From fearless pioneers of the early 20th Century to today's envelope-pushing pop sensations
Chloe Ravat

14:10 13th August 2013

In what has historically been a male-dominated industry, there have been a number of innovative and ground-breaking female musicians who have paved the way for women in modern music.

In the absence of any female role models for them to aspire to, women in the music industry have created and popularised their own individual identities - breaking records, destroying barriers and changing the entire landscape of music as they did so.

Without these women we wouldn't have musical techniques we consider as standard or songs we define as classics today.

No matter what genre, from jazz and soul to punk and and hip hop, these are just a few of the women who have trailblazed their way through their careers and carved out their own paths in music, inpiring whole new generations of female musicians. Here's to them.


  • Marian Anderson: Hailed as one of the most influential singers in the first half of the 20th century, Marian Anderson was a prominent figure in the fight for equality for black artists, which was unusual for a classical musician. She continued to pave the way for African American musicians, culminating in her becoming the first black musician to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955.

  • Billie Holiday: Nicknamed 'Lady Day', Billie Holiday was renowned for the soulful voice, perfect diction and emotive intensity which resulted in her status as a jazz icon. Despite her lack of musical training, Billie had an ear for music and improvisation that was unparalleled.

  • Ella Fitzgerald: Ella wasn't nicknamed the 'First Lady of Song' for nothing. Her enviable 3-octave vocal range, intonation and distinctive talents in scat singing lent themselves perfectly to hits such as 'Flying Home'. Gershwin once famously remarked, "I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them."

  • Ruth Brown: Rebelling against the church music her choral-instructor father would have her sing in favour of the pop she heard on the radio, Ruth Brown's talent grew exponentially until she was eventually dubbed 'Miss Rhythm'. Under the sizeable weight of songs like 'Teardrops From My Eyes', Brown used her influence to gain support for the reformation of the music industry's royalties system, which resulted in the creation of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation.

  • Patsy Cline: Cline is credited with paving the way for female artists as headliners in the country music genre, and also became the first female solo artist to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Her hallmark was her full, rich, sophisticated voice; enabling a rare successful crossover into pop music.

  • Nina Simone: The 'High Priestess of Soul' was a volatile and legendary jazz and blues singer, eventually becoming an icon and a standard against which much music of a similar genre is measured. Her distinctive contralto is one of the most recognisable to date, and countless contemporary artists cite her as a notable influence.

  • Carole King: The composer of 'Will You Love Me Tomorrow' and the woman responsible for over two dozen other hits we now regard as standard was the first woman ever to be awarded the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song by President Obama in 2013. Her album Tapestry held the record for most weeks at No.1 for a female artist for 20 years, until it was topped by Whitney Houston.

  • The Shirelles: The group are credited with being the first African American girl group to reach number 1 on the Billboard Top 100 with Carole King's 'Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow'. It's also been said they launched the 'girl group' era and provided a blueprint for future female musicians to follow.

  • Diana Ross: Billboard's "Female Entertainer of the Century" was named the most successful female artist in history due to her having a total of over 70 hit singles, both with the Supremes and as a solo artist. The Supremes are credited with spawning a generation of black girl groups like Destiny's Child, TLC and The Pointer Sisters. She has been cited as an influence by stars such as Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Beyonce. Ross is also one of few recording artists to have two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

  • Aretha Franklin: The Memphis-born Queen of Soul has sold over 75 million records worldwide, making her one of the best-selling female artists of all time. Her song 'Respect' bolted straight to No.1 and is still recognised as a feminist anthem today. Her distinctive, soulful voice coupled with a long and illustrious career has her pegged in the industry as peerless.

  • Dusty Springfield: The sultry-voiced pop singer with the blondest of bouffants was a British musical icon of the sixties and her seminal album, Dusty in Memphis, has been named one of the best albums of all time by Rolling Stone. Her charm, style and pioneering work as a soul singer has earned her a permanent place among Britain's most successful musical exports.

  • Cher: Cherilyn Sarkisian has been innovating and reinventing herself since her career took off as part of husband and wife duo Sonny & Cher. The high-school dropout is recognised as one of the best-selling artists of all time, and her single 'Believe' pioneered the use of auto-tune, use of which later became known as the 'Cher effect'. She is the only act to have a No.1 single in every decade since the 1960s and she also influenced the fashion world with her flamboyant style and daring wardrobe choices.

  • Janis Joplin: Stevie Nicks has named Janis Joplin as her idol, and it's easy to see why. Joplin was renowned for her performing abilities; fans calling her onstage presence 'electric'. She is widely accepted as having paved the way for subsequent female rock artists, Fleetwood Mac's Stevie Nicks included.

  • Joni Mitchell: Joni Mitchell encompassed a distinctive musical style which captured the hearts and minds of millions and continues to do so today. Her fusion of jazz and soul, compounded with raw, honest lyricism and melodious vocals endowed her with a musical legacy that remains unmatched.

  • Suzi Quatro: Quatro was the first female bassist to become acclaimed as a rock star in her own right, which broke down barriers for other aspiring female rock artists. Her independence and unwillingness to compromise set the tone for what was to become a ground-breaking career. She has said of her influence; "Before I did what I did, we [women] didn't have a place in rock 'n' roll."

  • Patti Smith: The Godmother of Punk was influential in establishing the punk genre and is widely acknowledged to be responsible for writing the first true punk song; 'Piss Factory'. She redefined the role of female rock stars for future generations.

