In music, as in other art forms, women haven't always got their due or their breaks. While the imbalance has begun to be corrected in recent decades by diligent historians and by books such as Lucy O'Brien's She Bop and Anna Beer's Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music, there are still many great musical women out there both past and present who deserve more recognition.
To celebrate International Women's Day, here are 10 that you may not have heard of...
Sharon White - DJ
Sharon White began her career as a New York radio DJ. When a friend asked if she could play a night at a club on 24th Street, she reasoned: how different could it be?
"When you’re really young and the world is your oyster, you really have no fear," she later told Red Bull Music Academy. "Who knew that I would get that wrapped into having the immediate reaction of an audience?"
From there, White got a regular gig at a different club, and became a student (and soon a master) of the dancefloor, playing and holding residencies at clubs including Studio 54, Palladium, The Garage, The Roxy, The Limelight, The Pavilion and The Saint. The latter was a monster venue with a sound system boasting more power than the New York Giants' stadium, a place where the likes of Leonard Bernstein or Freddie Mercury might wander into the DJ booth to pay respects.
As well as her pioneering work on the decks, White was the first female Billboard reporter, and later worked for labels including Motown, RSO, Profile and Polygram.
Lora Logic - saxophonist
British punk has its share of famous women, but one of the lesser-celebrated linchpins is saxophonist Lora Logic, born Susan Whitby in 1960. She was briefly a member of Poly Styrene's idiosyncratic group X-Ray Spex, but was sacked before they recorded their debut Germfree Adolescents (she later claimed that the band used her saxophone arrangements, performed by another player).
She liked the punk scene, telling Furious, "It was an asexual movement. It transcended labels and boundaries: that was really part of the punk spirit," and, after X-Ray Spex, formed her own band, Essential Logic, considered one of the first post-punk acts. They recorded one album, Beat Rhythm News, as well as a self-titled EP and a handful of singles. Logic was also briefly in experimental pysch band The Red Krayola, and played for the likes of The Raincoats, The Stranglers and Boy George.
After releasing one solo album, Pedigree Charm (originally the second Essential Logic album before the band split), she left music in the 1980s to join the Hare Krishna movement. In 2003, US label Kill Rock Stars released an Essential Logic anthology, Fanfare in the Garden.
Sha-Rock - rapper
Sha-Rock was there in the first days of hip hop - her group Funky 4 + 1 (she being + 1) were the first rap group to get a recording deal, and also the first to appear on US TV, chosen by Blondie as a guest artist on an episode of Saturday Night Live, where they played their track That's The Joint.
Her rapping style was a formative influence on DMC of Run‐D.M.C., who was blown away by her "echo chamber" effect. "She said some crazy-dope rhymes that was better than 85 per cent of MCs out today," he later recalled. "Sha-Rock is genre-changing... she changed my life."
Sha Rock didn't shy away from a rap battle either, going up against the likes of Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five. "Anybody that was in my area at that time knew that the Funky 4 would say, 'She's the best female MC in this town,'" she told Hip Hop Gods. "They knew I held down New York City. That's not to take away from any female that came after me, but Sha-Rock was the most sought out female back then."
In 2013, she was appointed a national adviser for Cornell University's hip hop collection.
Lili Boulanger - composer
The younger sister of Nadia Boulanger, a famous music teacher, Lili Boulanger died of Crohn's disease aged just 24 in 1918. But before she died, and despite having weak health from infancy, she became the first female winner of the Prix de Rome composition prize, previously won by the likes of Berlioz, Debussy and Boulanger's father, Ernest, who died when she was six. Ernest and his own father, Frédéric, both taught at the Paris Conservatory, and young Lili was herself tutored by family friends Maurice Ravel and Gabriel Faure. As the Quietus reported, her work - big, bold, shadowed by war and death - wasn't recorded until 1960, in an album overseen by Nadia Boulanger.
At the time of her death (she completed her final work, Pie Jesu, by dictating it to her sister from her sickbed), Lili was working on a modern opera called Maleine. Anna Beer, in her book Sounds and Sweet Airs, said, "It would have boldly broken into traditionally male territory, and one of its most powerful institutions, the Paris Opéra… she would have joined the great composers. If only."
