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Music as protest

Using the voice to make sound and noise is the bare bones of protest, of claiming space and stating you exist. D-M Withers looks at music’s association with protest, from 1970s punk to women’s social movements, examining how music has empowered women to take a stand.

How did 1970s punk even the playing field for women?

‘Some say little girls should be seen and not heard. And I say, “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!”’ cried Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, one of many anarchic and stylistically innovative punk bands of the late 1970s, like the Slits and the Au Pairs, in which women took leading roles. Poly Styrene’s irreverent lyrics reclaimed oppressive language; her hoarse, excitable delivery declared a refusal to be controlled by racist, sexist, consumer societies. ‘Bind me, tie me / Chain me to the wall / I wanna be a slave to you all’.

For girls and women, late 1970s punk levelled the cultural playing field. Its rejection of rules, mastery and skill gave many permission – and confidence – to play instruments, sing and form bands, even if they did not technically know how to.

Through punk, gendered stereotypes were eroded. Girls and young women screamed, grunted and shouted into microphones, shattering ideas of passive, feminine vocal styles. This extended to how instruments were played, and who played them. In post-war popular culture the electric guitar had become culturally coded as masculine. Long, self-indulgent, show-off guitar solos had become a fixture of all-male rock bands such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and the Who; people forgot that the first person to truly shred on an electric guitar was a black woman, Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915–1973).

Punk and post-punk explored other ways of playing and being. Dissonance was welcomed as a new kind of harmony; imagination and intention trumped training and virtuosity. Guitars, liberated from being the ‘lead’ instrument, were repurposed to add texture and feeling. Drums, free from being locked into known rhythmic patterns, added depth and dimension. Delicate and flowing ‘Odyshapes’ – to use the title of the Raincoats’ mesmeric second album, released in 1981 – were invented. The musical palette was widened and out crept home-made, suppressed sounds.

Portrait of a British punk girl with Mohican hairstyle

Portrait of a British punk girl with Mohican hairstyle.

During the 1970s and 80s punks flocked to their cultural epicentre, the Kings Road in London, to see and be seen with their massive spiked hair, ripped up and remade gear - and safety pins - through skin as well as clothing.

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Many feminists have walked in the footsteps of their 1970s punk foremothers. The Riot Grrrl movement of the 1990s politicised punk in new ways, creating far-reaching international networks of feminist culture-makers. Riot Grrrl’s influence stretches to contemporary acts such as Big Joanie, who grew from initiatives in London’s ‘do it yourself’ (DIY) scene that supported women and queers of colour to start bands. Across decades, punk’s cultural and activist frameworks have helped counteract women’s marginalisation within all aspects of music-making. Whether as event organisers, record label owners, sound engineers or players, punk has enabled women to make music on their own terms, in their own voices.

Empowering voices in the Women’s Liberation Movement

Activists in the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) of the 1970s were very critical of the ideological messages within commercial popular music. Songs like the Rolling Stones’ ‘Under My Thumb’, with its sinister lyrics that brazenly celebrated male control of female partners, not only denied women a voice, but normalised abusive and unequal power relations. Even the more benign focus on personal, romantic relationships in much popular music was viewed as oppressive. ‘Women are not encouraged to be strong and independent beings in their own right’, wrote the Northern Women’s Liberation Rock Band in their stirring manifesto from the mid-70s. ‘These songs help to keep women in their accustomed role of wives and mothers, dependent on men, because they hide the real conflicts in women’s lives and relationships with men and so prevent them from understanding their oppression’.

Commercial popular music also did something far more damaging: it turned music into mere entertainment, rather than being a tool for social transformation. Taking control of musical techniques – as well as writing songs with feminist messages – was, therefore, an important act of protest. This often took the form of workshops which introduced women to the rudiments of music-making, including how to use microphones and other instruments, as well as the use of the voice.

Within the WLM especially there was strong focus on the political importance of the empowered female voice. This was both symbolic – the call for Women’s Liberation – and literal – because it focussed on strengthening women’s actual voices. These sentiments are perfectly embodied in the following incantation recorded in the mid-80s:

Woman, I am a Woman
At last I’ve made my choice
To stand up and to be counted
At last I’ve found my voice.

