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Female musicians uniquely feel the impact of a lack of family planning options

For a myriad of reasons, women have traditionally had a hard time working in the music industry. An ever-challenging issue is the balance of parenting life versus creative life. If family planning options are reduced, female voices will be even more rare in music industry spaces.

It was 9:45 p.m., and Nella Thomas was getting ready to go on stage. She was nauseated, tired and nervous. Performing without a single drop of whiskey was new and necessary – but not helpful in trying to shake her nerves.

Nella Thomas poses for a photo while pregnant.
Nella Thomas
Nella Thomas of The June Bugs is expecting her first child this winter.

She was pregnant with her first child, excited to be a new mom and committed to maintaining her music career. “Better soak up these late nights and loud bars while you still can. Next year will take a lot more planning and effort to make it happen,” she thought to herself while she walked on stage.

Thomas is a vocalist for The June Bugs and an independent songwriter. She’s also one of a handful of women who are playing in support of the Iowa Abortion Access Fund.

“We [my husband and I] have been able to put so much of our hearts and music into the world already because of family planning options,” Thomas said. “We chose to be creatives for the first five years of marriage before choosing to have children. We are thankful for that time and for the ability to have a choice in the matter.”

If there weren’t family planning options for women like Thomas, the ability to make music and perform as professionals wouldn’t exist in the same way. There are already a very rare few women who work as music industry professionals. In Iowa, reaching gender parity in the music industry could get even harder as the state's governor works to revive a so-called fetal heartbeat abortion ban, which could ban abortion as early as six weeks into pregnancy.

Women make up small percentage of music industry professionals

According to a new study funded by Spotify, only 21% of artists, songwriters and producers credited on Billboard Hot 100 Year-End Charts since 2012 are women. Women comprised only 12.7% of the songwriters evaluated across all 10 years studied, which is a ratio of 6.8 men to every 1 woman songwriter.

For producers, across a total of 1,522 producing credits in the 10-year sample, 97.2% were men and 2.8% were women. This is a ratio of 35 men to every 1 woman producer. Only 10 producers across the decade-spanning sample were women of color. The ratio of men producers to underrepresented women producers is 148 to 1.

The report also updates last year’s analysis of 10 years of Grammy nominations across five categories. 14.2% of all nominees in the five 2022 categories examined were women. Also in 2022, the percentage of women nominees decreased across four categories, compared to 2021. And in 2021 and eight of the previous 10 years, no women were nominated for Producer of the Year.

“Uplifting women in music is crucial, as it allows women to grow in their careers and opens doors for younger women aspiring to work in this industry,” said Karla Hernandez, the study’s lead author. “This is especially true for women of color, who are often excluded from prestigious institutions and career recognition. We must see women’s work showcased and nominated, giving them space in writing rooms and studios. By actively working toward inclusion, we can bring forth a new wave of talent and creativity.”

Using Iowa and the broader Midwest as an example, a lot of recording and performing female musicians have day jobs, so it seems likely that the low representation is a factor of time, money and child care support.

This fall, Iowa Public Radio and stations across the NPR Network are sharing stories from their communities about abortion access and reproductive rights. Our aim is to give you better insight into the lived reality and implications of these issues for people across the nation. You help Iowa Public Radio continue to tell our region’s stories -- and contribute to the national conversation -- when you make a donation to Iowa Public Radio today.

Patresa Hartman, a Des Moines-based singer/songwriter, says caring for children, financially supporting children and balancing music on the side is a juggling act all about time management. She has been playing with an all-female band for the last five years, and she says she struggles with “mom guilt” all the time when it comes to splitting her attention.

“My son is 10 – not an age that I can just leave him home alone at night for a gig,” she said. “I have to weigh pretty carefully how I spend my time, my money, my energy and my focus.”

Patresa Hartman smiles with her son.
Melissa Stukenholtz
Gorman House Photography
Patresa Hartman smiles with her son. She splits her time between her day job, taking care of him and making music.

She’s a divorcee who only has one child. She says if she had more than one child at home, what she does now would be impossible. She is not a full-time musician. She works as a school psychologist during the day.

“I got divorced when my son was three. I’d been a stay-at-home mom. At first, I thought maybe I would wait tables part-time and try to support us by gigging full-time. But I quickly realized that to make enough to support us with music, I would have to gig non-stop and would therefore be a pretty absent mom. That just wasn’t an option,” Hartman said. “When I get tired and burned out, music is really the only negotiable. I can’t stop being a mom, and I have to keep paying the mortgage and the gas bill, so I can’t quit my day job. That means music gets pulled off the table.”

