Women who rock: Sophia Smith Collection introduces first-ever oral-history project about female rock ‘n’ rollers

Last modified: Thursday, December 10, 2015

What do Pussy Galore’s Julie Cafritz and No Wave rocker Lydia Lunch have in common with feminist and Smith College alumna Gloria Steinem? Their oral histories can now all be found in Smith College’s Sophia Smith Collection, an internationally recognized repository of manuscripts, archives, photographs, periodicals and other primary sources in women’s history.

While Steinem’s history has resided in the collection since the late 2000s as part of the college’s “Voices of Feminism” oral history project, Cafritz and Lunch are two of the new voices that will be included in the “Women of Rock Oral History Project” — the first-ever collection of personal histories from influential female rock musicians in America — thanks to Tanya Pearson, a senior at Smith College in the Ada Comstock Program, who came up with the idea and has done much of the footwork.

According to Pearson, the project aims to provide a voice to women who have been historically underrepresented in rock journalism, scholarship and culture.

Smith will introduce the new collection with a panel discussion, “Righting the Wrongs of Rock History: Women, Gender and Rock,” Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in the Carroll Room in the Smith College Campus Center.

Pearson, who majors in American studies, said she began working on the project last year after she attempted to do research about female rock stars from the 1990s for a class. To her dismay, when she went to the college’s archives, she couldn’t find enough information to write a paper about them.

“These were women who had greatly influenced music and culture and been forgotten about,” Pearson said. “And that infuriated me.”

While the college does house an extensive “Women’s Music” collection, it focuses primarily on feminist musicians from the women’s liberation movement and doesn’t cover too much rock.

“I don’t think people really consider rock n’ roll ... worth historicizing,” Pearson said. “For the most part, they don’t consider it academic.”

Pearson decided to change that. A devout lover of music, Pearson, 34, was a teenager when she started to record performances of her favorite female stars Courtney Love and L7 (whose members she interviewed for this project) on VHS tapes. She has played guitar and drums in indie and punk bands over the years, and currently plays guitar in the band Drab, which performs across New England.

At Smith, Pearson is an “archives concentrator” and calls herself “an archivist a heart.” She decided to turn her passion for rock into an independent study project with Kelly Anderson, who teaches courses on oral history. That evolved into Pearson’s senior capstone project, an intensive final assignment required of all archives concentrators. This semester, Pearson is writing an honors thesis using the oral histories she has collected over the past year.

Word of mouth

At first, Pearson says, she didn’t know which musicians to include in the collection and she also didn’t have a clue how to get in touch with them. Then, last summer, she saw a performance in Brighton by Veruca Salt, an alternative rock group founded in the early ’90s. After the show, Pearson stood in line to get a record signed and asked the musicians if they would be willing to be interviewed. They agreed.

After that, the project took off. Once Pearson talked with one group of musicians, those musicians talked with others. And the more women she talked with, the more they became interested in her project.

Although she didn’t create strict guidelines on what kind of musicians she would include in her collection, she focused on those from the 1970s to 1990s. Those musicians’ stories are significantly missing, she says, largely because they were active before the advent of the Internet and social media.

So far, Pearson has collected the histories of Nina Gordon and Louise Post from Veruca Salt; Lunch; Cafritz; Alice Bag of The Bags; Kristen Hersh of Throwing Muses; Donita Sparks from L7; Laura Ballance of Superchunk; JD Samson of Le Tigre and MEN ;and Mary Timony of Helium.

Beth Myers, director of the archive’s Special Collections at Smith, said Pearson’s project is an important addition to the college’s records because it broadens the spectrum of people involved in discussions about the history of rock music.

“A lot of these women have never been talked to about this before because nobody’s asked them,” she said.

Myers said the collection will help to familiarize students with the lives of female musicians — as regular people outside the context of their music.

“They’re not just recordings, they’re not just live performances,” she said. “Women are complex, complicated human beings.”

On the road

Through a grant from Smith’s American studies department, Pearson traveled to Los Angeles last December, where she interviewed Veruca Salt. Then, this past summer, she traveled there again as the first recipient of the college’s Rosenthal grant program, which supports internships and capstone research projects in the archives and book studies concentrations at Smith.

During her trips to California, Pearson conducted hours-long interviews in artists’ recording studios, at concert venues and in their homes, while staying on an air mattress on a friend’s floor to save money.

“I’m basically 34 and touring, except I’m doing interviews,” she said, laughing. “It’s the same lifestyle.”

She’s also traveled to Rhode Island, Brooklyn, New York, and Washington, D.C., for interviews.

Pearson says the musicians she has approached so far have been receptive to participating in her project.

“They understand the value of filling in those gaps and having a history available in a women’s archive,” Pearson said.

In Washington over last year’s winter break, she visited the home of Mary Timony, and spent hours after the interview playing guitar with the singer-songwriter. Timony even taught Pearson how to play a few of her own songs.

During her interviews, Pearson asks each artist to give a biography of her life and work, but also makes sure to drop in what she calls the “Smith College feminist question” at the end of every conversation: What was it like to work as a woman in the time period that they were active? What is it like today?

Pussy Galore’s guitarist Julie Cafritz, who lives in Florence, was interviewed by Pearson for her project, and says she was surprised by how thorough the session was. In addition to Pearson asking Cafritz questions about her two bands, Pussy Galore and Free Kitten, she queried the artist about where she was born and what her childhood was like.

“I thought it was just going to be a question about being a woman in music and we would leave it at that,” Cafritz said. “But, not only did she want the history of all my bands, but she wanted the history of me. ... I don’t think women get that treatment fairly often.”

Pearson said she found others who echoed this theme. When she interviewed Alice Bag in her home in Los Angeles last summer, for example, the musician told her that when she started out in the ’70s, most of the literature about punk music was male-dominated.

“Sometimes, writers who were trying to be inclusive would ask my opinion about the male bands,” Bag told her.

It was that lack of representation and misinformation about women in rock music, Pearson says, that motivated her to start the collection in the first place.

“The history of rock ‘n’ roll is misogynistic, sexist and inherently masculine,” Pearson said. “If you’re relying on just journalists or pop-culture representatives to be documenting these women, then they’re not going to be remembered.”

The archives

The “Women in Rock” collection will be available to Smith students, as well as to the community, and Pearson says she hopes it will be a draw for those who have been intimidated by the archives in the past.

“It may seem like a scary old place with old stuff that no one is allowed to touch, but I really want this to be accessible,” she said.

Some of the content may also eventually be available online, but the artists have the ultimate say on how accessible they choose to be.

Pearson says she plans to continue working on the collection, and maybe someday even write a book about it.

“I’m personally invested in these women now,” she said. “I want people to know who they are and I want them to be appreciated.”

“Righting the Wrongs of Rock History: Women, Gender and Rock,” a panel discussion, will take place Thursday, at 7:30 p.m. in the Carroll Room in the Smith College Campus Center. Panelists include Julie Cafritz, JD Samson, Alice Bag, Kim House, and Kristen Hersh. June Millington, artistic director of The Institute for the Musical Arts in Goshen, and the former lead guitarist of the first all-female rock band, “Fanny,” will also speak. Millington’s oral history was previously archived as part of the “Documenting Lesbian Lives” oral history collection.

The collection’s founder, Ada Comstock scholar Tanya Pearson, will moderate. This event is free and open to the public.


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