This group emphasise the diction in every syllable, their mouths wrap around each word. They sing from the chest, excavating notes from the depths of their being, rooting the shared resonances into the ground on which they stand. Listening to this recording, the power of feminist music, when experienced with others, is striking. They mean it. It makes clear how music and sound-making can bind people together, focussing hearts and minds on a common cause.

The music of women’s suffrage

‘March of the Women’, composed by suffrage activist Ethel Smyth in 1910, is probably the most well-known example of early 20th-century feminist music. Smyth scored the song in a number of ways. There is an orchestral version for ‘March’, with parts included for every instrument, from the oboe to timpani, indicating that the song was sometimes performed by skilled players within large concert halls, conveying the scale, ambition and grandeur of suffrage activism.

Ethel Smyth: The March of the Women

Sheet music for Ethel Smyth's The March of the Women

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A different version of the score was reproduced on postcards, printed by the Women’s Social and Political Union’s Woman’s Press, which included the words and a simplified melodic arrangement. These cards were sold cheaply and easily shared among friends; small enough to be placed in pockets or handbags and carried on marches. Other versions of the ‘March’ were produced, written for players with basic musical abilities. These different versions of the song suggest that it was an adaptable feminist anthem, designed to be used by as many suffrage activists as possible, regardless of musical literacy. When we consider the musical content of ‘March’, it is easy to see why and how it could be used in this way. The rhythm lurches forward sharply, evocative of progress, decisiveness and triumph. The lyrics – penned by writer and fellow suffrage activist Cicely Hamilton – command a feeling of spirited unity and shared purpose. To sing the words amid fellow militant ‘foot-soldiers’ on a large procession, must have been rousing and energising.  

March, march, many as one,
Shoulder to shoulder and friend to friend!

Music, with its unique ability to animate written language, transfer energy and vibrations among groups, enabling people to feel that they are ‘in time’ and ‘in the moment’ with each other, has immense social power. Used with purpose, it can unite crowds and transform them into an exuberant collective, singing from the same song-sheet.

The songs of Greenham Common

Music builds community. It clearly had a central role in the long-standing resistance at Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp (1981–2000), established to protest the presence of American nuclear weapons at an RAF base during the height of the Cold War. Campers used voice and song to ‘Chant Down Greenham’, interrogating the values of the police and army officials.

35 women, campers for peace
Breaking the law
So there’ll be no more war.
We won’t want your laws
We don’t like your cause
We don’t fight your wars

We are lucky to have many recordings of the songs sung at Greenham Common. We can hear the voices of the protestors – their determination, mourning, worry, strength, passion and conviction. How they used voice as a last line of defence – wavering but refusing to be broken – instating a barrier between life and death. Songs also helped Greenham’s message travel beyond the camp, with folk legend Peggy Seeger’s ‘Carry Greenham Home’, a pedestrian yet comforting round, meant to be passed from campfire to campfire, to the picket line, community hall and street.

Throughout history, women of different ethnic backgrounds, ages, social classes, races and sexualities have seized the cultural power of sound and music in order play back different rhythms, notes, energies and structures to the authorities that command and control. Girls and women have expressed a demand to be heard and recognised on their own terms, rejecting cultural norms about how they should look and sound. Music has enlivened protests and helped build communities, supporting women to learn new skills and through that, express new social possibilities.

Further reading:

“Now I’m a Happy Dyke!”: Creating Collective Identity and Queer Community in Greenham Women's Songs by Anna Feigenbaum, explores the importance of singing in constructing activist identities at Greenham Women's Peace Camp.

As Far as the Eye Can Sing, the autobiography of traditional singer Frankie Armstrong who facilitated voice empowerment workshops during the Women's Liberation Movement, and remains active in the 'natural voice' movement today.

The Lost Women of Rock Music by Helen Reddington, sociological analysis of women's experiences in punk communities in the late 1970s, featuring revealing interviews with scene participants, written by punk insider and songwriter extraordinaire, aka Helen McCookerybook.

Dayglo: The Poly Styrene Story, vibrant, energetic and visual biography of Poly Styrene from X-Ray Spex, co-written by her daughter Celeste Bell and Zoë Howe. Take a look at this article by Celeste Bell, which reflects on the process of archiving and curating her mother's legacy.

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