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Six Musicians Who Led Social Change

Black-and-white autographed photograph of Tiny Davis playing the trumpet

Tiny Davis playing trumpet. International Sweethearts of Rhythm Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

By Diana Turnbow of the American Women’s History Initiative 

Music not only reflects our times—it changes them. Meredith Holmgren, curator of American women’s music at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, researches the ways in which women take part in making music. Holmgren features stories of women musicians, composers, educators, and producers in Music HerStory: Women and Music of Social Change. The new exhibition is now open in the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives Gallery at the National Museum of American History. 

"Women’s leadership in music and social change is central to the American story. From nursery rhymes to punk rock, suffrage to civil rights, Music HerStory honors the incredible contributions of musical changemakers, tradition-bearers, ground breakers, and industry professionals,” says Meredith Holmgren. 

Here are six women who shaped the American musical landscape. 

1.Music Educator Ella Jenkins

Photo of Ella Jenkin standing against the ocean horizon
Ella Jenkins photograph by Bernadelle Ritcher. Courtesy the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. 

Mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and other caregivers have used songs to teach children important values.  Touring musician Ella Jenkins carried on this tradition by performing at school assemblies across the Midwest and southern United States beginning in the 1950s. Entering segregated schools as a musician and educator, Jenkins was notable as a Black woman employed in white communities in roles outside of domestic work. Her programs featured music from many cultures. The songs were fun and engaging, but they also carried messages of inclusion and the importance of diversity. For over 70 years Jenkins has used music to teach children about themselves and the world around them. In 2017, Jenkins received a National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor in folk and traditional arts.

Watch Ella Jenkins lead a preschool class in a song, "Who Fed the Chickens?"

2. Musician, Composer, and Head of State Queen Liliʻuokalani 

Sepia photograph of Queen Liliʻuokalani
Portrait of Queen Liliʻuokalani, 1891. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum.

The last sovereign monarch of Hawaiʻi, Queen Liliʻuokalani, was a gifted musician and composer. Liliʻuokalani possessed perfect pitch and was proficient with several instruments. She composed over 200 works that blend the musical traditions of Western cultures with native Hawaiian stories, people, and sense of place. Liliʻuokalani’s best-known song “Aloha ‘Oe,” was written in 1878 as a farewell song between two lovers. After the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi was overthrown in 1893, the song acquired additional meaning as a farewell to self-governed Hawaiʻi.

Sheet music cover for “Aloha ʻOe”
“Aloha ʻOe: Farewell to Thee,” words and music by Queen Liliʻuokalani, sheet music cover, W.A. Quincke & Co., Los Angeles, 1912. National Museum of American History Archives.

3. Jazz Musician Ernestine “Tiny” Davis

Black-and-white autographed photograph of Tiny Davis playing the trumpet
Tiny Davis playing trumpet. International Sweethearts of Rhythm Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History. 

Ernestine “Tiny” Davis began playing the trumpet at the age of 13 as a high school student in Memphis, Tennessee. She went on to become a professional musician, playing in all-woman bands in Kansas City during the 1930s. In 1941, Davis joined the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first racially integrated all-woman jazz band to tour nationally. Davis’s power on the trumpet and gutsy vocals frequently drew comparisons to Louis Armstrong.

After leaving the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Davis formed her own all-woman band called Tiny Davis and Her Hell Divers. In the 1950s, Davis and her romantic and musical partner Ruby Lucas briefly owned and operated their own club in Chicago known as Tiny and Ruby’s Gay Spot. Davis was a regular in the Chicago jazz scene until arthritis caused her to stop performing in 1982.

4. Folk Singer and Songwriter Peggy Seeger

Album cover with photograph of Peggy Seeger
Album cover of Different Therefore Equal recorded by Peggy Seeger, 1979. Smithsonian Folkways.

Singer and song writer Peggy Seeger comes from a family of renowned folk musicians, including her brothers Pete and Mike Seeger. She became a leading voice of the folk revival of the 1960s. As an activist song writer, Seeger uses music to describe the way people live and protests injustice. Her 1979 album, Different Therefore Equal, is an example of her work supporting women’s rights.  “Reclaim the Night” addresses sexual violence towards women and “I’m Gonna Be an Engineer” explores the challenges women face to pursue careers in science.

5. Punk Rock Singer Kathleen Hanna

Photo of Kathleen Hanna and bandmate playing guitars in a pavilion
Kathleen Hanna and Bikini Kill, Sylvester Park, Olympia, Washington, May 1, 1991. Photograph courtesy Jonathan Charles and Wikimedia Commons

Singer and activist Kathleen Hanna was a leading figure in the Riot Grrrl feminist punk movement of the 1990s. Her band Bikini Kill broke taboos in their songs about gender harassment, sexual violence, reproductive choices, and self-image. She voiced unspoken fears and injustices that young women and girls regularly experienced. Since audience behavior in the punk scene could be rough at times, Hanna would often call all the girls at performances to stand in front of the stage. This created a safer space for both fans and the performers. 

Members of Bikini Kill and the band Bratmobile created the weekly zine Riot Grrrl. The zine featured personal essays about the punk scene, sexism, queerness, and music. The zine was distributed freely among punk music fans. 

6. Music Producer Barbara Dane

Photograph of Barbara Dane performing with the Chambers Brothers
Barbara Dane with the Chambers Brothers at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Photo by Diana Davies, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives.

In the 1950s, Barbara Dane launched a career singing jazz and blues. However, racial prejudice made promoters and audiences uncomfortable with a white woman appearing on stage and traveling with Black musicians. So Dane turned her musical voice to protest music, drawing on her experiences as a teen who sang with striking autoworkers in her hometown of Detroit. Standing for equity and justice, Dane joined the Freedom Singers in the South. She also participated in free-speech rallies and war protests. 

After working with international protest singers at a gathering in Cuba in 1967, Dane formed Paredon Records. At Paredon, she amplified the voices of artists and activists, many of whom risked their lives to stand up for justice and peace. The Paredon Records discography features music from across the globe, including Argentinian folk singer Suni Paz, a young Thai rock group called Caravan, and Lebanese oud master Marcel Khalifé. Additional recordings featured voices from within the United States, such as Black Panther Party founder Huey Newton speaking from solitary confinement in prison. Dane and her husband, Irwin Silber, produced 50 albums under the Paredon label. In 1991, the Smithsonian Institution acquired Paredon Records for the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings catalog. 

Find out more about Barbara Dane and the founding of Paredon Records by listening to "Sing a Song of Protest," from Sidedoor, a Smithsonian podcast.

Learn more about the women who have led social change through their music in Music HerStory: Women and Music of Social Change online or in person at the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives Gallery at the National Museum of American History. 

Diana Turnbow provides administrative support and works on special projects for the American Women’s History Initiative. She is invested in finding and sharing the stories of American women artists and makers.

Support for Music HerStory: Women and Music of Social Change was provided by the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative.

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