Today marks the 49th anniversary of teen idol Lesley Gore’s American Bandstand performance of “It’s My Party” — a chart-topper with a catchy, melodramatic, but unmistakably girl’s-eye view. Followed by the similarly spirited “Judy’s Turn To Cry,” “She’s A Fool,” “You Don’t Own Me” and “That’s The Way Boys Are,” Gore’s early singles are often considered as proto-feminist in emphasis. “You Don’t Own Me” is a potent statement in itself — an attitude that was to burgeon later in the decade.
Throughout the centuries, women have accented popular song with resistance, resentment, and outright revolt against oppression. The history of popular music reveals that it’s far more than a man’s, man’s world.
While genres like blues allowed a remarkably femme-centric candor, rebellious notes can be perceived throughout numerous eras — and even within the hit parade. It’s true that often these songs frequently concentrated on romantic themes, but their strong female perspectives, assertiveness, and attitudes denote them as feminist forbearers. Here’s a selection of pioneering vocalists’ music dating from the twenties to the mid-sixties to remind us that empowered girls have been with us for longer than pop culture often cares to remember.
Aretha Franklin, “Respect”
Originally written and recorded by soul and R&B legend Otis Redding in 1965, the legendary Aretha Franklin spun Redding’s amorous plea on its head, creating a resounding proto-feminist anthem that persisted through the second and third waves of the movement. ReRe’s powerful and confident declaration about not handing her man something without getting “her propers” continues to empower.
Eartha Kitt, “I Want to Be Evil”
Gutsy, fiery feline Eartha Kitt sang a 1953 gem that declared she was tired of being “prim and proper,” bored with the tender and “unspoiled” ways society painted her. She wanted to express all of her emotions, not just the ones that were “pretty.” Kitt’s “I Want to Be Evil” recalls another proto-feminist tune — the 1920’s favorite “I Want to Be Bad” made popular by Betty Boop inspiration Helen Kane. The song speaks more about sexuality and the flapper lifestyle, but both singers addressed the freedoms women weren’t afforded at the time.
Nancy Sinatra, “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'”
While the feminist movement was taking shape, Nancy Sinatra’s pop hit — written by collaborator and incredible talent, Lee Hazlewood — was stomping through early 1966. The singer wasn’t afraid to give a deadbeat guy his walking papers, proving there were strong, sassy, independent women who refused to hold a torch for unworthy men. Sinatra’s “How Does That Grab You, Darlin’?” was released the same year and shares the popular song’s sentiment (it even sounds familiar).
Wanda Jackson, “Hard Headed Woman”
Sung by Elvis, 1958’s “Hard Headed Woman” was an anti-feminist statement about a woman being a “thorn in the side of man.” Performed by pioneering rocker Wanda Jackson, however, the song took on a theme of empowerment. Her spirited arrangement shatters its message completely.
Mary Martin, “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair”
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s production of the romantic Broadway musical South Pacific finds lead star Nellie Forbush (originally played by Mary Martin in the late 1940s, performed by Mitzi Gaynor in the above video) fed up with French plantation owner and beau Emile de Becque. She wants her friends to know she’s ready to call it quits. They back her up in the chorus when she states she’s “gonna wash that man right out of her hair,” inciting their own annoyance with the male runaround. Even though Nellie goes back and forth about her feelings for Emile, the liberating song stuck with many women permanently.
Kitty Wells, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels”
“It’s a shame that all the blame is on us women,” Kitty Wells sang in her 1952 country hit “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” The song was written in response to the 1952 Hank Thompson smash, “The Wild Side of Life,” with Wells’ more modern message countering that it’s always been a man that “caused many a good girl to go wrong.” The song was so controversial that it was banned, but Wells became the first solo female country artist to hit number one on the billboard charts. Her song was a landmark in the overwhelmingly male-dominated genre, paving the way for more female artists.
Ann Mason, “You Can’t Love Me (In The Midnight Hour)”
This 1965 answer record pointed to Wilson Pickett’s hit song about late night passions, “In the Midnight Hour.” Mason’s version snubs the singer, stating that if that’s the only time she’s on his mind, then he can look elsewhere. “You got to love me in the morning, you got to love me during the day. If you want me during the midnight hours then you just gotta love me my way,” Mason demands, challenging his selfish desires.
Dolly Parton, “Just Because I’m a Woman”
Too many people fixate on Dolly Parton’s big hair and bustline (and apparent BeDazzler fetish), but the title song of her 1968 album Just Because I’m Woman shared a profound message. The country number was written in response to her husband’s judgmental reaction about her previous sexual encounters. She addresses the double standard in a simple, but heartfelt, verse:
“I can see you’re disappointed By the way you look at me And I’m sorry that I’m not The woman you thought I’d be Yes, I’ve made my mistakes But listen and understand My mistakes are no worse than yours Just because I’m a woman”
Ma Rainey, “See See Rider Blues”
Mother of the Blues Ma Rainey first recorded popular hit See See Rider in 1924. It’s been interpreted in various ways, most commonly referring to sexually liberated women. Blues-era songstresses took to music in solidarity about being denied serious outlets to publicly address and protest their subjugation, and declare sexual/romantic and artistic autonomy. Rainey delivers each line with a keenly felt pathos, boldly challenging with verses like this:
“I’m gonna buy me a pistol, just as long as I am tall, Lord, Lord, Lord Shoot my man, and catch a cannonball If he won’t have me, he won’t have no gal at all”
Hattie Burleson, “Bye Bye Baby”
Hattie Burleson’s 1926 song “Bye Bye Baby” reinforces the blues genre’s forthright messages of self-determination and the desire to cultivate significant artistic independence. Some performers actually found it, others just sang about it, but Burleson’s lyrics about moving forward and going after her dreams affirmed its importance for all.