A Feminist Guide to Country Music

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Country music doesn’t have much of a reputation for sticking its neck out on the gender-equality front. The genre is better known for the sentiments expressed in Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” than for asserting women’s rights. But there are plenty of rock-em sock-em female country artists out there, and plenty of anthems about women fighting back — or just plain fighting — in the country oeuvre. Some, like Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill,” face political issues head on, while others, ranging as far back as the folk tune “Wish I Was A Single Girl Again,” question the value of being hitched up to a man at all. In honor of the one and only Dolly Parton, whose 66th birthday it is today, we present a feminist’s introduction to country songs, after the jump.

Dolly Parton — “Just Because I’m a Woman”

“Just Because I’m a Woman” may be the best country answer to slut-shaming on the books. It was apparently Dolly’s response to a conversation she had with her husband about how many lovers they’d had in the past. It’s a pretty simple message, but a powerful one: “My mistakes are no worse than yours, just because I’m a woman.”

Loretta Lynn — “The Pill”

On the country woman badass scale, Loretta Lynn surely earns a place at the top. Lynn was a mother four times over before she had turned 19, taught herself guitar, and began belting out anthems about working class women’s lives. She often sang about birth control and the constant mill of pregnancies that kept women like herself in the home in songs like “One’s on the Way,” but her most famous and controversial song is “The Pill.” Its celebration of birth control got Lynn banned from several country stations, and her label delayed its release by three years. It remains one of the only country singles to directly address reproductive rights, and one of the songs that’s sure to turn up in any biopic of Margaret Sanger. (See also: “We’ve Come A Long Way, Baby” with the immortal lyric “Second class don’t turn me on at all.”)

Wanda Jackson — “My Big Iron Skillet”

Rockabilly pioneer Wanda Jackson was the first woman to break out on her own in the early rock ‘n’ roll days, singing alongside Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Most of her songs have an edge to them (see: “Fujiyama Mama”), but “My Big Iron Skillet” is about a woman fed up with her husband’s philandering and mistreatment of her. Not that we condone beating your spouse with a skillet, obviously, but it shows a woman standing up for herself, and that’s a thing we can support.

The Carter Family — “Single Girl, Married Girl”

The Carter Family — Sara, Maybelle, and AP, in their first iteration — probably weren’t the first to sing this folk standard, but it echoes the roots of feminism in country and folk music. “Single Girl, Married Girl” is a cautionary tale urging women to savor their independence. The single girl gets to flit about wearing nice clothes while the married girl “rocks the cradle and cries.” Not the best.

Martina McBride — “Independence Day”

Martina McBride wrote this song in celebration of a woman who breaks out of an abusive relationship, standing her ground and heading out to “let freedom ring.” Awesomely, the women who wrote the song, Gretchen Peters, protested Sarah Palin’s use of “Independence Day” in her 2008 campaign by donating all of the royalties to Planned Parenthood in Palin’s name.

Kitty Wells — “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels”

“It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels” was written in response to Hank Thompson’s 1952 hit, “The Wild Side of Life,” in which he complains that his woman has left him to go carouse and flirt in the honky-tonks. “Honky-Tonk Angels” sets the record straight: “It’s a shame that the blame is on us women/It’s not true that only you men feel the same/From the start most every heart that’s been broken/was because there always was a man to blame.”

Patsy Montana — “I Wanna Be Cowboy’s Sweetheart”

The title doesn’t exactly make Patsy Montana seem like a feminist hero, but Montana was, at least, one of the pioneering proto-feminists of the genre. In the 1930s, Montana became the first breakout woman country star, and her ode to being a cowboy wife is really all about wanting to be a cowboy — roping things on the plain and riding horses right along with the men.

Hazel Dickens — “Don’t Put Her Down (You Helped Put Her There)”

Hazel Dickens was a feminist bluegrass pioneer, devoting much of her life to working for the cause of labor, marching on picket lines, and singing about unions. “Don’t Put Her Down (You Put Her There)” is another rebuke to the idea of loose women populating the honky-tonks and abandoning their men:

“To build her up in a world made by men At the house down the way, you sneak and you pay For the love, her body, her shame Then you call yourself a man, you say you just don’t understand How a woman could turn out that way”

Jeannie C. Riley — “Harper Valley P.T.A.”

If you want a good country-pop anthem about sticking it to the powers that be, you’ll hardly do better than Jeannie C. Riley’s relentlessly catchy and witty “Harper Valley P.T.A.” The story goes like this: teenage girl gets note from teacher informing her mother that she dresses too scandalously, mom goes into PTA meeting and causes a ruckus by tearing down every one of the members there for their double standards.

Neko Case — “Pretty Girls”

Neko Case once tweeted that her personal/feminist motto was, “I’m not a woman or man, I’m a two-fisted-son-of-a-bitch who will punch your lights out and I love you.” Pretty much. She wrote “Pretty Girls” about women waiting to get abortions in the Planned Parenthood clinic, resisting the judgement they’re getting from the outside: “Don’t let the wolves in, pretty girls.”