Brought to you by record collector and DJ Grace George, Label of Love is a series that tells short histories of music labels & their legacies. For this week’s Label of Love, Graces explores the history and legacy of Olivia Records, an all-womxn folk, soul & spoken-word label that played an provided a vital platform for female artists and played an important role in challenging the rampant sexism & homophobia of the male-dominated music industry.
Olivia Records was an all-womxn folk, soul & spoken-word label established in 1973 as a response to the sexism & homophobia the co-founders & musicians faced in a male-dominated music industry. Recently heralded as a pioneering Feminist movement in the Guardian, the label has also been celebrated as the spearhead of a queer female revolution: “We knew music could cut through homophobia and bring strength. We said, ‘This is what we’re gonna do with the rest of our lives….’” Judy Dlugacz, co-founder of Olivia Records.
Members of Lesbian-Feminist separatist groups The Furies & Radical Lesbians of Ann Arbor joined forces to birth the Olivia Records collective. Olivia gave its female artists the opportunity to record their music “their way” without a dominating male gaze. The releases of Cris Williamson, Meg Christian, Linda Tillery + spoke to a LGBTQ+ community of womxn “who wanted to be found, but didn’t necessarily want to be identified.”
The original 10 founders wanted to speak honestly about women’s lives to women with their music & activism. Olivia advocated deeply for female love & friendship, and in doing so helped transform the music industry’s treatment of women during a time of deep inequality, with their female artists topping headliner bills and selling out New York’s Carnegie Hall. The label continued to foster & empower its “women’s music” community by only hiring female producers, sound engineers & artists for female audiences that finally felt a sense of belonging.
The early 1970s was the dawn of liberation for LGBTQ+ communities, however, the American Psychiatric Association only removed homosexuality from its list of psyciatric disorders in 1973. Olivia Records’ sensitivity to these turbulent times meant their releases would often to be sent out in unbranded brown paper bags, to avoid detection and potential discrimination. Being out would cost those brave enough to be true to themselves, their jobs, families and personal safety. A national anti-gay “Protect America’s Children” campaign concocted by Conservative Christian poster-girl Anita Bryant dominated headlines, creating further fear & discrimination for the LGBTQ+ community. However, this was the 1970s and the gays were out and here to stay. In response to Bryant’s support for Florida Juice, LGBTQ+ groups nationwide encouraged a boycott of the Vitamin C state drink. Olivia hit back with their ironically titled Lesbian Concentrate compilation of 1977, a collection of the labels most popular songstresses singing in opposition to Bryant’s hateful doctrine, as Olivia continued its mantra of advocating for lesbianism, sisterhood & love.
The label continued to enjoy success throughout its first 5 years, however, as the 1980s dawned it was becoming clearer that a racial inequality was deepening within Olivia’s ranks. Intersectionality was not a familiar term during the feminist movements of the 1970s, although it was clear to the black artists of Olivia that they could not compete with the popularity of their white counterparts:
“I’d seen the racism in the industry,” says Linda Tillery. “But I liked working for Olivia. I was a producer, played drums, sang background vocals. Judy was inviting women of colour into what was then a very white collective. I discovered a lot of straight white women were listening to my music wondering, ‘Should I love a woman?’ But there were others who only wanted to hear music by white women. I realised there was no way my music was going to compete with Meg and Cris.” Linda Tillery speaking to the Guardian, 2020.
Olivia continued to foster support for all members of its roster and in 1978, Dlugacz organised The Varied Voices of Black Women tour, featuring Tillery, Gwen Avery, Mary Watkins & poet Pat Parker. However, during an interview for The Lesbian Show mid-tour, Tillery, Watkins & Parker are recorded discussing the financial struggles they faced as female musicians of colour, equating some audiences expectation of a free concert because of their lesbian shared struggle, to modern slavery. Racism was rife and anti-trans sentiment was manifesting itself in early TERF-dom against members of Olivia’s workforce, despite the labels critique of this discrimination: “It was me, Mary, Gwen and Pat,” says Tillery. “Loud, raucous black women having a good time. But then this group of radical lesbian separatists called the Gorgons put out a death threat on our sound engineer, Sandy Stone.” Tillery speaking to the Guardian, 2020.
No activism is without its pitfalls, but Olivia’s legacy is unrivalled for the positive work it did for American gay womxn. It set the stage for openly queer, female artists like Tracey Chapman, Phranc & Two Nice Girls who were snapped up by major labels in the 1980s. Today Olivia Records is now Olivia Cruises, a lifestyle & travel company run by Dlugacz with the same intentions as the record label: to create a foundation of equality & community of support by paving ‘the way for lesbians everywhere. Olivia has truly changed lives – and the world.’
The sounds of Olivia Records
Linda Tillery – Womanly Way
Une lettre d’amour for female love. Tillery’s “Womanly Way” features on DJ Supermarkt’s 2020 compilation The Ladies of Too Slow To Disco 2.
Meg Christian – Rosalind
A tale of two female friends coming of age, racial inequality & being in the closet. Sounds as relevant today than ever before.
Pat Parker & Judy Grahn – Where Would I Be Without You: The Poetry Of Pat Parker & Judy Grahn (1976)
Conscious spoken-word. Pat Parker’s telling of the black queer experience and all its wonders & tragedies on the A Side, with Judy Grahn’s white, Lesbian narrative on the flip.
Cris Williamson – The Changer & the Changed
Olivia’s best-selling album. It’s abstract focus on female spirituality appealed to a wider audience, inviting both hetero & gay womxn to relate to Williamson’s stories.
All information in our articles is based on research & references. We have the utmost respect for all musicians & people mentioned & if an error has been made, please correct us. ☺
“The Politics of Women’s Music: A Conversation with Linda Tillery and Mary Watkins” Mary S. Pollock (Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 1988)