Women Who Defined Punk Rock

Taking a look at women punk rockers who conquered the genre

Women in punk rock have a history of advocating for issues surrounding gender politics, from challenging gender norms in the music industry to becoming changemakers in the face of adversity to spawning the riot grrrl movement. There are a ton of women who played a role in the development and legacy of punk rock, and this list barely scratches the surface, but hey, I was on a deadline, okay?

Below is a list of women musicians who roared their way through the punk rock scene and became inspiring icons of the movement.
 

Poly Styrene

Marianne Joan Elliott, known best by her stage name Poly Styrene, was the frontwoman for X-Ray Spex, a band that she formed after watching the Sex Pistols on her 18th birthday. X-Ray Spex released just one album, Germ Free Adolescents, though Styrene went on to continue her career in music outside of the band. Styrene is widely acclaimed for being one of the most important faces in punk. She passed away in 2011 at age 53, shortly after releasing her final album Generation Indigo.


 

The Raincoats

This post-punk band was founded by Ana da Silva and Gina Birch, and later saw the addition of The Slits’ drummer Palmolive, who also later left the band. The Raincoats’ experimental noise rock was a heavy influence on the post-punk and experimental rock realms in the late 70s up until the mid 80s.


 

Ari Up

Ari Up was only 14 when she started a band with Palmolive, which, after the addition of a few members, became known as The Slits. When the band first started, Ari Up and Palmolive had absolutely no clue how to play their instruments, but they played anyway and quickly became popular. This was another band that formed after seeing the Sex Pistols live — The Slits are now one of the most influential all-girl bands in the genre.


 

Kim Gordon

Not only is she one of the most influential women in punk, Kim Gordon is also known for being a massive advocate for the riot grrrl movement, as well as a pivotal influencer on indie rock. Gordon’s fierce and guttural vocals define the sound of Sonic Youth, which is credited to be a pioneer band of the noise rock genre.


 

Kathleen Hanna

One of the founders of the riot grrrl movement, Kathleen Hanna pioneered the movement with her band Bikini Kill in the early 90s. She formed the band in order to attract more women to punk rock, and is known as being an outspoken advocate for issues such as domestic violence and AIDS.


 

PJ Harvey

Polly Jean Harvey, best known as PJ Harvey, has become one of the faces associated with riot grrrl, though she doesn’t necessarily identify with the movement herself. In her early days, PJ Harvey gained a reputation for delivering raw, experimental, unforgiving performances that blew other bands right out of the water.


 

Debbie Harry

Before Parallel Lines put Blondie in the spotlight, the group was prominent in New York’s underground music scene and incorporated many elements of punk at the beginning of its emergence. Debbie Harry was one of the early faces of the genre due to her style — her two-toned bleached blonde hair made her a kind of poster girl for punk.


 

Joan Jett

Often referred to as “the original riot grrrl,” Joan Jett’s 1984 “Cherry Bomb” brought her hard rock style to the table, along with her stage persona. Her ruthless and hardcore attitude reaffirmed the punk rock stance, and her toughed up Levi’s, torn band tees and leather jackets became staples to punk’s culture. She also founded her own record label, Blackheart Records, which saw her transition from The Runaways to Joan Jett & the Blackhearts.


 

Patti Smith

Patti Smith’s debut album Horses was a genre-defining moment in the New York punk scene during the mid-70s. Smith’s such a badass that she’s been given the title of “punk poet laureate.” If you need a good read, pick up her memoir Just Kids — one of the best musicians’ memoirs out there.


 

Sleater-Kinney

Carrie Brownstein, Janet Weiss, and Betsy Corin Tucker are the ones who revived the riot grrrl momentum in 1995 with the release of their self-titled album. The group members remained outspoken on queer feminist politics throughout their careers, and continue to kick ass in punk rock to this day.


 

Siouxsie Sioux

Siouxsie Sioux is most commonly known for being the frontwoman of band Siouxsie and the Banshees, a band that is often recognized as the forerunners of post-punk and goth rock. Siouxsie Sioux, however, is a sort of phenomenon in the music world, with a heavy fandom surrounding her fashion, style, and persona. Not only is she an imperative icon to women in punk rock, but she’s also had a considerable influence on modern music, from hip hop to electronica to indie rock.