  • Joan Jett: Considered an originator, innovator and visionary, Joan Jett is highly influential in the sphere of female rock artists and the story of her band the Runaways has spawned a successful biographical movie adaptation. She is also one of only two women on Rolling Stone's list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time - the other being Joni Mitchell.

  • Debbie Harry: As frontwoman for the commercially successful and critically acclaimed rock and new wave band Blondie, Debbie Harry was catapulted to stardom by the time their third album Parallel Lines was released. With her peroxide blonde hair, ex-Playboy Bunny credentials and sexy persona, she redefined yet again what it meant to be a female rock star.

  • Madonna: Madonna is the best-selling female recording artist of all time and has arguably set the gold standard for being an independent, controversial and successful female artist. Constantly reinventing herself and maintaining a distinctive identity both with her music and appearance; it's no wonder she's known the world over as the 'Queen of Pop' and has inspired generations of artists such as Lady Gaga and Katy Perry.

  • Wendy O. Williams: Williams is widely regarded as the most controversial and radical singer of her era. She was once arrested for simulating sex on stage and often performed wearing next-to-nothing. She cultivated an image that allowed and encouraged women musicians that followed to use their music as a form of art and self-expression.

  • Janice Long: Long has had an extensive and successful career as a radio DJ for BBC Radio 1 and, later, Radio 2 after it had been given its revival. The live music sessions credited on her Radio 2 shows include performances from Primal Scream, Kasabian, Morrissey, and Amy Winehouse in her first radio session ever.

  • Annie Lennox: As one half of the majorly successful British duo Eurythmics and then as a solo artist; Annie Lennox has had an enviable career, culminating in her being named the "most successful female British artist in UK music history."

  • Tina Turner: The eight-time Grammy award-winner has led to Tina Turner being dubbed the 'Queen of Rock'. She has sold more concert tickets than any other solo artist in history - largely due to her trademark powerful, rasping vocals, awesome stage presence and intimidating back catalogue of hits. Overcoming years of physical and emotional abuse from husband Ike Turner, she stomped her way to acclaim and over 100 million records sold.

  • Whitney Houston: According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Whitney Houston is the most awarded musician of all time. She has broken numerous records and inspired millions, even after her untimely death in 2012. Her trademark soulful vocals, credited with popularising the 'vocal gymnastics' style of singing, have inspired countless artists including Mariah Carey and Beyonce Knowles.

  • Janet Jackson: The little sister of late icon Michael Jackson has, throughout the course of her career, proven herself a successful and legitimate artist in her own right. Exploring provocative themes such as sexuality in her body of work, she distanced herself musically from her brothers and, in doing so, achieved commercial and critical success.

  • K.D. Lang: The multiple Grammy and award winning pop and country singer was inspired to begin her career from observing and admiring that of Patsy Cline. She came out as homosexual in 1992 and became one of the most prominent and influential lesbians in the industry.

  • PJ Harvey: The multi-instrumentalist is the only artist ever to have been awarded the Mercury Prize twice for two of her albums. She has never been afraid to experiment, dabbling in a number of genres including rock, folk and electro, and her success speaks for itself.

  • Mary J. Blige: Mary's innovative ability in the early 1990s to merge hip hop and soul garnered her album, My Life, the honour of being named one of the greatest albums ever to have been recorded by Rolling Stone. Her collaborations with Method Man and Ghostface Killah are said to have formed the blueprint for future collaborations between rappers and singers.

  • Bjork: Bjork's unmistakable voice, her deeply personal music and lyrics and her undeniable talent have earned her critical and commercial success spanning a long career. She and her band The Sugarcubes earned unprecedented international success for an Icelandic act, and as a solo artist she continues to innovate and evolve her art to this day.

  • Spice Girls: The Spice Girls' meteoric rise to prominence is still breaking records; their debut album Spice is still the bestselling album by a female group in music history. They brought the notion of 'girl power' to the British music scene and the theme of equality between the sexes was prominent in their work. They became what can only be described as a phenomenon and influenced millions of young girls in the process.

  • Lil' Kim: Kimberley Jones became highly successful in the mid-90s as one of the first prominent female rappers. Her album The Naked Truth, though it didn't sell well, is widely believed to be a hip hop classic, even considered the best album by a female rapper by hip hop fans.

  • Beyonce: As a member of best-selling girl group Destiny's Child Beyonce shone, and now as a solo artist, her career has broken records all over the world. Named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, Beyonce has controversially described herself as a "modern-day feminist" with themes of female sexuality and empowerment in her music.

  • Amy Winehouse: Amy Winehouse's success laid the foundation and opened doors for a whole new generation of female musicians. The controversial and deeply troubled icon could do no wrong when it came to her body of work. Her distinctive contralto voice, raw and sometimes heartbreakingly personal lyrics and refreshingly vintage take on melody and rhythm, has earned her a place as one of modern music's most celebrated women.

  • Adele: Since she released 'Hometown Glory' in 2007 Adele provided a much needed tonic to the crowded music industry with her stripped down, organic sound. This led to her equalling the record for most Grammys won in a single night by a woman (the other being Beyonce). She has become one of an elite crew of British female artists to garner huge success in the US, proving that you don't need elaborate stage shows or a diva persona to win the hearts of millions.

  • Lady Gaga: The born and raised New Yorker has been breaking down barriers with her mad antics and catchy tunes since her debut single 'Just Dance' in 2008. Self-proclaimed Mother Monster has earned a scarily devoted legion of fans with her alternative image and allegiance with those that may feel on the outskirts of popular culture.