From Billie Holiday to Lady Gaga, Women Rock the NMWA


Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion and Power was born out of an oft-asked question in American cultural history: “Where are the women?” While this query may seem largely irrelevant to a generation that grew up with Madonna and Beyoncé, Women Who Rock, the newest exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, reminds audiences of the long struggle female artists have endured while seeking to break the barriers of the boys’ club that is rock and roll.

First conceived at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, this exhibition opened at the NMWA on Sept. 7 and will run until Jan. 6.  Showcasing nearly a century’s worth of female artists, Women Who Rock aims not only to recognize the struggles of female artists, but also to celebrate the “flashpoints, the firsts, the best…and sometimes the lesser known women,” who have transformed pop music and American culture as a whole.

The exhibit’s journey through women’s music history begins in the 1920s, with the “Suffragettes to Juke-Joint Mamas: The Foremothers/Roots of Rock.” Continuing chronologically, the exhibition archives different periods of rock with an astonishing collection of more than 250 artifacts from 70 artists, spanning from Blues heroines like Bessie Smith to modern pop icons like Britney Spears.

With relics including Madonna’s infamous cone corset, Billy Holiday’s sheet music, and a piece of Aretha Franklin’s personal stationary with the handwritten lyrics of “Heard it through the Grapevine,” Women Who Rock’s astounding number of artifacts makes the feminist history lesson both tangible and memorable.

Between the sequined costumes and the glittering guitars it’s easy to get lost in the glamour of the pieces on display. But to ignore these artists’ personal stories and overlook their unique triumphs is to miss the larger aim of Women Who Rock. For these visionary artists, their stories, struggles, and statements in the face of adversity are truly what matter.

It’s much more than Lady Gaga’s choice to wear meat, but her choice to say that women should not be seen as literal pieces of meat. It is Lesley Gore’s declaration that, “You don’t own me,” and the makeup case on display where she carried around her musical scores. It is “women as innovators in rock and roll,” as the NMWA explains in its description of the exhibition.

Using the power of storytelling as the vehicle to reproduce women’s rock history, this exhibition skillfully contextualizes women’s musical feats within both United States history and the larger cultural context of each period. These connections are creatively captured by a timeline spanning the walls of the exhibit, breaking down the different periods from the Girl Groups of the early ‘60s to “I will Survive: Rockers to Disco Divas” of the ‘70s.

In this way, each woman featured is a window into women’s history and the struggles which females, particularly those in the music world, have faced.

The collection of artifacts is further complemented by a continuous film reel playing songs from ABBA to Tina Turner to Gwen Stefani, which sets the tone for the musical journey  that museum-goers visually experience in the progression of the exhibit.

Likewise, a video featuring Melissa Etheridge, the 2012 recipient of the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ Award for Excellence in the Performing Arts, provides further insight into the challenges behind each triumph embodied in the collection.

While an entire exhibit on female musicians may have seemed impossible just decades ago, Yoko Ono best sums it up in her quote featured at the entrance of the Women Who Rock exhibition: “In the beginning there was music…In the new millennium, we see that women rockers have come a long way. We are now seeing the world dancing to our songs and our music. One day, we will come together and the world will be as one, and a better place for all. Till then, sisters, let’s keep rocking!”

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Mary Borowiec

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