March 8 marks International Women’s Day. Kick-started by the Socialist Party of America in 1909, it has evolved into a United Nations-sponsored day of recognition for the “social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women.”

Having a strong independent streak is hard enough in the industry, but to have an independent streak and be a woman is a challenge no male musician could even begin to fathom

In light of the disturbing events that have led to the #FreeKesha movement, it’s a day that takes on increased significance for female musicians who struggle to achieve artistic autonomy, financial success and gender parity in an industry that sadly continues to be, in the all too true words of James Brown, “a man’s, man’s, man’s world.”

Some of the most inspirational (as well as harrowing) tales of women achieving success in the music industry revolve around those iconic role models who dared to strike out on their own and redefine themselves as solo artists. After all, having a strong independent streak is hard enough in the industry, but to have an independent streak and be a woman is a challenge no male musician could even begin to fathom.

Janis Joplin
Janis Joplin battled preconceived notions of what female musicians should look and sound like.
Two of the earliest examples are Janis Joplin and Diana Ross.

After leaving acid rockers Big Brother & the Holding Company, the impossible-to-pigeonhole Joplin battled stereotypes of what a female singer should sound and look like until her tragic death in 1970. Though hers is a story rife with sorrow, the defiant Texan bravely redefined femininity in terms that were all her own.

Around the same time, Ross made the bold decision to leave the Supremes, one of the most popular acts in the history of recorded music. Becoming a pop star in her own right, she inked a deal with RCA in 1981 that at the time was the most lucrative ever negotiated. The ambitious Ross would go on to start her own production company (Anaid Productions) and become a shrewd real estate mogul.

Ross’ innovative ability to become not just a successful solo act, but also a globally recognized, self-empowered brand lives on in a pair of pop’s current stars: Beyoncé Knowles and Gwen Stefani.

Gwen Stefani broke through with her group No Doubt and her no-nonsense of individuality.
Gwen Stefani broke through with her group No Doubt and her no-nonsense individuality.
Emerging from vocal group Destiny’s Child, Bey’s towering presence in our culture is inescapable. From music and business affairs to motherhood and her views on gun control and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, she oozes self-confidence in every aspect of her life and work.

The same goes for Stefani. In the mid-’90s, with macho-fueled grunge dominating rock, she and No Doubt offered a radically different sound, one that spotlighted her punk-inspired sense of self-reliance and individuality. More than 20 years later, she is bigger than ever: an A-list solo artist, TV personality on The Voice and fashion designer whose emboldened style has inspired countless young women to express themselves in the most daring and flamboyant ways imaginable.

On the Fringe, But Just as Influential

Outside the realms of mainstream pop and rock exist some of the most unique female musicians to strike out on their own and no discussion of this topic is complete without talking about the one and only Björk.

The Icelandic singer’s success as a solo artist has been so resounding that many fans are barely aware of her tenure in alt-rock outfit The Sugarcubes. Not unlike Stefani and Bey (only far stranger), the multifaceted Björk is an all-encompassing brand that cuts across music, fashion, political activism and the visual arts. In addition to producing some of the most innovative art of the last quarter century, she has leveraged her stature to gain greater exposure for a string of cutting-edge female musicians, Micachu and Ólöf Arnalds among them.

International Women’s Day is about giving thanks to female artists who achieved artistic and economic success in the face of an unforgivingly male-dominated music industry

Then there’s Kathleen Hanna. Blurring the lines between music and activism, she is one of the chief architects of riot grrrl. Originally emerging from the Pacific Northwest’s early ’90s punk underground, the feminist movement’s radical ethos has seeped deep into mainstream culture.

Hanna — who is profiled in the 2013 documentary The Punk Singer — started off in what is arguably the quintessential riot grrrl band, Bikini Kill. Since then she has become a force onto herself. She helped pioneer indie electronica with Le Tigre while also releasing a string of boundary-breaking releases under the name The Julie Ruin. On top of all that, she is a beloved author and public speaker.

It’s no overstatement to say that an entire of generation of self-empowered women owe Hanna a huge debt of gratitude. And that, of course, is what International Women’s Day is all about: giving heartfelt thanks to individuals like her, Björk, Beyoncé, Stefani, Ross, Joplin and every other female artist who achieved artistic and economic success in the face of an unforgivingly male-dominated music industry.