Punk has a special place in my heart; I grew up listening to the likes of the Clash, and as I started learning to play guitar and bass, the distorted, smart commentary of these bands especially spoke to me. But the more I listened to these rock greats, the more I realized women in the field, particularly as musicians and writers, were anomalies.
It’s unfortunate that the contributions of women in punk (as in many other fields) often go unnoticed. As a freshman at Oberlin, I got a spot on WOBC 91.5FM, Oberlin College and Community’s radio station, and framed my first show as one that celebrated women in punk rock. I’ve continued this show, Queens of Noise (named after an album by Joan Jett’s first band, The Runaways), every semester while at Oberlin.
“When people call us a girl band, I take it as an insult. Being a girl in a band shouldn’t be a thing.” – Alana Haim
It’s been fun to share my enthusiasm and love for this music with others over the airwaves, but this experience has also been an immeasurable part of my education as a college student. Digging around to find the names of women artists I’ve never heard of has given me a greater sense of how punk is, at its core, an active questioning of everything you observe in society – whether it’s global affairs or gender roles. These women have both innovated and experimented with new sounds, and respond to the male-dominated image of punk, and of rock more generally.
In addition to other very important women punk groups, such as the Slits and riot grrl bands, here is a (incomplete) list, in no particular order, of the most important women in punk rock who have shaped the evolution the genre, and its ongoing direction… some of the women you will know, and others you should know.
Queens Of Noise
Joan Jett and The Runaways
The Runaways may not have been the first women-in-punk band out there, but they were the first major one to rise to prominence during the late 70s. All-women and between 15 and 17 years old, they recorded their four albums between 1976 and 1978, and also went on tour. This group was co-founded by Joan Jett, who would later go on to produce her own music. They were a huge inspiration for other young women in rock, and their fandom was sometimes called the next Beatlemania.
Joan Jett embodies a lesson my mother taught me from a young age – “never take no for an answer.” After 23 record labels rejected Joan’s music, she formed her own record label, Blackheart Records. The label then supported her band, the Blackhearts, as well as other artists. Joan Jett is an iconic feminist, and in addition to her leading power-chords, her lyrics can be quite acerbic. “Bad Reputation” is one of my favorites – a classic – fierce, inspiring confidence and sense of self is something that pervades all of her music. Listen: Joan Jett, “Bad Reputation”/ The Runaways, “Cherry Bomb”
Tina Weymouth, Talking Heads & Tom Tom Club
I just love the founding member and bassist of the Talking Heads. Her basslines are syncopated yet steady, and drive the music she helped create. When the Talking Heads went on a long hiatus, she co-created the Tom Tom Club, which continued to play with these various punk, funk and new wave styles. Listen: Talking Heads, “Psycho Killer”/ Tom Tom Club, “Genius of Love”
Kim Deal, Pixies and Breeders
As a member of the Pixies and a founding member of the Breeders, Kim has made some of the most exciting and influential music. You might not hear her voice on the tracks of the Pixies, but her basslines contributed to the band’s edge and experimentation with other genres, and overall unique sound. After the Pixies broke up, she and her identical twin sister, Kelly, formed the Breeders—several of whose albums received wide critical acclaim. Listen: Pixies, “Where is my mind?”/ Breeders, “Cannonball”
Known as the “Godmother of Punk,” Patti Smith is one of the most iconic and influential women in punk music. She distinguished herself in the NYC punk scene in the 60s and 70s with a unique combination of rock and poetry.
In addition to her influential music, she is also an award-winning author. Her book, Just Kids, is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read, and won the National Book Award in 2010. The outspoken activist and trailblazer has been cited as an influence by dozens of artists and musicians such as Michael Stipe, Madonna, Courtney Love, Shirley Manson, Ellen Page, U2, etc. Listen: “Kimberly”
Okay, so she’s not technically punk—but she was a huge inspiration to other punk rockers, and to women in rock music. Her dynamic voice was honed at Julliard High School of Music, where she followed in her mother’s footsteps and studied opera. One of my favorite quotes comes from her memoir Between a Heart and a Rock Place: “For every day since I was old enough to think, I’ve considered myself a feminist … It’s empowering to watch and to know that, perhaps in some way, I made the hard path [women] have to walk just a little bit easier.” Listen: “Heartbreaker”
Debbie Harry, Blondie
Blondie is often heralded as one of the most important groups in punk rock and/or new wave. However, there is something about Blondie’s music that seems to transcend genre. Perhaps it’s the frequent drumbeats and upbeat tempos, coupled with the occasional synthesizer, and guitars that could either fit on a Chuck Berry or Led Zeppelin record. Maybe it’s Debbie Harry’s vocal inflections that contribute to its punk-surfer (is that even a thing?) sound, or her beautiful ability as a songwriter. Either way, the group has a very unique sound and has influenced generations. Listen: “11:59”
Chrissie Hynde, Pretenders
This Ohio-turned-London-based band was started and led by Chrissie Hynde. She originally played in earlier versions of the Clash and the Damned, before eventually establishing the Pretenders. Like Blondie, the Pretenders also have a particularly special sound; led by a dynamic and incredibly talented woman. Listen: “Brass in Pocket”
Siouxsie and the Banshees
This band, started and led by Siouxsie Sioux has a dark and echo-ey sound. They are credited for playing a role in establishing the “gothic rock” genre. The band has been noted as a huge inspiration by many of their peers. Morrissey said of them, “Siouxsie and the Banshees were excellent. They were one of the great groups of the late 70s, early 80s.” Listen: “Into the Light”
Bikini Kill’s raw, unfiltered (well, through distortion pedals), fierce power chords, radically feminist lyrics, and overall sound have heralded them as one of the most important punk bands ever, and are considered to be the pioneer of the riot grrrl movement. Although they collaborated with commercially successful acts, such as Nirvana and Joan Jett, the band was well known for their dislike of major labels and the mainstream rock press. Hardcore to the core. Listen: “Rebel Girl”
HAIM is led by three sisters, Este (bass/vocals), Alana (guitar/vocals), and Danielle (guitar/vocals) Haim, and is the most current band on this list. Their debut album was released in 2013, with a sound and an attitude that is characteristically influenced by 70s/80s punk. But don’t call them a girl band—Alana has famously said, “When people call us a girl band, I take it as an insult – being a girl in a band shouldn’t be a thing.” Listen: “The Wire”
Lead image: Ari Up of The Slits