The punk rock movement began in the mid-1970s, with bands like Ramones and Sex Pistols lording over an era of youthful rebellion – littered with leather jackets, S&M pants, and raucous anti-authoritarianism.
But, often overlooked, are the huge contributions women made to this musical genre. Female-led bands like the Patti Smith Group and Blondie gained popularity in the 1970s, and played a key role in the development of punk rock. These women also plugged into the feminist movement, and spoke out about the issues facing them in their songs.
Here’s the best female-fronted punk rock bands, from the 1970s to today.
Patti Smith, Patti Smith Group
Years active: 1974–1979.
Who they were: One of the most influential bands on the New York City punk rock scene. Led by Patti Smith – the so-called “punk poet laureate” – the group released four albums and dominated punk in the US. Smith’s debut album with her band ‘Horses’ is widely lauded as one of the greatest albums to come out of the American punk rock movement.
Best Track: ‘Gloria: In Excelsis Deo’.
Debbie Harry, Blondie
Years active: 1974–1982, 1997–present.
Who they are: Pioneers of the American punk rock and new wave scenes in the 1970s. Founded by lead singer Debbie Harry with guitarist Chris Stein, the band is known for combining an eclectic mix of genres, including punk, pop, disco, rap, and reggae. They were considered an underground band until breaking into the mainstream, with the release of their internationally successful ‘Parallel Lines.’ The band broke-up in 1982, but re-formed in 1997 – touring and playing at big festivals like Glastonbury – and have released eleven studio albums in total.
Best Track: ‘Heart of Glass’.
Siouxsie Sioux, Siouxsie and the Banshees
Years active: 1976–1996, 2002.
Who they are: The unofficial founders of post-punk. Formed after singer Siouxie Sioux met her future bandmate Steven Severin at a Roxy Music concert, Siouxsie and the Banshees were initially lumped into a scene that journalists dubbed the ‘Bromley Contingent’. That said, the band had very little in common with Sex Pistols aside from geography and a drive to push musical boundaries.
While all of the punk bands around them courted label attention from the start, Siouxsie and the Banshees didn’t sign a record deal until 1978; with the backing of Polydor, they finally released their debut single ‘Hong Kong Garden’ that same year. At the time, reviewed in NME, Paul Rambali praised it for “the most original, intoxicating guitar playing I heard in a long, long time”. Recorded in one week, their debut album ‘The Scream’ is now regarded as a landmark post-punk album; documenting the suburbia they grew up. Up until the band disbanded in 1996 (Siouxsie and bandmate Budgie later turned their attention to the Creatures) The Banshees released constantly innovative music; pushing the limitations with every release.
Best Track: ‘Spellbound’
Beth Ditto, Gossip
Years active: 1999–2016.
Who they were: A three-piece from Washington, USA, Gossip stormed gained international success for their critically-acclaimed debut album ‘Standing in the Way of Control’. Frontwoman Ditto – self-described as a “fat, feminist lesbian from Arkansas” – is well known for her energetic, frenetic and sweaty performances. Currently pursuing a solo career, alongside working in fashion, Ditto has been outspoken about LGBTQ+ equality throughout her career and has done a great deal for promoting body image positivity. She doesn’t shave her armpits or use deodorant – once reportedly saying “I think punks usually smell” – and caused mild controversy when she told NME in 2006 that she ate squirrels as a kid.
Best Track: ‘Standing in the Way of Control’.
Poly Styrene, X-Ray Spex
Years active: 1976–1979, 1991, 1995–1996, 2008.
Who they were: A punk band from London. Self-described as “deliberate underachievers”, the band only released one album, the punk rock classic ‘Germfree Adolescent’, with uncredited saxophone parts from on-off band member Lora Logic, before breaking up in 1979. They re-formed to play various one-off gigs, including a sellout show at the Brixton Academy in 1991, and also got back together to release a second album, ‘Conscious Consumer’, in 1995. They were considered one of the most exciting and innovative band’s on the British punk rock scene, with a progressive and feminist outlook, and known for their anti-consumerism themes in their songs. Poly Styrene tragically died from breast cancer in 2011, aged 53.
