The Dragonfly and Raven

The Dragonfly and Raven

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Music and the Women's Liberation Movement

The traditional women's liberation narrative paints the 1960s and 1970s in the United States as a time where women made great gains toward equity. Scholars argue that music from the time reflects this narrative of women making gains. Through lyrical analysis of the top one hundred popular singles from 1969-1971, it becomes clear that within these songs live themes of masculine dominance and violence, feminine submissiveness, the objectification and possession of women, and stalking. The existence of these themes is indicative of a culture that does not view women as equals—a culture that is misogynistic and shows that the traditional women's liberation narrative is not fully realized.
Keywords: women's liberation, stalking, objectification, masculinity, femininity, music

Music and the Women's Liberation Movement

The traditional narrative of women's liberation tells a story of women fighting against chauvinism and misogyny in the 1960s and 1970s, which resulted in considerable gains toward equity. Both contemporary print media and the work of later scholars support this narrative, even though it is a simplistic representation of how society viewed women at the time—insofar as it is limited in its understanding of the time due to its failure to incorporate the entire scope of popular culture into its narrative. Careful examination of the top one hundred popular songs from 1969 to 1971, scholarship on the treatment of gay men in prisons, and the premier music magazine, Rolling Stone, reveals that popular music does not reflect the traditional narrative of women's liberation. It shows instead a culture—at least among those persons who purchased music—accepting of masculine dominance (especially regarding violence), feminine submissiveness, stalking, and the objectification and possession of women.1

A remarkable amount of scholarship exists on the Women's Liberation Movement detailing both the struggles and the gains of the Women's Liberation Movement. Alice Echols, for example, recounts both the methods of resistance and protest used by the movement, as well as its gains.2 Specifically, Echols talks about women earning higher wages, graduating college at higher rates, the advent of the birth control pill, and the decriminalization of abortion in 1973.3 According to Dr. Jo Freeman, these gains resulted from women's work since the suffrage movement and their successful organization and coordination of the small, independent, and scattered feminist groups during the 1950s and 1960s.4 Further, other scholars argue that music was an important avenue for the liberation of women during the time. Judy Kutulas argues that music allowed for the unification of like-minded people who might otherwise be unconnected.5 Further, Kutulas asserts that music of the time serves as an approach to understanding the culture. In particular, she argues that music shows the breakdown of the traditional values and traditions that formed the foundation of sexist thought and actions.6

Popular print media of the 1960s and 1970s also advanced the popular narrative of women's liberation. Rolling Stone magazine reinforced the traditional narrative of liberation in its installments from 1969 to 1971. “These Four Girls Have Got Class,” an article by Michael Sherman, is a short biographical article about an entirely female rock group named Fanny.7 Rock, Sherman wrote, was a male-dominated genre. This made the ability of Fanny to rise in popularity as they did around the time of the publication of the article remarkable, as it was abnormal for women to do so.8 The story that Sherman told of Fanny highlighted a single women's group doing well in rock, even though that was not the norm., thus contributing to a narrative of women's liberation. While this did not explicitly trumpet women's liberation, it did implicitly advance the women's liberation narrative. This type of story suggested to readers that a change was occurring, even if it was not. Rolling Stone published other, similar articles, such as “The World's Greatest Heartbreaker: Tales of Ike & Tina Turner, God Knows How Many Ikettes, and the Closed Circuit TV System.” Written by Ben Fong Torres, the article recounted the rise of Tina Turner.9 Torres went so far as to say that Mick Jagger was the “male Tina Turner.”10 Much like the Sherman article on Fanny, this article about Tina Turner showcased the rise and popularity of a female artist in a genre that was typically male dominated—thus perpetuating a belief that there was social mobility for women, as well as a societal change occurring more broadly.