Memphis Minnie - blues guitarist
When we think of blues women, we mainly think of singers. But Memphis Minnie, aka Lizzie Douglas, was one of the first female guitar heroes. Born in 1897 in Louisiana, she moved to the Memphis area as a child and got her first guitar aged eight. Aged 13, she ran away from home, touring the South with the Ringling Brothers Circus, before returning to Memphis’s legendary musical hub Beale Street.
Looking after herself from a young age, Douglas was a formidable character, as blues singer Johnny Shines later recalled: "Any men fool with her she'd go for them right away. She didn't take no foolishness off them. Guitar, pocket knife, pistol, anything she get her hand on she'd use it."
In her early-30s, Douglas and her second husband, Joe McCoy, were discovered by a Columbia Records talent scout performing on the street, and were duly renamed Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie. They recorded as a duo until they divorced in 1935. After this, Minnie’s recording and touring career went from strength to strength. Big Bill Broonzy wrote about losing to her in a cutting contest in a Chicago nightclub, while Bukka White termed her "about the best thing going in the woman line".
In 1941, she began playing electric guitar, and recorded Me and My Chauffeur Blues, her biggest hit, later covered by Jefferson Airplane (though the most famous cover of one of her songs was probably When the Levee Breaks, a track she released with Joe McCoy, later adapted by Led Zeppelin). Minnie recorded into the 1950s and kept playing her guitar until she suffered a stroke in 1960. She died in poverty in 1973 following another stroke.
Laurie Spiegel - electronic music composer
Laurie Spiegel may one day become the first human musician ever to be heard by aliens: her piece Harmonices Mundi (Harmony of the World), an adaption of a 17th-century composition by German mathematician and philosopher Johannes Kepler based on the orbits of the planets, is the first piece of music that appears on the Golden Record placed on the space probes Voyager 1 and 2 by Nasa.
"I was sitting with some friends in Woodstock when a telephone call was forwarded to me from someone who claimed to be from NASA, and who wanted to use a piece of my music to contact extraterrestrial life," Spiegel told Pitchfork. "I said, 'C'mon, if you're for real you better send the request to me through the mail on official NASA letterhead!'" And although she's not the only musician to appear on the Golden Record, she's probably the only one to also appear on the soundtrack to the Hunger Games film franchise, as she did with her 1972 composition Sediment.
Born in 1945, Spiegel's first compositions were on banjo and mandolin, but from 1969, she composed with analog synthesisers - the phase of her work you can hear on Sediment. Craving more control, she began working at Bell Labs, pioneering computer composition software and writing one of her best known works, the album The Expanding Universe. She later founded the Computer Music Studio at New York University, and wrote the algorithmic composition software Music Mouse, an "intelligent instrument" for Mac, Atari and Amiga in 1984.
Lizzy Mercier Descloux - singer-songwriter, writer and painter
French art-school graduate Lizzy Mercier Descloux was a co-founder, with her partner Michael Esteban, of the shop Harry Cover, Paris's punk-era equivalent of McLaren and Westwood's Sex, and also helped establish the magazine Rock News. After meeting Patti Smith and Richard Hell on assignment for Rock News in New York, the couple moved to New York in 1977, where Esteban and Michael Zilhka formed ZE Records, a label that would become a key part of the city's no-wave scene.
Mercier Descloux published a book of poems, Desiderata, with illustrations by Patti Smith and contributions by Richard Hell. Descloux was also a self-taught guitarist, and having first played with the performance art duo Rosa Yemen, released her debut album Press Color, a funky, minimal take on the no wave sound in 1979.
In interviews quoted in a 2016 Pitchfork profile (Mercier Descloux died of cancer in 2004), she rejected assumptions that she was merely a face for a ZE group effort: "I write the music that I'm doing, I'm not only performing… I mean - I'm not just used by some male musician who's going to dress me up and have me to dance just to look sexy on stage and just be a support for some kind of music."