Best Track: ‘Oh Bondage Up Yours!’
Years Active: 1976–1982, 2005–2010.
Who they are: Making raucous punk with a feminist lean, The Slits’ music was defined by joyful mayhem; nodding heavily to the backing vocals of French yé-yé bands, a relaxed strain of dub, and a general apitude for do-it-yourself scrappiness. Their 1979 debut album ‘Cut’ – which featured Ari Up Viv Albertine and Tessa Pollitt in a rose garden wearing loincloths and covered in mud – is both playful and pointed, refusing to play the part of the ‘Typical Girls’ who were often ignored or sidelined in the punkscene. Listening to ‘Cut’ today, its enormous influence on the Riot Grrrl movement of the 90s is obvious, and it’s rightly regarded as a classic of the era.
Best Track: ‘Shoplifting’
Brody Dalle, The Distillers
Years active: 1998–present.
Who they are: An punk bank formed in LA by Brody Dalle, who was brought up in Australia. Dalle’s is known for her distinctive, raspy voice. The group released three albums The band recently got back together to play their first show in 13 years in San Diego, California.
Best Track: ‘City of Angels’.
Courtney Love, Hole
Years active: 1989–2002, 2010–2012.
Who they were: An American alternative rock band founded by frontwoman Courtney Love and guitarist Eric Erlandson. The group’s early works – like debut album ‘Pretty on the Inside’ – were heavily influenced by the LA punk scene. In their later years, the band opted for a more mainstream rock sound. In total, Hole released four studio albums. The band’s line-up frequently changed throughout the years, and included bassist Kristen Pfaff between 1993 until her death from a heroin overdose in 1994 – just two months after the death of Love’s husband and Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. Love’s songwriting for Hole often addressed gender issues and scholars have credited her for reflecting the third-wave feminist movement in her tracks in the 1990s.
Best Track: Teenage Whore.
Kim Shattuck, The Muffs
Years active: 1991–present.
Who they are: A punk band created in Southern California in 1991, led by singer and guitarist Kim Shattuck. The band broke-up in 1999, but re-formed to release a fifth album ‘Really Really Happy’, before splitting again. Three core members of the group, including Shattuck, later got the band back together, putting out a sixth album ‘Whoop Dee Doo’ in 2014, and playing gigs. Shattuck briefly played bass for the Pixies on their European tour in 2013.
Best Track: ‘Kids in America’.
Years active: 1993–2012, currently on hiatus.
Who they are: An all-woman punk rock band based in Palo Alto, California. Currently on hiatus, the band has released seven studio albums. Their sound is influenced by Ramones, Kiss, AC/DC, and The Runaways.
Best Track: ‘Take it Off’.
Years active: 2011
Who they are: A Russian protest punk rock group founded in Moscow. The group, which has around 11 female members, are known for its provocative guerrilla performances in public places, which are posted online and often protest against Russian president Vladimir Putin and his repressive policies. Pussy Riot gained international attention when three of its members were arrested in March 2012 “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred,” after they held a performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. While one member was released in October 2012, the other two remained served 21 months in prison before they were let out in December 2013. The group members are outspoken supporters of feminist and LGBTQ+ issues.
Best Track: ‘Police State’.
Years active: 2016 – present.
Who they are: An all-female, punk-pop three-piece from Brighton – and one of the most exciting bands in the UK right now. The band are known for their sweaty, frenetic and moshing performances, where they frequently urge all the “bad bitches” to come to the front and take up space. They’re full of catchy melodies and addictive riffs – and are outspoken feminist issues, including stopping women being sexually assaulted at gigs, and should Dream Wife released their eponymous debut album in January this year. Read NME’s five-star review here.
Best Track: ‘F.U.U.’