Last week I got a tweet from someone telling me that they liked my Best Feminist Music Videos of 2013 post, saying they weren’t surprised that there was no country on that list and pointing me to an article on the marginalization of women artists in country. While women country artists these days definitely are marginalized within the genre, the truth is that there was no country on that list because I don’t really listen to much modern country. But I actually do like some of it — I’m partial to the ladies of classic country, myself — and I was reminded how much flack country music gets for being sexist despite there being a long feminist tradition within the genre.
That conversation also reminded me of something else I’ve been thinking about for a while. Despite the fact that basically all genres of pop culture are generally pretty sexist — art is a reflection of our society, after all — some genres get more flack than others. I’m thinking specifically about hip hop and country. At face value you’d think these two genres really have nothing in common, but the parallel that I see here is class. All the criticism that both hip hop and country get for being so super sexist actually seems to be related to a hatred of the cultural products of America’s poor. Both hip hop and country have roots and long traditions in telling stories of struggle, poverty, and resistance. So when I hear someone say “I listen to everything but rap and country,” that just indicates to me that this person isn’t keen on poor folks. What else is there in common?
Country music tells stories, and it is a great vehicle for the stories of women. Below you’ll find some feminist selections. A special shout out to my boo Veda, who is a feminist country expert and helped a ton in putting this list together.
In chronological order:
Kitty Wells – It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels
This song by Kitty Wells is actually a dis track — a response to The Wild Side of Life by Hank Thompson, in which he basically slut-shames a woman for not wanting to settle down with him. In this 1954 response by Kitty, she calls out men’s unfaithfulness in their marriages and the double standard women were (and, let’s be honest, still are) held to. My favorite part of this performance is how much she is obviously feeling the lyrics — she is so angry. The song was hugely popular, and became the first number one country hit for a solo female artist, paving the way for many more female solo country artists to come. Lyrics here.
Jeannie C. Reiley – Harper Valley PTA
This 1968 song is another awesome response to slut-shaming — that of a single mother who gets a letter from the PTA telling her that they think she is setting a bad example for her daughter by wearing her dresses too short and “runnin’ round with men and going wild”. In the song, told from the perspective of the daughter, this badass mama stands up for herself and exposes the hypocrisy of the members of the PTA, making it clear that she’s not one to be messed with. Lyrics here.
Loretta Lynn – The Pill
The coal miner’s daughter is one of my all-time favorite ladies of country, and this is just one of her openly feminist selections. In her ode to the birth control pill, she talks about how relieved she is to have reliable contraception — Loretta married at 16, and had six kids, so this relief was definitely real for her. One of the most poignant moments in the track is when she talks about how “the feeling good comes easy now” — underscoring just how pivotal reliable birth control can be for female sexual pleasure. Turns out that being scared that you might get pregnant AGAIN is a huge boner killer. Despite being banned on many country stations, the song reportedly earned a lot of praise from rural physicians, who told Loretta that it had done more to teach women in isolated areas about contraception than any of their literature. And when I saw her in concert a couple years ago in Texas — despite being in her 80s now she still has pretty killer pipes — she sang this, right in the middle of one of the more public instances of the ongoing controversy about contraceptive coverage in the Affordable Care Act. God, Loretta Lynn is awesome. Lyrics here.
Dolly Parton – 9 to 5
This Dolly jam is the theme song to the wonderfully feminist movie of the same name about women’s experiences with sexism at work (if you haven’t watched it you really, really have to). While listening to this, I like to imagine that Dolly is a secret anti-capitalist (“It’s a rich man’s game, no matter what they call it/and you spend your life puttin’ money in his wallet”) who has just figured out how to make her way in this fucked up system. Dolly tends to be the butt of a ton of jokes and is talked about like she’s a ditz, but I find the nature of these insults to be pretty misogynistic — they’re almost invariably directed at the way she does femininity. Both this song and the film owe their title to 9 to 5, the organization dedicated to bringing about justice for working women. Lyrics here.
Gail Davies ft. Dolly Parton – Unwed Fathers
This song, much like many of the songs already detailed up to this point, talks about an issue just as relevant today as it was when it came out in 1985: the double standard applied to young mothers vs. young fathers. “From an teenage lover to an unwed mother/ kept undercover like some bad dream while unwed fathers, they can’t be bothered/ they run like water through a mountain stream” Lyrics here.
Reba McEntire – Fancy
This one, like so many good country songs, tells a story of struggle and resistance. Originally written and recorded by Bobbie Gentry in 1969, the song tells the story of Fancy, a young woman turned out by her mother when her family was in desperate poverty. It neither glorifies sex work nor shames sex workers — or the hard choices folks have to make in order to survive. This 1990 version by Reba McEntire comes with a video that adds a little to the story. Lyrics here.
Martina McBride – Independence Day
On its very surface, this song might seem like a standard patriotic selection, but listen closely and you’ll notice that this song actually digs deep into domestic violence — the terror of living with a violent partner and feeling unsafe at home, the silence from a community that knows exactly what is happening but would rather save face, and the difficult decision a woman makes to finally free herself from her abuser. A cool fact about this song is that, when Sarah Palin tried to make this her campaign theme song, the woman who wrote it donated the royalties from the campaign cycle to Planned Parenthood in Sarah Palin’s name. Lyrics here.
These are just a few songs — country is actually full of pretty feminist songs, from more traditional artists to folks whose music is inspired and influenced by country. While dudes tend to rule the country airwaves these days with a few exceptions, the truth is that women forged this genre with songs that told their stories and struggles, broke into male-dominated country genres, and have shaped country hugely significant ways.
Do you have any feminist country favorites?
Verónica would love to see Dolly Parton live, but at least she’s been to Dollywood.