While closing out our celebration of Women’s History Month, I discovered that female songwriters have been registering works with the Copyright Office for more than 147 years. I began my research with book one of the official U.S. Copyright Office record book, which contains registrations of several songs written by women in 1870.
As I continued my research, I found that in the early twentieth century, a handful of women wrote commercial hits and jazz standards. Irene Higginbotham composed nearly fifty songs, including her most famous, “Good Morning Heartache,” first recorded by Billie Holiday and later by Diana Ross.
Dorothy Fields wrote lyrics for more than 400 songs, plus she co-wrote “The Way You Look Tonight,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” and “Pick Yourself Up,” performed by artists including Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and Louis Armstrong.
It got me thinking about female songwriters in my lifetime. Going back to the year I was born, Carole King released her album Tapestry. Already a successful songwriter with many copyright registrations, Tapestry catapulted King to music fame with hits like “I feel the Earth Move,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” and “Where You Lead,” which she later revised and recorded with her daughter Louise Goffin to be the theme for one of my all-time favorite television shows, Gilmore Girls. Adding to her greatness, King was the first woman to have writing credits on three number one songs in a single year (1971), won the first song of the year by a female with “You’ve Got a Friend,” and is the only woman so far to have received the Library’s Gershwin Prize for Popular Song (2012).
Then there’s Diane Warren. You might not know her name, but I’m willing to bet you have heard her songs—she has written or co-written nearly 2,000 songs registered with the Copyright Office. Warren wrote hits performed by Aerosmith, Chicago, Gloria Estefan, Celine Dion, Cher, Carrie Underwood, Michael Bolton, and Whitney Houston—just to name a few. Her first hit was “Solitaire,” which Laura Branigan performed and I remember listening to on vinyl in 1983.
I went through a country phase in the 1990s, when female writers like Martina McBride and Sara Evans enjoyed success writing both for themselves and other artists. They followed in the footsteps of Elsie McWilliams, one of the few women in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, who wrote for Jimmie Rogers in the 1920s. Then Marijohn Wilkin, known as the Den Mother of Music Row, wrote many country songs in the 1950s and 1960s. Beth Nielson Chapman, the most recent woman to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, wrote many Nashville songs and co-wrote Faith Hill’s 1998 number one hit “This Kiss,” which is still stuck in my head twenty years later.
More recently, Beyoncé wrote or co-wrote most of the songs she recorded with Destiny’s Child and as a solo artist. In 2001, she became the first African American woman and second female lyricist to win the Pop Songwriter of the Year award at the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers Pop Music Awards. That year she also became the third woman to have writing credits on three number one songs in a single year (Mariah Carey was the second in 1991).
According to a recent report on Inclusion in the Recording Studio, of the the 600 most-popular songs from 2012 to 2017, Nicki Minaj had the most songwriting credits of any female songwriter with fifteen. She has been registering works with the Copyright Office since 2009.
Are you the next great female songwriter? Remember, you can register your work online at copyright.gov.