However, The Rolling Stone also demonstrates through its published articles from 1969 to 1971 that it and its writers were contributing to the sexism in mainstream media of the time by objectifying female artists. In the article “California White Man's Shit Kickin' Blues,” by John Grissim Jr., Grissim discussed a stylistic trend within the country music industry.11 As the title suggests, the article was almost entirely focused on men in the industry. However, on the last page of the article, Grissim talked about country star Judy Lynn.12 In detailing her accomplishments as an artist, such as winning a prize for the Most Promising Country and Western Music Vocalist, Grissim commented on her “tight-fitting super flashy Western clothes.”13 He further stated that she accomplished all of this while “[managing] to keep her figure.”14 Grissim's language and the Rolling Stone's publication of this article shows a prevalent sexism and objectification of female artist within Rolling Stone. This sexism and objectification is further exemplified in 1971, when the Rolling Stone published an article by Robin Green about the Bee Gees. Titled “What the Bee Gees Mean to Me,” the article talked briefly about the history of the group, and their importance to Green.15 Green then proceeded to spend an entire paragraph discussing the wife of a band member—who Green failed to give a name to, instead focusing on describing her appearance, in addition to giving a picture of her.16 The picture of her, which spanned nearly a quarter of the page, as well as this paragraph, were completely unrelated to the rest of the article, and served only as an means to objectify this unnamed woman.17 These articles, along with the previous articles about Tina Turner and Fanny, show that Rolling Stone both perpetuated the traditional narrative of women's liberation during the 1960s and 1970s, while simultaneously reflecting the true, sexist nature of the era.

By looking at the number of female artists on the Billboard Hot 100, it is evident that women were the outliers in popular music at the time of the Women's Liberation Movement. In 1969, women sang eight of the top one hundred songs.18 In 1970, women sang eleven songs.19 In 1971, women sang fifteen songs.20 While initially this appears to be an upward trend, there are several different factors at play. First, of the thirty-four songs sung by women (roughly eleven percent), twenty-one of them were R&B/Soul music.21 R&B/Soul music accounted for roughly twenty-five percent of the top one hundred popular songs of each year. Within the genre, there was a rise in the number of songs performed by women. This occurred in 1971 in part because of the rise of Aretha Franklin and several hits by the band Honey Cone.22 Of the remaining thirteen songs sung by women, only three were rock songs—the rest were pop.23 The lack of women in the top charts suggests that the narrative that Torres and Sherman implicitly advance through their articles was false. This information showed a slight increase in the number of popular songs performed by women from 1969 to 1970, especially in the R&B/Soul genre. However, many of these songs were performed by the same artist or artists, thus there was not an actual rise in the number of women in the top one hundred. Further, while technically there is an increase from women performing eight percent of songs in 1969 to fifteen percent in 1971, that is, in reality, a difference of only nine songs, and thus, shows no significant change.

It is through analysis of popular music contemporary to the Women's Liberation Movement that the lack of nuance of the traditional Women's Liberation narrative in terms of its incorporation of popular music is seen. Widely accepted as the authority in the music industry for top grossing singles, the Billboard Hot 100 served as the means by which songs were chosen for analysis for this essay.24
Published annually, the Hot 100 lists for singles from 1969 to 1971 were selected for the purpose of determining the top one hundred most popular songs of each of the three years, to then be categorized as songs about love, life, work, and those portraying race or violence. Songs that did not fit into any of these categories were put into a miscellaneous category, however, songs could belong to multiple of the aforementioned categories. Songs were then further analyzed for their portrayal of gender dominance and submissiveness, stalking, and the objectification of women and subsequent claims of possession over them.25 Thirty-six (or twelve percent) of the approximately three-hundred songs examined contained one or both of the above themes. Fourteen of the songs were pop songs, ten were rock songs, eleven were R&B/Soul songs, one was an alternative/indie song, one was a country song, and one was a funk song. Together, those add up to thirty-eight songs because several songs belonged to multiple genres. The possession theme was the hardest of the themes to determine, as most popular songs were love songs, and English has few ways to denote a relationships besides the use of possessive pronouns. For the purpose of this analysis, the emphatic use of possessive pronouns, or the use of possessive pronouns beyond simply stating the relationship between the narrator and the person that they are referring to constituted a song portraying the theme of possession of a person.

