7 Grace Slick
Known for being the lead singer of Jefferson Airplane, Grace Barnett Wing was born on October 30, 1939. While Slick’s family moved around quite frequently in her youth, it was after relocating to San Francisco in 1964 with her husband Jerry Slick that the two started a band, The Great Society. It didn't last long, and in 1965 Slick was recruited to sing for the prominent psychedelic rock band Jefferson Airplane, and brought them two songs that would make their name, “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love”. While later incarnations of the band never had as much success, Slick’s vocal style and stage presence have influenced scores of performers and made her one of the first legitimate female rock stars.
6 Courtney Love
One of the most controversial figures in rock music of the last 25 years, Courtney Love would have been a figure to contend with even without the fame of her former husband Kurt Cobain. Born on July 19, 1964, Love started out as an actress before hitting big with her band Hole upon the release of their 1994 album Live Through This. While the album was their third, it pushed the band into the forefront of pop culture and gave them both mainstream and critical success, making a near household name of Courtney Love and her powerful persona. While Hole has disbanded and changed their line-up several times, Love is still around as a controversial but defining 90’s icon.
5 Kate Bush
Born on July 30, 1958, English singer and songwriter Kate Bush experienced success early on when her song “Wuthering Heights” captivated audiences in 1978, becoming the first song written by a woman to reach number one in the United Kingdom. Creating music that contains elements of rock, pop, alternative and art rock and utilizing her own personal penchant for theatrics, Bush has crafted a significant legacy with her soprano vocal range. While Bush’s self-proclaimed perfectionism has meant frequent absences from the public eye, her music has inspired Tori Amos, Goldfrapp and a host of other musicians with its distinctness.
4 Janis Joplin
Regardless of gender, Janis Joplin, born on January 19, 1943 in Port Arthur, Texas is one of the most iconic musicians of the late 1960’s. As a bit of an outcast, Joplin developed her love for Blues music early on, and after leaving for San Francisco she began to work as a solo artist. In 1966, after being recruited as the lead singer for acid rock band Big Brother and the Holding Company, Joplin’s history was made as their album Cheap Thrills became the first number one album to feature a female lead singer. While Joplin’s struggles with addiction led to an early death at the age of 27 in 1970, she gained countless accolades for her stage presence and her powerful voice, as left behind in songs like “Piece of My Heart” and “Summertime”.
3 Joni Mitchell
Born on November 7, 1943, Mitchell started out singing in nightclubs in Canada and busking on the streets before she moved to the United States in 1965 to further pursue her career in folk music. After many of her songs were popularized by other folk stars of the time, Mitchell was signed to Reprise Records in 1968 and released her definitive album, “Blue”, in 1971. For her focus on music that experiments with jazz, pop and folk arrangements and also manages to engage listeners politically, Mitchell is one of the defining artists of the 60’s and 70’s and her influence persists as one of the most widely revered female folk musicians of all time.
2 Patti Smith
Often called the “Godmother of Punk”, Patti Smith was born on December 30, 1946 in Chicago, Illinois and brought up in a strict, religious household. After moving to New York City in 1967, Smith became involved in the burgeoning punk scene at Max’s Kansas City and CBGB, experimenting all the while with painting, writing and performing. In 1975, her band The Patti Smith Group was signed, and soon after Horses was released, instantly making Smith a force in punk music and one of its most enigmatic figures. While Smith left the music scene in 1980, she has since returned to New York and music, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007 for her considerable contributions.
1 Joan Jett
Born on September 22, 1958, Joan Jett’s journey into rock music stardom first began when she received a guitar for her 14th birthday. At just 15, Jett put her musical ambitions to the test, starting one of history’s most iconic all-female rock bands, The Runaways. Highly influential for their hard rock stance, lingerie-and-leather wardrobe and rebellious attitude, the band forever altered the kind of music teenage girls could make, but broke off in 1979. While Jett went on to start Blackheart Records in 1980 and has released plenty of music since, her name still resounds today with the legend status she’s achieved in the industry.