Women have played an integral role in American protest for the last 100 years, from raising their voices for equality to securing rights for themselves and others. While the earliest women’s protest songs were written primarily by men, women have taken over as songwriters and have produced some of the most important protest music in American recorded history. Here is a profile of six of these remarkable performers, who come from a variety of backgrounds, religions and regions of the country.
United Mine Songwriters: Florence Reece and Aunt Molly Jackson
Mining has always been dangerous work, made even more so by a lack of safety controls and, more importantly, dismal pay (sometimes not in cash but scrip, which undercut miners’ wages even further.) Florence Reece was born in 1900 into these circumstances and grew up in Harlan County, KY, prime coal country then and now. Her family participated in labor strikes, and she wrote one of the most important American protest songs in 1931 while awaiting her husband to return home from a strike. From her perspective, workers and employees of the mines were either siding with or against the protesters – there was no middle ground to consider. She performed the song numerous times at strikes and labor events, and at one of these events folksinger Pete Seeger heard it for the first time. His first group, The Almanac Singers, recorded a version in 1941 which became popular among non-union circles.
Like Reece, Aunt Molly Jackson hailed from coal country and focused much of her work on union songs. Jackson was born to a musical family in 1896; her brother was Jim Garland and her half-sister was Sarah Ogan Gunning, both renowned protest singers and songwriters in their own right. Facts about her early life remain obscure, but it is known that she worked as a midwife and her father was arrested and served jail time for union activity. She only recorded one commercial single, “Hungry Ragged Blues, pts. 1 and 2” for Columbia in 1932, but she worked extensively with folklore collectors to take down her songs after she moved to New York City in 1931. She was influential in incorporating Appalachian-style folk songs into urban folk, contributing to projects by both musicologist Charles Seeger and folklorists John and Alan Lomax. She also performed at what is likely to go down in history as the most important night in folk-protest music history, the Grapes of Wrath concert on March 3, 1940. She died in poverty in 1960.
Fellow hard travelers: Malvina Reynolds and Sis Cunningham
Like Reece, songwriter Malvina Reynolds was born in 1900. Her parents were Jewish socialists who immigrated from eastern Europe. Although denied her high school diploma because of her parents’ political views, she attended UC-Berkeley, where she earned all of her advanced degrees, including her Ph.D in English in 1936. Despite her high level of education, she had a difficult time securing work because of her religion and her politics, and she turned to songwriting in the 1940s. She hit her stride with songs about nuclear war in the 1950s and the encroaching forces of consumerism in the 1960s. Throughout her career she wrote hundreds of songs ranging from children’s music to labor anthems, collected in numerous songbooks, and became a major performer on the folk circuit in the 1960s. She died in 1978; her daughter is folksinger Nancy Reynolds Schimmel.
Agnes “Sis” Cunningham was also the victim of political persecution. Born in 1909, she began publishing her own songs in the 1930’s. Her work focused on labor rights, social justice and economic disparity and drew strongly from the Appalachian folk traditions that she grew up with. In the early 1940s, she was a member of the politically active Almanac Singers, whose members included Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and she published a book of their material in Detroit in 1944. While continuing her recording career, she also became, with her husband Gordon Friesen, the founder and editor of Broadside Magazine, perhaps the most influential folk music publication in the US during its 26 year run. Broadside fostered the careers of numerous folksingers who went on to major careers in music, including Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Buffy Saint Marie and Bob Dylan. She died in 2004, after shaping folk and protest music for two generations.
Queer Resisting: Peggy Seeger and Janis Ian
Peggy Seeger is the youngest member of the musical Seeger family, whose members include Modernist composter Ruth Crawford Seeger and folksingers Pete and Mike Seeger. She began a career in folk music as a teenager, working extensively with her husband, Ewan McColl, and writing her own blistering compositions, which confront topics such as equal pay and a woman’s role in the world. She continues to write and perform music today, well into her eighties. After her husband’s death in 1986, she came out as bisexual and married songwriter Irene Pyper Scott in 2010.
Although her family was located in New Jersey, Janis Ian’s career began in the 1960s in Greenwich Village, the same neighborhood where Sis Cunningham and Aunt Molly Jackson wrote, performed and recorded much of their work. She was a teenager when her first hit “Society’s Child” was championed by Leonard Bernstein, then returned in 1975 with the Grammy-winning song “At Seventeen.” Much of her work is grounded in protest, including her latest album released in 2021. She is openly lesbian and has lived with her partner Pat for over three decades.
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