Objectification and possession of women was commonplace in the popular music from 1969 to 1971. This could be implicit, such as is the case with Jackson 5's “I Want You Back.”26 In this song, the narrator sings to a woman in which he at one point “had to himself,” but that now she is in the arms of another man, he is jealous.27 On its own, this elucidates the treatment of women as objects of desire, and something which men fight over. However, when paired with the line, “but someone picked you from the bunch,” the song demonstrates more concretely that the narrator of the song views this woman as an object.28 Further, it shows that the narrator views women generally as a group of objects to be perused and selected at the whim of men. This song represents the implicit objectification and claims of possession present within popular music from 1969 to 1971. However, objectification could be even more subtle. In fact, it occasionally came across as the opposite—treating women with respect.

Much of the objectification of women in popular music from 1969 to 1971 was implicit, but some was down-right deceptive. Take for example “Treat Her Like A Lady” by the Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose.29 In the song, Eddie Cornelius is lamenting about a question that he keeps getting asked by his friends—that being, how he can “[gets] all the women in the palms of [his] hands.”30 While this is in itself problematic, as it implies that his friends see women as merely objects, Cornelius admonishes them for this behavior, telling them to “treat her [sic] like a lad-ay.”31 The entire tone of the song follows this theme of Cornelius giving his friends advice on courting women, painting Cornelius as a thoughtful and decent person. However, that is merely the surface level of “Treat Her Like A Lady.” Over the course of the song, Cornelius keeps reiterating that if one treats a woman right, “she give into you , ah-hum [sic].” This shows that the narrator sees women as akin animals, and if treated a certain way, they will provide something that men would want. Further, the narrator recommends making “her” feel that she is needed, as “you know a woman (woman) is sentimental [sic].”32 This shows a paternalistic attitude towards women. It suggests that women are irrational and ruled by their emotions, unlike men. This song objectifies women by painting them all as being the same and being similar to animals. It reveals a paternalistic attitude towards women. This is another example of a more implicit objectification of women. However, there are many songs that blatantly objectify and claim possession of women, especially in regards to the idea of feminine subservience.

Assertions of masculine dominance and female submissiveness share a close relationship within songs that openly objectify women and that have male narrators profess claims of possession over them. This is evident in the song “She's a Lady,” which Tom Jones performed and popularized in 1971.33 In this song, Jones refers to the unnamed “her” as something that he “[likes] to flaunt and take to dinner” and that “she always knows her place.”34 Within these few lines, the sexism of the narrator is apparent. Not only is he implying that women have a “place” that is subservient to the narrator—and thus more broadly men—but the narrator clearly talks about her as an object. Jones' dominance is reinforced by his saying that he “can leave her on her own.”35 This last line implies that he trusts her to do what she is supposed to do, and to not act out of place. It also implies that other women are not as submissive as she is, thus further showing his dominance over her, as he is able to choose to leave her alone without fear of her rebelling against him. The narrator equates all of this with being a “lady.”36 This suggests a pre-existing societal understanding of what a “lady” was, and the roles and behaviors that women were “supposed” to exhibit. The display of dominance over the woman is strengthened by his constant, emphatic assertions of her being belonging to him.37 The popularity of this song indicates that there was an acceptance of its message and themes, and thus, an acceptance with masculine dominance, the objectification of the women, and claims of possession made by men over them.

While music routinely portrayed masculine dominance, feminine submissiveness was also asserted by several female artists. Carly Simon's “That's the Way I've Always Heard It Should Be,” serves as a prime example of feminine assertions of submissiveness.38 The song tells the story of a woman and her experience with marriage. Simon begins by recounting harmful relationships that her parents and her friends have—relationships characterized by “tearful nights, and angry dawns” where “they hate themselves for what they are.”39 Then, Simon talks about a man that wants her to move in with him, start a family, and get married.40 She acquiesces, saying that “that's the way I've always heard it should be,” even though she has doubts about the relationship alive, stating:

“You say we can keep our love alive
Babe – all I know is what I see –
The couples cling and claw
And drown in love's debris.”41

Simon further expresses her concern saying, “you say we'll soar like two birds through the clouds, but soon you'll cage me on your shelf.”42 This suggests that she does not want to marry him, but that will marry him because tradition compels her to do so. However, some may think that Simon is being sarcastic and ironic, or that she does not mean what she is saying. This line of thought in proven false by an interview that Simon gave in 2010 about a new album that she released, which contained new renditions of her old songs. In this article, Simon says that the new version of the song reflects her current views on marriage, and that further, “'[when] I first wrote it I thought it was an unusual thing for people to break up, and now all my friends are divorced.'”43 While Simon does not explicitly state that the 1971 version of the song was serious and without irony, Simon does implicitly say this by confirming the truth of her friends being married at the time (also present in the song), and then saying how that then changed.