According to the Des Moines Music Cities Study commissioned by the Des Moines Music Coalition earlier this year, the average income of a music worker or musician in Des Moines is $30,561, and the average income of a female music worker or musician is $22,618 a year. For musicians of color, it's lower still, averaging $17,283.

Hartman says sometimes it's hard to find time to make music. She writes a lot while she’s in the kitchen, while making dinner for herself and her son. “You fit it in where you can.”

The hardest part of being a musical mom isn't booking gigs, it's booking child care

No matter where music gets written, songs get recorded in studios and performed in clubs, and performing is how musicians make most of their money in the digital era. Musicians are then in the group of parents who need late night help or child care outside normal business hours. But standard child care - let alone for special hours - is nearly impossible to find in Iowa, and many women rely on each other or their families to bridge the gap if they're trying to gig or find time to record.

“The hardest part of making my debut solo album was booking child care for 10 hours at a time. I am grateful to have an amazing partner and extensive network of grandmothers and babysitters who always stepped up when I needed the time for songwriting and recording,” said Abbie Sawyer, who released her albumLove is a Flood this year. “To be able to create, I have to be mentally free. That means I have to know and trust that my kids are safe, loved and with an adult who can handle the ebb and flow of caring for tiny humans. Trustworthy, reliable child care is actually a critical component for my ability to create and perform. This allows me to unplug from being 'mom' and dive into other facets of my identity--even if I'm writing a song about being a mom!”

Abbie Sawyer and her family smile at the camera on a hike.
Abbie Sawyer
Abbie Sawyer's new album Love Is A Flood is all about her journey through motherhood. Here she is with her family on vacation.

Take a few minutes and listen to Abbie Sawyer’s new song “Sideways,” released this year as a part of her album Love Is A Flood.

“Looking in the mirror, didn’t recognize that face/ More than tired lines, identity displaced. A wild unfamiliar look in her eyes/ wondering when she could take off the disguise. Knowing what her heart would reply," she sings. The album is all about her journey through motherhood.

“This song is about my experience with postpartum anxiety and depression after the birth of both of my kids, and includes a call to action for all of us to support pregnant and postpartum women,” Sawyer said. “One father in particular told me “Sideways” changed the way he saw and treated his wife--it helped him have more compassion, more understanding, more gentleness. That meant everything to me as an artist, a woman and a mother – that I could use my voice and creativity to reach people in a meaningful way.”

Benefit concert

Who gets to choose how women spend their time, their creative gifts and their passions? There are many moms who are musicians, but there are also many moms who have given up making music because they don’t have time or because their attention is pulled in too many directions to allow them to make creative space for themselves.

Music is constantly in conversation with itself. It's tragic to think about women's voices further disappearing from musical discourse due to national and state-level political and policy choices. A song like “Sideways” easily could have never been written.

“I’ve never had an unplanned pregnancy, and I waited until I was 37 to have a child. In that respect, I’m grateful for birth control pills. On a bigger scale, though, I think it connects back to the socially conditioned idea that when you’re a mom, you don’t belong to yourself anymore – that to do anything other than mom (as a verb), is to be selfish. To debate body autonomy is, in my mind, a debate about who my body belongs to. Does it belong to the government? The church? Which one? Does it belong to my son? My partner? Or does it belong to me?” Hartman asked.

Sara Routh is a mother of one daughter and two bonus children by marriage, the former executive director of Girls Rock DSM! and a long-time performing musician in Iowa. This concert could happen anytime; resources are always needed for a service like the IAAF. But this show happening right before the election is no accident. As she prepares for the concert, she's also thinking about her daughter.

Sara Routh smiles with her daughter.
Sara Routh
Sara Routh smiles with her daughter.

“This is important right now because we want to know – could people really be affected by real-life and true-life experiences? Could we impact someone's vote? This concert is a way for artists to have their voice be heard. Not a lot of times are we given the chance to have a voice about an issue like this," Routh said. "I’m not going to hold a protest sign, but I will tell my story through song. This is a safe space for us to come together and do that. We have all lived the life. We all have our own individual experiences with this, and we’re still here. Also: please vote.”

If you’re pondering these questions or how to vote, the soundtrack for thoughtful contemplation will be performed live on Saturday, Nov. 5 in Des Moines. Get in-person tickets to the donation-based show at, or turn notifications on for the livestream on YouTube. Doors open at 3, and the show starts at 3:30 p.m. Central.

Lindsey Moon is IPR's Senior Digital Producer