The women of Jazz

Women began to make important movements within society in the mid-19th century with the women’s suffrage movement reaching its peak during the Representation of Peoples Act in the UK and the Nineteenth Amendment in the US in 1920. With the right to vote in hand and the development of flapper freedom, women started to take center stage in the world of music too.

In the Jazz Age and through the 1930s, “all-girl” bands were popular. The end of World War I heralded a female-led workforce, giving women more independence, which, in turn, led to changes in their social lives and entertainment choices. Women took on new roles, including careers in music. This newfound freedom and voice gave birth to many famous women musicians from “African-American blues singer Bessie Smith (1894–1937), who inspired singers of later eras, including Billie Holiday (1915–1959) and Janis Joplin (1943–1970). ).” source

“In the 1920s, women who sang jazz were not many, but women who played instruments in jazz music were even rarer. Mary Lou Williams, known for her talent as a pianist, is considered one of the ‘mothers of the jazz’ because of her singing while playing the piano at the same time”. source



Mary Lou Williams on the piano

Terry Lyne Carrington on Drums.

Renée Rosnes at the piano.


Mary Osborne on guitar.

Women in jazz fought for recognition by competing within a powerfully male world. Many musicians began to take the themes of inequality and express them through music. Numerous women in jazz were activists, for racial equality or gender equality, and often both. In South Africa, musicians in particular used music as a form of activism during Apartheid, and singers like Miriam Makeba and Dorothy Masuka made profound statements with their jazz music.  Makeba used music to speak about apartheid throughout her life.

Music remains a medium through which women celebrate their rights and express their thoughts. And perhaps without the suffragette or flapper movements, we wouldn’t have the strong female musicians we have today! Though Jazz remains a powerful tool for activism, many artists have also delved into the world of RnB, hiphop and rap. However, the musicality of jazz can still be seen as a significant foundation for the rise of powerful women musicians today.