There’s something powerful about the girl gang: women united by a lifestyle, movement, or rebellion, pushing back against a repressive or sexist culture to act on their own terms. Here are a few of my favorite historical girl gangs. Someone start drawing up the matching jackets!
Wild, intoxicated women leaving their families behind and tearing unlucky men to pieces. The Maenads, followers of the god Dionysus, were depicted in Ancient Greek art and writing as crazed and promiscuous. As opposed to the abstinent Amazons, the Maenads participated in orgies and drunken frenzies, but they represented another side of female liberation that scared Greek men. No longer wives or mothers, the Maenads who ran off to join Dionysus’ revels were simply women letting go of societal expectations and indulging their desires.
The Fun Nuns of Italy
If you think of nuns in Renaissance Italy, you might picture quietly devoted women in humble prayer. But these cloistered women got up to much more than that within their convent walls. A group of singing nuns in 16th century Bologna were targeted by the Inquisition for summoning the Devil to help find a missing violin. Other nuns spoke out against sexual assault and repressive male authority in the stifling patriarchy of the Church. These nuns, some wholly pious and some cloistered against their will, misbehaved and laid the groundwork for religious women pushing the boundaries.
The Blues Lesbians
In the 1910s and 20s, at a time when homosexuality could get you behind bars, a handful of female Harlem blues singers were surprisingly straightforward about their girlfriends and lovers. Artists such as Ma Rainey, Gladys Bentley, Bessie Smith, and others took advantage of their position outside the American mainstream to subvert gender and sexual expectations, wearing tuxedos and singing about “bulldaggers,” a slang word for lesbians. Off the stage, however, they often had to conceal their lifestyles or risk danger. As black lesbian women, these Harlem blues singers faced limitations on all sides but still managed to forge their own space and create music that is still relevant today.