Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power, currently on view at NMWA, thoroughly lives up to its name. Sequentially presenting some of the foremothers of American culture, the exhibition showcases women of our past and present who demanded a voice. Through the headphones of music lovers and the speakers of big stages, women like Lavern Baker and Etta James stormed into the music scene with something to say and a cause to fight for.
Celebrate the genesis of rock and roll in “Get Outta That Kitchen, Rattle Those Pots and Pans: Rock Emerges,” a section of the exhibition highlighting innovators of the 1950s. Just like the previous decade, the ’50s were all about huge changes—particularly some women’s determined effort toward equality within households and workplaces. Ruth Brown topped the R&B charts for the third time with her single, “Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean,” in which she tells the story of a woman who is tired of being abused by someone who claims to love her. Throughout the ’50s, Brown consistently held a leading role on the R&B charts. She influenced the vocal styles of future stars including Little Richard. On display at NMWA, you can find the dress she wore in her role as Motormouth Maybelle in the 1988 John Waters film Hairspray,along with sheet music from some of her biggest hits.
Alongside Ruth Brown are other heavy hitters like the exuberant Brenda Lee. Known for being small in stature, Lee displayed vocals that were larger than life. She excelled in a number of different music genres. After signing with Decca Records in May of ’56, Lee’s chart-topping career skyrocketed. With hits like “Dynamite,” and the remake of Hank Williams’s “Jambalaya,” Lee’s impact on rock and roll was one of longevity and passion. She inspired millions and sold more records than any woman had before her. In the exhibition, the dress she wore on the Ed Sullivan show is on view alongside a telegram wishing Lee good luck from Dusty Springfield in 1964.
Other revolutionary women from this era range from the matriarch of R&B, Etta James, to Big Mama Thornton and Dinah Washington. With the end of World War II, when the civil rights movement was in full swing, life could have easily stifled women’s willingness to speak up for themselves. But they persevered—and these women showcase that. Not only inspiring as artists, they also paved pathways for women in any calling.
Nancy Harwood is the member relations intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
The exhibition Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power is on view at NMWA through January 6, 2013.