A Toast to the Women Who Rock!

Photo Credit: WireImage found on the New York Post

Tonight, I’m going with my wife to see Joan Jett and the Blackhearts play at the local outdoor theater. At first, she wasn’t sure about this concert, as neither of us are that big of fans. But I reminded her of her recurring statement that in my class on Rock ‘n Roll History and in my writing about rock history that I should include more women. She often says, “Hashtag, Girls who Rock!”

So, we are going tonight to see one of legendary women of rock. Her band The Runaways were a crucial link between glam, hard rock, and proto-punk. And her reinvention following The Runaways maintained a gritty female persona visible exactly when it was needed. I don’t think we would have seen the Riot Grrrl movement in the ’90s without Jett’s version of punk feminism in the ’80s.

Which leads me to thinking about other women pioneers in rock music. For a couple of months, I’ve been following the digital humanities dissertation of Leah Branstetter at Case Western University. It is a fascinating project that uncovers biographies of some of rock music’s forgotten heroines.

I’m also enthusiastic about her use of the digital humanities approach to telling these stories. We can witness in real-time how Branstetter is engaging with her subjects, thinking through her analysis, and presenting her findings. Also, we can observe some carefully curated presentations that move beyond the stale words on paper method of scholarship.

Another thing that excites me about this project is that she approaches it from multiple angles. While she is a musicologist by training, she is using methods in ethnography and oral history, gender theory, and social history to inform her study. This multi-disciplinary strategy is the hallmark of good scholarship in the future of the academy.

One other part of the story that is worth sharing is that women were integral to manufacturing the gear that helped to popularize rock music.  A gear-head colleague recently told me that Leo Fender’s amplifier factor employed women to do the wiring for the circuits. Similarly, the “Kalamazoo Gals” built guitars in the Gibson factory during and after World War II.

Suffice it to say, the history of rock ‘n roll deserves to give more attention to the women who helped build, perform, and consume rock music.


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