Women historymakers in music

By Katie Finlon

As some of you bright-eyed scholars may know, March is National Women’s History Month.

In perfect music-geek fashion before this month’s end, I have compiled a brief list of women who have made a difference in the world of music—from Gregorian chant in the Middle Ages to present-day pop sensations. Obviously, I can’t name every single notable woman musician, but here are the lesser-known names that have contributed to the art.

Plus, it doesn’t hurt to learn a little something on the off chance you didn’t go to class today.

Kidding aside, here’s the list:

Hildegard von Bingen

Not many know about Hildegard von Bingen, and there’s a good reason why. She was known for creating music for the church and she’s the first documented woman to do that—although, just barely. Keep in mind she lived from 1098 to 1179.

As a nun in the Holy Roman Empire, Hildegard von Bingen lucked out when it came to having her musical compositions, including her work “Ordo Virtutum,” (Latin for “Order of the Virtues”), being formally recognized by the musical community, according to Janet Hathaway, music history associate professor.

“Women weren’t necessarily given the same opportunities, the same training, the same expectations,” Hathaway said. “It’s a long, slow climb before women have the same kind of opportunities that men do.”

Clara Schumann

Maybe the name “Schumann” sounds familiar to you. Still can’t remember from your Introduction to Music class? Clara Schumann was Robert Schumann’s wife; Robert Schumann was a famous composer who was also infamous for being hospitalized for bipolar disorder, and that seemed to help Clara Schumann’s claim to fame.

Good for Clara, though—she managed to get a few works published under her name. However, other women around her time weren’t so lucky.

Fanny Mendelssohn

Again, where have you heard that name before? Mendelssohn was the sister of famous composer Felix Mendelssohn.

While she was talented on the piano, Hathaway said Fanny Mendelssohn had a hard time publishing works. So much, in fact, Mendelssohn had to publish her works under her brother’s name.

“While you have a few individual women pioneers, I think it’s more women as a group moving forward in music history,” Hathaway said. “Once they break that barrier and start composing and publishing, that definitely helps.”

Billie Holiday

Fast-forward to 1941: Billie Holiday, a jazz singer, was starting to make her way to the top by recording with musicians like Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson. Although she died at the relatively young age of 44, her timeless vocals inspired the likes of musicians Janis Joplin and Diana Ross, said Meredith Rutledge, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “Women Who Rock” exhibit curator.

Goldie and the Gingerbreads

According to Rutledge, Goldie and the Gingerbreads was the first all-female rock band signed to a major record label. This all-girl group was on the same bill as bands like The Animals, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Lead singer Genya Ravan, or “Goldie Zelkowitz,” now hosts “Chicks and Broads,” a radio show that features influential female musicians from the 1950s to the present.