Revolutionary Women of Music: Nina Simone, Poly Styrene, and Valerie Agnew

By Marian Phillips
Marian is a first year student in the Women’s History Program.

This morning on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2019, I woke up to Lizzo’s “Juice” stuck in my head. Off to a good start, I continued my morning routine while Carly Rae Jepsen, Cherry Glazerr, Rico Nasty, and Dream Wife – amongst others – shuffled and played on my Spotify playlist. As Tacocat’s “Hey Girl” came on, it hit me, why aren’t we talking more about the women that have pioneered not just music as a whole, but have used their platform as artists and musicians to promote social, political, and cultural change? Of course, there are the greats we all know, but what about Nina Simone, Poly Styrene, and Valerie Agnew? For this week’s post, I will share a portion of the activist efforts of these women.

Nina Simone, born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21, 1933, was a notable African American jazz, R&B, and gospel singer and songwriter, as well as a civil rights activist. While Simone initially aspired to become a concert pianist, her desire for social and political justice led her down a different path. Gaining mainstream success from her debut album Little Girl Blue, her song “Mississippi Goddam,” inspired by the racism that plagued (and continues to plague) the United States, propelled her to the forefront of the civil rights movement. For the rest of her career, Nina Simone spoke and performed at civil rights meetings and protests. Her political activism never disappeared from her music, and her desire for justice continued up until her death in 2003. For more on Simone’s life please see autobiography I Put a Spell on You (1991).

Poly Styrene, born Marianne Joan Elliot-Said on July 3, 1957, was a British woman of color and the frontwoman of the punk band X-Ray Spex. Styrene started the band after running a local news ad that stated she was looking for “Young punx who want to stick it together.”[i] As a result, X-Ray Spex was born and so was the beginning of their critique on capitalism which would last for their entire career. Styrene questioned bondage in every aspect of the word. Whether it was sexual, social, political, capitalist, or other, she would deconstruct the entire system with her singing. As Maria Raha states in Cinderella’s Big Score (2005) “amid all the jubilant chaos, they were able to provide a solid, relevant social commentary.”[ii] Styrene continued to promote listeners to fight back until her untimely death from metastasized breast cancer on April 25, 2011. Please see Cinderella’s Big Score for more information about Poly.

Valerie Agnew, born January 13, 1969, was the drummer of the Seattle based Riot Grrrl feminist-punk band 7 Year Bitch. Agnew was a longtime friend of The Gits singer Mia Zapata. While 7 Year Bitch’s lyrics are so incredibly politically charged, it wasn’t until the rape and murder of Zapata that Agnew’s platform as a musician and as an activist came to a head. Agnew, alongside fellow feminist punks, formed the Home Alive collective in the mid-90s. The collective – still around to this day – strives to provide affordable self-defense courses for women and members of the LGBTQ community. Punk-feminists were sick of seeing the people that they cared for become victims to such violent crimes, and Agnew stood up and said that enough was enough. Since the formation of the collective, people have continued to utilize the educational tools that they have learned and that their website now provides. While Agnew is only one of the founders, she and 7 Year Bitch stick out for their unapologetically anti-patriarchy songs such as “Dead Men Don’t Rape” and “M.I.A.”

Simone, Styrene, and Agnew are only three of the hundreds of women that have used their platform to question injustices, capitalism, and the patriarchy. For the sake of time and length, I have chosen these three because of their impact on me personally. While they all reside in different genres of music, the three of these women have their determination towards social, cultural, and political activism in common. On this International Women’s Day (as well as the entirety of Women’s History Month), I encourage you all to look at women who have started a revolution through music, and how big of an impact music can have when women such as Simone, Styrene, and Agnew are at the frontlines.


[i] Maria Raha, Cinderella’s Big Score: Women of the Punk and Indie Underground, (California; Seal Press: 2005), 86.
[ii] Raha, 89.

Queering Categories, Bringing Wreck

illustration by Cristy Road

by Kate Wadkins

In sync with Sarah Lawrence’s recent call for papers for 2011’s Women’s History Conference, I am syndicating my review of the plenary panel from this year’s The Message is in the Music: Hip Hop Feminism, Riot Grrrl, Latina Music & More with RE/VISIONIST (it is also currently published in this year’s Women’s History newsletter). Specifically Ngo and Nguyen’s papers, in the context of the Conference at large, really inspired me to pursue my thesis work on masculinities in punk rock. Watching other scholars dare to take on pop culture subjects like music gave me hope and certainty that cultural production is worthy of an historical treatment.

This article is also timely as it preempts the publication of International Girl Gang Underground, a compilation zine about the way riot grrrl has influenced punk feminist cultural production over the past twenty years. Nguyen’s early iteration of her paper, “Aesthetics, Access, Intimacy” or “Race, Riot Grrrl, Bad Feelings” will be included in the zine, nestled in among scene reports and personal stories from all over the world.

“I quit punk like 8 times,” Mimi Nguyen confessed to a full auditorium at Sarah Lawrence College’s 12th Annual Women’s History Conference: The Message is in the Music: Hip-Hop Feminism, Riot Grrrl, Latina Music & More, recollecting her contentious relationship with punk rock. As the first panel of the morning opened up, the groggy, packed audience, comprised of women of all ages and ilk, quickly awoke to Nguyen’s sharp wit and powerful presence. For the plenary panel, Fiona Ngo and Mimi Nguyen, both assistant professors at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, discussed grassroots punk scenes and their internal racial dynamics. A third panelist, Sarah Lawrence alum Christa D’Angelica, presented on what she termed a “second wave” of riot grrrl that traversed from zine[1] pages to dial-up modems in the late 1990s. Continue reading