Her second album, Mambo Nassau, is her most acclaimed, and her third, Zulu Rock, recorded partly in South Africa with black mbaqanga musicians during the apartheid era, was cited by some as an influence on Paul Simon's Graceland, which was released shortly after.
Ivy Benson - band leader
Born in 1913, Ivy Benson was the daughter of a trombonist in the Leeds Symphony Orchestra. From the age of eight, she was performing in working men's clubs. Her father hoped she'd become a concert pianist, but Benson was lured by jazz after hearing a Benny Goodman record, and learned clarinet and sax.
At 14, she left school and began working in a clothing factory, saving up for a saxophone, and playing in a dance band in the evenings. After playing with various touring bands, she moved to London in the 1930s to form her own all-female band. During the Second World War, the conscription of many male musicians meant more opportunities for female musicians, and the Ivy Benson Band became BBC Radio's resident dance band, headlining the London Palladium for six months. They toured Europe and the Middle East entertaining the troops, and were the first musicians invited to perform at the Berlin VE Day celebrations by Field Marshal Montgomery.
In 1957, Benson married a US airforce man she'd met on tour, but the marriage foundered a few years later when she refused to follow him back to the States. Benson led her band until the early-1980s, through summer seasons at Butlins, hotel functions and servicemen's events overseas, eventually retiring to Clacton-on-Sea, where she would occasional play for holidaymakers on her electric organ.
Fanny Mendelssohn - composer
The name Mendelssohn is one of the most famous in classical music, but usually only in regards to Fanny Mendelssohn's renowned younger brother Felix. Fanny, four years Felix's senior, could play all the Preludes and Fugues from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier by heart by the age of 14. But, as her great-great-granddaughter Sheila Hayman told Radio 4's Today, above, her father's response was to say: "That's all very well, dear, but you're a girl, so you can't be a musician. You've got to stay at home and make the lives of men better.'"
In their youth, Fanny was considered the more promising of the two siblings, and despite being held back from similar levels of achievement by the attitudes of the time, she wrote around 500 works, including her own wedding music, some of which were published under Felix’s name. In 2017, her Easter sonata, previously considered to have been by Felix, was performed at the Royal College of Music on International Women's Day by Sofya Gulyak, first female winner of the Leeds Piano Competition.
Pauline Oliveros - electronic music composer
Growing up in Houston, Texas, Pauline Oliveros was inspired by "dense and beautiful canopies of sound that came from all of the insects, birds and animals around," as she said in a 2003 American Public Media radio interview, and decided at 16 that she wanted to be a composer.
Studying under Robert Erickson at San Francisco State College, she and her fellow students - including fellow electronic music pioneers Terry Riley and Morton Subotnick - founded the San Francisco Tape Music Cente, a place to experiment with new methods of making electronic music such as tape loop and delay.
In 1965, Oliveros developed the Expanded Instrument System, a system of reel-to-reel tape delays that allowed her to process the sounds of her accordion and then react to them live. She described the EIS as a "time machine" in a 2007 lecture: "What is expanded is temporal - present/past/future is occurring simultaneously with transformations… This situation keeps you busy listening."
The art of listening - of paying attention - became the core of Oliveros's work, explored through "sonic meditations" such as 1969's Teach Yourself to Fly, composed during her professorship at the University of California San Diego. In 1981, tiring of the limitations of academia, she left UCSD to become a full-time composer. In 1988, what would become the Deep Listening Band (Oliveros, Stuart Dempster and Panaiotis) made its debut performance down a 14-foot deep, 2 million-gallon cistern in Fort Worden, Washington, that had a 45-second reverberation.
The experience led Oliveros to coin the term "deep listening" - a way of learning to hear better, both through focused and more open listening. At the age of 74, Oliveros was still weaving, joining the Avatar Orchestra Metaverse, a collaborative group of composers, artists and musicians that performs inside the virtual reality platform Second Life, and she continued composing up until her death in 2016. The Centre for Deep Listening at Renssaeler continues her work.