As an all-female band during the 1970s, the Runaways helped pave the way for women in rock music. The group started when then-teenage Joan Jett and Sandy West met and began playing music together in 1975. Other famous members of the Runaways included Cherie Currie and Lita Ford.
Does a band have to call itself feminist to be a feminist band? Must the women sing overtly political lyrics, or is being a successful, powerful, or independent woman a feminist act? The question reflects the Women’s Liberation Movement idea that the personal is political.
Although we may be unable to precisely define feminist band, the Runaways are widely considered an influential group. The Runaways are cited by many musicians and critics as a strong influence on women in punk, women in pop/rock, the 1990s Riot Grrrl movement, and other music scenes.
The Runaways were rock musicians who sang, played instruments, wrote songs, and performed around the world. Yet, they were teenage girls and young women, doing these things at a time when the majority of rock ‘n’ roll was played and controlled by men.
While radio station programmers enforced limits on the number of female vocalist songs played per hour, The Runaways stood up to a male-dominated system. Despite their level of international acclaim, in Europe and Japan particularly, their U.S. audience remained more of a cult following. Female fans who were also teenagers during the 1970s related to the music but could not get into the bars where The Runaways played.
For the Girls
Joan Jett said she knew from the start that the Runaways were trying to make it easier for other girls to do things, whether they wanted to be musicians or scientists. The resistance that the Runaways faced in the music industry paralleled the struggle of women in other career fields who faced entrenched male power. Music executives wanted to market the teenage girls’ aggressive sexuality, while at the same time refusing to take them seriously as women.
An Emerging Feminist Generation
Being teenagers in the mid-1970s, the girls who formed The Runaways were born during the oft-idealized U.S. 1950s and very early 1960s. Their lives mirror the timeline of the rise of second-wave feminism in the public consciousness.
As with most movements, the “rise” actually began before it entered the public consciousness. Joan Jett herself recalls a healthy relationship with her parents, who taught her that she could be anything she wanted to be.
After The Runaways
Music journalists have said that everything changed for female musicians after the Runaways. However, they played their last show at the end of 1978 and broke up in early 1979 feeling that they were still not fully accepted or taken seriously by the music industry.
Joan Jett founded her own record label in 1980 and has continued to perform for decades. Cherie Currie’s later albums included 1978’s Beauty’s Only Skin Deep and 1980’s Messin’ with the Boys.
The women in the Runaways modeled themselves after their idols, but during the 1970s those idols were mostly male -- David Bowie, Gene Simmons, and Keith Richards -- although they also revered Suzi Quatro. During subsequent decades, the Runaways themselves became rock idols to be emulated.