12 Essential Songs From the Lesbian Label Olivia Records

The record company was formed in 1973 with the goals of telling queer women’s stories and putting profits in the pockets of gay artists working outside the mainstream music industry.

Albums from the catalog of Olivia Records.

In 1973, five feminists christened their new business: a lesbian record label that would broadcast the nascent liberation movement’s rallying cry. The women who formed Olivia Records, named after the heroine of a Sapphic novel by Dorothy Bussy, had $4,000 to put out a mail-order single that came with a letter requesting donations. It brought them $12,000, which was used to produce “I Know You Know” by Meg Christian, the first of the label’s more than 60 single and LP releases over the next 20 years. Its music provided a soundtrack for watershed moments including the passing of Title IX, Roe v. Wade, and the tennis champion Billie Jean King’s defeat of the self-proclaimed male chauvinist Bobby Riggs.

The movement’s early 1970s wins helped spotlight lesbian feminists’ causes, but didn’t ease gay women’s victimization at the hands of the cultural mainstream. Lesbians put themselves at risk of losing their jobs, families and sometimes their lives by coming out of the closet, and they didn’t see themselves, or their stories, reflected in pop culture. The Olivia founders, Ginny Berson, Christian, Judy Dlugacz, Kate Winter and Jennifer Woodul, wanted to give them a voice and put their experiences center stage. They had economic goals, too, aiming to keep profits in the pockets of lesbian artists and sound technicians, and power in the hands of female label heads who would create alternative channels for production and distribution in an industry controlled by men.

Olivia’s artists and producers learned from the Harlem Renaissance’s black lesbian songbook — numbers like Lucille Bogan’s “B.D. Woman’s Blues” from 1935, which rebuked the patriarchy and celebrated a budding “bulldagger” consciousness. The year before the label started, Maxine Feldman, a self-identified “big loud Jewish butch lesbian,” eagerly cleared a path for music as activism with “Angry Atthis,” considered the first openly lesbian song.

Between the mid-1970s and ’80s, Olivia organized shows and put out releases that publicly eulogized same-sex desire and feminist community. Women-only concerts and festivals became lifelines for isolated gay women in the closet or living in rural parts of the country; they were also peaceful political fronts, their messages galvanizing some to march for their rights and others to engage quietly with the feminist cause by supporting a female-run enterprise and forming connections with other women.

Almost 50 years later, the fight for equality continues, and the music the label brought to life remains potently resonant. Here are 12 songs that defined Olivia Records’ catalog and accompanied many women’s lesbian awakenings.

This anthem brought humor to an otherwise sober time for the still-underground lesbian community. After slowly strumming the chords for “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” Meg Christian accelerates into a twanging narrative that affectionately nods at a lesbian stereotype: the sporty butch. Comedy broke the ice at Christian’s concerts, and humor played a significant role in other Olivia singles, helping demonstrate that contrary to the popular idée fixe, lesbians weren’t scary.

Olivia’s second LP release sold more than a quarter of a million copies and launched Cris Williamson to icon status in the mushrooming lesbian feminist community. “Sweet Woman” offers yearning expressions of same-sex desire, plangent instrumentals and simple, repetitive lyrics — “I’ll hold you and you’ll be mine” — that invited singalongs. “Members of the audience clutched copies of the record to their chests,” Williamson said in an interview.

The Olivia roster leaned heavily toward solo acts, but also included BeBe K’Roche, an electronic rock band from California. “BeBe K’Roche,” one of its albums featuring engineering work by the transgender woman Sandy Stone, has a distinctly 1960s jam band, jazz-fusion flavor. The singer Virginia Rubino opens “Alone” with a series of rafter-shaking melismas before she directs listeners, “You don’t have to be alone anymore.”

Today, the women’s music movement is often dismissed as treacle that foregrounds narratives of lesbian discovery and sensuality. But Olivia didn’t candy-coat controversial issues — it squarely addressed topics related to race, gender and political coalition-building. The poet Pat Parker’s spoken-word LP “Where Would I Be Without You,” co-produced with Judy Grahn, was the first Olivia release written by a woman of color, and it revived rhetoric first deployed by the Civil Rights Movement a decade earlier. In this poem, performed at the Varied Voices of Black Women tour in 1975, Parker addresses a fictitious white girlfriend: “Sister,” she intones, “your foot’s smaller. But it’s still on my neck.”

Black musical traditions endured in the compilation “Lesbian Concentrate: A Lesbianthology of Songs and Poems,” which was released in response to the pop singer Anita Bryant’s anti-gay rights activism and included an inner sleeve replete with resources for lesbian mothers stuck in custody battles with ex-husbands. Gwen Avery’s fiery gospel composition is a highlight, asking for other women to “please take all my love.”

This song’s rakish chant — “Here come the lesbians!” — became another lighthearted hallmark of 1970s lesbian concert-going. It was often played in crowded buses headed to women’s music festivals and at venues packed with couples costumed in tuxedos and flashy gowns, helping foster community with a catchy ditty.

On her album “Face the Music,” Christian sticks to the fluffy aesthetic sensibilities of some of her earlier releases but takes on heftier themes. “Rosalind” is almost trite in its vocals and instrumentation, but its lyrics explore a troubled interracial romance that ends in homophobic fear. “Song to My Mama,” another track on the album, is similarly affecting, expressing Christian’s adolescent dread of coming out of the closet and being thrown out of her childhood home.

Linda Tillery, like Avery, wove black musical idioms deep into the fabric of the women’s music movement. Musically trained in a Southern Baptist church, Tillery brought R&B, gospel and jazz traditions to her two Olivia releases in 1978. “Womanly Way” features a funk-indebted groove that shuffles into a kinetic call and response: “Let me, let me, let me love you,” she belts, her voice carried by the backup singers’ “Baby, baby!” reply.

The Berkeley Women’s Music Collective’s second LP on Olivia is a set of folksy doo-wop that was written, arranged and recorded on “whatever equipment we could get our hands on,” the group wrote in the album’s liner notes. The warm strains of “Fury” shuffle are built on guitar, piano and wailing harmonica. Like most of the other songs on the album, it speaks to class struggle and the dawning realization that money and power belong to the few — white heterosexual men.

The jazz musician Mary Watkins put out one solo release on Olivia, an album called “Something Moving” with a cover featuring a photo of the artist in an East Bay, Calif., community center and cafe. The deeply funky LP contributed to emerging perspectives around queer black survival: By combining soulful freedom paeans with lesbian aesthetic tropes, she drew a line between black urban culture, church traditions, and the gay and lesbian heliosphere.

Olivia’s two poster artists sang this syrupy tear-jerker at Carnegie Hall in 1982. It perfectly captured the meld of protest and romance that threaded through the women’s music movement: moments of harmony and unity intertwined with gentle encouragement for still-closeted members of the lesbian sisterhood “home all alone.” The performance was one of the last Christian would give before withdrawing from music and joining a New York ashram under her new name, Shambhavi.

This soft-rock ballad advocates for Wyoming’s Indigenous people, the Nez Perce, who fought the U.S. army in 1877 when they refused to abdicate their ancestral land. Williamson is originally from Deadwood, S.D., and grew up trailing her forest ranger father across the western mountain territories. Her 1985 album “Prairie Fire” pays tribute to her roots, indulging in folk-Americana instrumental stylings and reverent allusions to the precolonial world.