Lasses of the mohicans

Vivien Goldman charts the history of Britain’s rebellious female punks.

Call it the ascent of "sassitude": a feisty, self-determined and communal-minded female attitude that first entered pop with the British punkettes in the 1970s. Three decades on, women dominate the US music charts: Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Pink, Ke$ha, Katy Perry, Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj. In the UK, there's Jessie J. The vigour of their dance anthems is matched by their proclamations of independence and their common theme of empowering women and outsiders. Listen to Beyoncé's "Run the World (Girls)", Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" or Katy Perry's "Firework", dedicated not only to women and gay people but to all perceived outsiders. In their gleeful shake-up of settled social attitudes, they echo two enduring UK punkette statements, one from Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex - "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!" - and the other from Ari Up and the Slits - "Typical Girls" (they "buy magazines").

The influence of the UK punkettes reverberates down the decades. Nothing like them had existed in pop before. While Joe (Strummer) and John (Lydon) could build on the legacy of Mick (Jagger) and John (Lennon), there was no prototype for Ari Up, soul of the "Punky Reggae Party" that Bob Marley sang about, glaring, giggling, stomping and wailing against Babylon.

The have-a-go spirit of punk broke down barriers for women, creating pop's first self-determined generation of female artists. Girls who would have sublimated their musical aspirations into bedding artists in the 1960s formed bands in the 1970s. Pop rewards beauty but the standards were far more reductive for girls. You sang what you were told: no girls played. The white pop stereotypes were girl-next-door - Lulu, Sandie Shaw - or long-haired and ethereal, such as Kate Bush. Aspiring girl rockers had Suzi Quatro but she clearly wanted to be one of the boys. When punk sprang up, there was a girly community that hadn't been pre-approved by the rock ladocracy.

Our most commercially successful punkette was Chrissie Hynde. Though her classical vocals, songwriting and beauty would have made her win in any era, her sassitude was real. Like many punkettes, she was drawn to Jamaican ska, dub and reggae - revolutionary music.

The assault was visual as well as musical. UK punkette looks still define rebel-girl style: laddered fishnet tights, neon, animal prints, camouflage, Lurex, biker jackets, tartan mini-kilts and the now-familiar cognitive dissonance of ultra-girly items such as ballet tutus or ball gowns worn with Doc Martens. The sartorial code filtered through to Gucci and Versace and is now available at malls across the US. Today's American divas all wear startling styles, from Gaga's meat dress to Minaj's kinky secretary look, but, at some point, each diva has to rock the UK style to establish her wild-girl cred. Ke$ha recently wore a home-made rubbish-bag dress to an MTV awards show.

Yet our punkettes remain largely unsung, their story overshadowed by the all-boy pantheon of the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Damned, the Jam et al. Most male punks except for the Police (and they didn't count - they were punk poseurs) were making it up as they went along but the girls were scoffed at. Something about their very being seemed to freak men out.

Working on the punk rock weekly Sounds could feel like living on the gender front line. In those pre-PC days, topless girls adorned our gigs guide. When I suggested that we alternate them with shirtless boys, I almost incited a riot. It was explained to me, a woman, that girls didn't buy records or rock weeklies or play music and were thus irrelevant. So what was I? Chopped vinyl? Or an untapped market?

On the 1976 Anarchy tour of the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Slits, the bands were perceived as so threatening that many shows were cancelled. On the road, the Slits were seen as the frightening ones. The tour bus driver kept trying to leave them behind - though, oddly enough, he never forgot Johnny Rotten or the notoriously tardy Clash guitarist Mick Jones.

Still, our punkettes touched the pop charts with X-Ray Spex's "Germ-Free Adolescents" and the Slits' "Typical Girls" (with their reinvention of the Marvin Gaye hit "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" on the B-side). Hynde became a chart regular with her band the Pretenders and sang reggae with UB40.

Pop is fickle by nature but when male bands fizzle out, they can always cheer themselves up by thinking of Rod Stewart. But with not one girl-band role model to be a mentor in ageing disgracefully, the punkettes, when the punk wave rolled out, seemed almost forgotten.

Happily, after some wilderness years, there has been something of a UK punkette renaissance. Viv Albertine is releasing songs such as "Confessions of a Milf", which is as scalding and of the moment as the Slits' "Shoplifting" was 30 years ago. The Slits were nominated for a Grammy in late 2010 for their album Trapped Animal - shortly after Ari Up died of breast cancer. Six months later, Poly Styrene died of the same disease, just as her Generation Indigo album was released in the US.

The loss of two punkette icons so swiftly was a reminder of how rare these birds are. Now, girl ska-punk bands proliferate from Seattle to Sweden. Beyoncé is singing about girls running the world to a reggae-dancehall beat and everybody is listening to her, something that never happened to the Raincoats or the Slits. In the mystical way in which influences jump around and mutate, however, the hyper-professional artist of today wouldn't have happened without our shambolic but loveable "typical girls".

Vivien Goldman is the author of "The Book of Exodus: the Making and Meaning of Bob Marley and the Wailers' Album of the Century" (Aurum Press, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 31 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Young, angry...and right?