Updated: Mar 14
On the occasion of Easter, one of the most important holidays of Christian believers, music is her passion takes a close look at the history and current state of female representation and empowerment in Christian music. From female vocalists being banned from church choirs up until a few centuries ago to today's uneven gender-representation in the Grammys category of contemporary Christian pop - find all your information on women empowerment in Christian music in this article.
Historically speaking, gender equality did not play a significant role in most Christian religious practices for the longest time. While times are changing, with more female pastors in leading positions of religious institutions and more ensured equal treatment of churchgoers and believers overall, Christian music has only recently started to catch up on the movement of equality empowerment and female representation. Looking at gender equality in contemporary Christian music, especially in regard to award nominees and pioneers of the genre, it quickly becomes clear that women have been rather underrepresented or unaccredited over the past decades.
Looking back in history, there are many pioneering women that greatly contributed to the development of church music and Christian music in general.
In regard to both classical and religious music, Hildegard von Bingen, a German Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, visionary, and polymath born in 1098, was one of the first females to pave the way. Despite her acting during the times of the Pauline Commandment of Silence, which banned women from voicing opinions and participating in the art of music, Hildegard’s Ordo Virtutum, an independent Latin morality play with music encompassing over 80 original compositions, remains one of the largest bodies of work of the medieval repertoire.
Although traces of female religious compositions are found throughout the Christian history from Bingen’s days on - perhaps because composing can be practiced in secret and behind the scenes - female vocalists were not encouraged, or even forbidden to contribute to Christian music. From Pope Sylvester I (reigned 314-335) and Pope Hilarius (reigned 461-468) devoting singing schools solely to the training of male voices, to Bernard of Clairvaux
(1090-1153) justifying his ban on women in religious singing by claiming “it is necessary that men sing in a virile manner and not with voices shrill and artificial like the voices of women, or in a manner lascivious and nimble like actors ” - over nearly a thousand years, women were only allowed and encourage to actively participate in Christian musicianship when men were not present. In Baroque times, however, musical practices of Christianity took a step towards more equal representation of genders: French royal chapels began to employ women as soloists under Louis XIV around the year 1650.
Two women who made history with their 1716 contribution to German Christian music were Barbara and Margarethe Keiser, the first women to sing as members of an urban church choir in Hamburg.
From the Keiser sisters’ first appearance in a church choir, women slowly but surely populated more and more spots in religious choirs throughout Baroque and Romanticism. Legendary composers like Johann Sebastian Bach began dedicating their works specifically to female soloists. Jauchzet Gott (BWV 51), for instance, one of Bach’s sacred cantatas (1707-1735) is speculated to have been intended for Faustina Bordoni, an Italian soprano. While women musicians continued to be less frequently featured than their male counterparts, and their presence was often received as controversy, they had started to ensure a seat at the table by the Romantic period.
Throughout the 19th century, Gospel music made up the most important musical development of modern Christian practices. As further explained in our article on women in gospel music, female African-American heritage played a central role in the development of this Christian music genre. As religious musical practices of people of color deviated further from those of white Christians, Christian Rock’n’Roll music began to emerge in the mid-20th century. The growing popularity of Christian-themed Rock 'n 'Roll music in the 1950s was initially dismissed by the church because it was believed to encourage sinfulness. The genre became known as contemporary Christian music as a result of the Jesus movement revival in the later 1960s and early 1970s, it was originally called “Jesus music”. What made Jesus' music big at the beginning was the fact a lot of hippies turned into Jesus people in adulthood. For some of them, Jesus was a trip at the beginning that they remained on for a lifetime. "Jesus music" showcased a lot of parallels to hippie music and was all about love and peace. Later, when "Jesus music" turned into Christian pop music, pop and rock rhythms were mixed with Christian messages.
Among the pioneers of Christian pop music are mainly men, like Larry Norman, the "Father of Christian Rock", Keith Green, or Barry McGuire. Amy Grant is one of the few women of this generation of musicians who were able to celebrate great success. The genre emerged and became prevalent in the 1980s. As a kind of antithesis to traditional church chorales and community songs, this music style has become very popular, especially among Christians of the young and middle generation. The praise and worship songs have in some places displaced the "chorales" and created a new and partly criticized Christian song culture.
Although there are many great women in today's Christian Pop, not a single woman was among the nominees for the 2020 Grammys in the category "Best Contemporary Christian Music Performance/Song". This category has been part of the Grammys since 2012, and over the last eight years, there have been three female winners among the nominees: Mandisa, Hillary Scott, and Lauren Daigle. Lists of past nominees of the category display a clear dominance within the genre of Christian contemporary music.
The female stars of today's Christian contemporary pop are very diverse, in regard to their voices, they have musical roots in the country, like Hillary Scott; feel at home in gospel music, like Mandisa or Natalie Grant, or like Britt Nicole, they like to make pop music.
They are singer-songwriters, they are pastors, they have families, their own labels and couldn't be more diverse in their overall demographic attributes.
A dedicated award for special merits in the Christian music industry is the GMA (Gospel Music Association) Dove Award. Since 1969, many different music styles have been represented here, such as rock, pop, hip-hop, country and urban.
To shine a light on the often underrepresented or unaccredited pioneering women in Christian contemporary pop music, we put together a list of the most impactful female artists of modern times.
Mandisa Lynn Hundley known as Mandisa is an American gospel and contemporary Christian artist. Her career began as a contestant in the fifth season of American Idol, in which she finished in ninth place. She is the fifth American Idol alumna to win a Grammy Award for her album "Overcomer" in the "Best Contemporary Christian Music Album".
Hillary Dawn Scott-Tyrrell is an American singer and songwriter. She is the co-lead singer of "Lady Antebellum", a country music group that was formed in 2006, and is signed to Capitol Nashville. With her family, she released the top 10 album, "Love Remains", in 2016.
Natalie Diane Grant is a singer and songwriter of contemporary Christian music from the United States. She received the Gospel Music Association's Dove Award for Female Vocalist of the Year four consecutive years (2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009), and again in 2012. She has also been nominated for seven Grammy Awards.
Kari Brooke Jobe is an American contemporary Christian music singer and songwriter. Since her first album in 2009, she has received one Grammy Award nomination and nine Dove Award nominations, four of which she won.
Amy Grant is an American singer-songwriter. In the beginning, she was especially successful in the field of Christian pop music and is known as one of the first artists of Contemporary Christian Music to make the leap into the secular or mainstream pop music market.
Brittany Nicole Waddell began singing at the age of three in her home church, Truth Temple of Kannapolis, North Carolina. “I just felt different. I felt like the old me was gone and God had started to show me who I really was and what I was called to do,” she sais about her passion.
ZOEgirl was a very successful Christian pop-rock band from 2000-2006. They sold more than 1 million albums worldwide. The group was started with the three ladies: Alisa Noelle Girard, Chrissy Conway and Kristin Swinford.
Point of Grace
Point of Grace is a group of Christian pop music singers and authors. This all-ladies trio consists of Shelley Breen, Denise Jones, and Leigh Cappillino. The group started out as a quartet in 1991, with original members Breen and Jones, as well as Terry Jones and Heather Payne.