I Will Survive: The 1970s—Rockers to Disco Divas

Gloria Gaynor’s 1978 disco hit “I Will Survive” became an anthem of liberation for the women of the 70s and a testament that female musicians could survive in an industry dominated by male executives and producers. Artists of this era took more control over the production of their music than ever before. Disco divas led the way with their remarkable vocal talents and rock goddesses showed off their mastery of their instruments.

Cher, Donna Summer, and the Runaways in Women Who Rock; Image courtesy of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum

Cher, Donna Summer, and the Runaways in Women Who Rock; Image courtesy of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum

The disco genre presented women with the opportunity to flaunt their independence lyrically and vocally. While Gaynor’s hit lifted the tempo of the decade, Donna Summer’s powerful and sultry voice captured her audience—she quickly became known as the “Queen of Disco.” “Love to Love You Baby” became Summer’s U.S. debut and the first of 19 number-one dance hits. Her silver-studded, double-strapped, black-flared dress and matching cropped pants are featured in the exhibition, evoking her stage energy and presence.

Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power, on view at NMWA through January 6, 2013

Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power, on view at NMWA through January 6, 2013

One of the fearless rock pioneers featured in the exhibition is Joan Jett. After being rejected from twenty-three different record labels, she founded and subsequently released her first solo album on Black Heart Records in 1980. Jett’s distressed black leather jacket is on view in Women Who Rock, adorned with buttons screaming for justice: “Keep Abortion Legal” and “If She Says No, It’s Rape.”

While disco and rock and roll thrived during the 70s, Stevie Nicks led female musicians into the 80s without conforming to commercial demands, combining rock, pop, and folk sounds. While a member of Fleetwood Mac, whose album Rumors became a top-selling album, Stevie Nicks also led a successful solo career. Her 1981 album, Bella Donna, reached number one on the charts. Nicks drew upon mysticism in her performance and is noted for her billowing chiffon and lace dresses: one of these famed outfits, a mauve-toned asymmetrically hemmed dress, can be seen in Women Who Rock at NMWA.

—Brittany Beyer is the external 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.

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