Women songwriters often live the blues as they climb to the top by singing them

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- From Leslie Gore to Loretta Lynn to Bonnie Raitt, America's women songwriters have lived the blues in reaching the top of the record charts.

That's the conclusion of "Life Factors Common to Women Who Write Popular Songs," a research paper presented at the 100th annual convention of the American Psychological Association, which ended here Tuesday.


The study found that women who wrote at least two best-selling songs between 1960 and 1990 were likely to have suffered a parental loss during childhood, to have left home early after having trouble with schoolwork, to have problems establishing and maintaining romantic relationships, to have few children and to have a tendency toward depression and substance abuse.

"It's not an easy life at all to be a woman writing in the male-dominated world of popular music," said M. L. Corbin Sicoli, author of the report and a psychology professor at Cabrini College in Pennsylvania.


The study includes about 60 women who had at least two songs in the Top 50 hits listed in Billboard or Rolling Stone magazines during the 30-year span. These writers include many women who performed their own songs. Among those covered in the research are well-known singers such as Dolly Parton, Aretha Franklin, Madonna, Carly Simon, Carole King, Buffy St. Marie, Lacy J. Dalton, Debbie Gibson and Michelle Shocked as well as lesser known songwriters like Motown's Pam Sawyer.

Ms. Sicoli said she was surprised when her research turned up so few women among the top pop and country songwriters. At no time between 1960 and 1990 were more than 25 percent of the top 50 songs written by women, and at times only about 4 percent were, she said in an interview.

As a result, the feminist experience and viewpoint are often missing from the airwaves and record charts. "If we're ever going to hear it in popular music, I don't think men [songwriters] are going to bring it to us," she said.

The study took six years to complete, Ms. Sicoli said, but her interest in the subject began during childhood piano lessons when she noticed all the classical pieces she learned were by male composers.

Early in her research, Ms. Sicoli said she noticed there "were more similarities than differences" in the lives of the women songwriters.

The study found that virtually all (85 percent) showed early musical ability. Four out of every five came from a lower or middle class background and three out of every four were the first or second born in their families. Nearly half suffered some sort of early parental loss through divorce, death or abandonment.

By the age of 19, 72 percent of the women songwriters had left home; 78 percent either lived in or moved to a cultural center such as New York or Los Angeles. Only one in five earned a college degree.

The study said these top women songwriters were less successful in their private lives: 64 percent had divorced and 66 percent had suffered a psychological disorder, with depression and/or substance abuse being the most prevalent.


On average, they had 0.6 children apiece, said Ms. Sicoli.

"In summation," the report said, "the developmental histories of women who succeed in the male-dominated popular music world do not reveal lives that are recognizable as the norm for women."