Black & white photo of Rock Hall inductee Bessie Smith

America's Foremothers

Written by: Meredith E. Rutledge-Borger

"America's Foremothers" is the first installment in a special series that highlights the evolution of women in music by placing their accomplishments, inspirations and influence in the context of the eras that shaped their sounds and messages. 

Between 1920 and 1947, roughly the period covered in the “Foremothers” section of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s Women Who Rock exhibit, American women made great strides toward gaining equality while championing basic human rights. Female musicians responded to the liberation evolving around them, forming a collection of voices that melodically – and often defiantly – set the tone that inspired generations of women. Leading the charge were the “Foremothers”: Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson and Mother Maybelle Carter.

Among the suffrage movement's greatest victories was the passing of the nineteenth amendment in 1920. The ensuing decades saw many more developments as women were elected to office, quite literally taking seats of power: state governor (Nellie Tayloe Ross of Wyoming, 1924) and senator (Hattie Wyatt Caraway of Arkansas, 1932); and the first female member of the President’s cabinet, Francis Perkins, was appointed Secretary of Labor in 1933. The Women’s Amateur Athletic Association was founded in 1923 and women competed for the first time in Olympic field events in 1928. That same year, anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote the first comprehensive study of gender in society, Coming of Age in Samoa. Throughout the 1920s, Ma Rainey (pictured, right) and Bessie Smith took empowerment to the stage, flouting convention and challenging mores by going out on the road, performing in barrelhouses, juke joints, dance halls and speakeasies. On tracks like Rainey's "Prove It on Me Blues" and "Sissy Boy Blues," and Smith's "T'aint Nobody's Biz-ness if I Do" and "Send Me to the 'Lectric Chair," both woman sang frank, liberated songs about their experiences. As the decade drew to a close, Mother Maybelle Carter committed the ultimate act of defiance in 1927, refuting the notion that “a woman’s place is in the home” by climbing into her family’s Model T and driving for hours to record the very first country music records – all while eight months pregnant with her first child.

The US entered WWII in 1941, and women’s participation in the workforce increased by nearly 60 percent, while approximately 350,000 women served in the American armed forces. As the war escalated, Mahalia Jackson (pictured, right) and Sister Rosetta Tharpe began singing a new gospel. Jackson has been called the world’s greatest gospel singer, and she certainly did more than any other single artist to popularize gospel music. Her performance in the “Spirituals” section of Duke Ellington’s masterwork, Black, Brown and Beige at Carnegie Hall on January 23, 1943 brought the sacred into the secular world in a big way. Sister Rosetta Tharpe pushed the envelope and scandalized many of her gospel fans with her flirtations with the profane. Some accused her of an all-out embrace of “the devil’s music” when she recorded and performed with Lucky Millinder’s jazz orchestra.

The first half of the 20th century was a wide-open opportunity for American women to step away from the strictures and provincialism of the 19th century. The telephone, the radio, the movies, the phonograph and the automobile all helped women – especially female musicians – embrace the modern world outside of the traditional bounds of the home.

Learn more by visiting Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power, the provocative new exhibit now on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.