Feminine submissiveness is further realized through the use of the feminine to emasculate and assert power over men. In Jim Downs' Stand By Me, Downs talks about the seldom-discussed history of gay liberation. Downs describes a gay man who worked in publishing, that was “[forced]
to dance, and then they chained his hands and his feet to a crossbeam and beat him. One of his contemporaries describes him as 'effeminate.'”44 Besides the brutality of the scene, Downs' shows that linking men with the feminine was a way to both hurt them, and then also to showcase the dominance over this man that Downs already established the men had through their assault of the man. This is further seen later in Stand By Me when Downs discusses gay men in prison. In this, Downs paraphrases Stephen Donaldson, an activist who spent much of his time trying to bring attention to the sexual violence that gay men faced in prison. According to Downs, Donaldson said that, “most male victims perceived their rape as an indictment of their [manhood, because] rapists often referred to their male victims by female names and described their body parts using slang associated with female anatomy.”45 This further shows that femininity, at least when associated with men, is impressed on a person to make them submissive, and to make the impressor dominant (which, in both cases, was men asserting their masculinity).

Emasculation as a tool for the assertion of dominance is reflected in popular music from 1969 to 1971. A prime example of this is Johnny Cash's “A Boy Named Sue,” highlights the use of the feminine to emasculate men, and the need for the masculine to assert dominance over other men and women.
46 In the song, Cash sings about a boy who was abandoned by his father, leaving him only the name Sue. This name turns out to be a problem for Sue, as it brings him such shame that he “roams from town to town.”47 Further, the name causes boys and girls alike to laugh at him.48 He responds violently to the boys, but not to the girls.49 This shows that he feels the need to prove his masculinity, and through it, his dominance, to the other boys. This is corroborated during a violent interaction with Sue's father, in which Sue's father says:

“'Son, this world is rough
And if a man's gonna make it, he's gotta be tough
And I knew I wouldn't be there to help ya along
So I give ya that name and I said goodbye
I knew you'd have to get tough or die
And it's the name that helped to make you strong.'"

This verse demonstrates that Sue's father knew that there would be conflict between Sue and other boys, as they would bully and attempt to assert their dominance over him, thus forcing Sue to “get tough” in order to remain in control of his life as a man. This knowledge that Sue's father expresses then helps solidify the feminine as submissive because Sue is only bullied for of his feminine name, because there is no evidence that Sue's masculinity would be in question at all if he had a masculine name, this then demonstrates the use of the feminine as a tool for emasculation and the assertion masculine dominance. The song also, as part of the culture of the era, serves as a tool for the normalization of masculine violence and dominant behaviors.

Men asserted their dominance both over women and other men through violence in response to emasculation due to harboring feeling of sexual inadequacy. Such is the case in Kenny Rogers' “Ruby Don't Take Your Love to Town."
51 In the song, Rogers tells the story of a paralyzed veteran, who is stuck sitting and watching his partner Ruby get dressed up for a romantic evening on the town.52 The man feels inadequate because of his disability, believing that Ruby is leaving him because he is unable to please her with “legs [that] are bent and paralyzed."53 This feeling of inadequacy emasculates the man, as he is unable to live up to the expectation of dominance—both sexual and not—that is present in songs such as “She's A Lady,” causing him to feel the need to respond to the situation much like Sue did in Johnny Cash's song.54 This is apparent in how the song ends, with the man saying that, “if I could move I'd get my gun and put her in the ground."55 In a mix of jealousy and the pain of betrayal, the man expresses his desire to commit the ultimate claim of possession, the ultimate assertion of dominance—the taking of a life. This is the most extreme of the assertions of masculine dominance that I found within the three hundred songs examined.56

Several songs of the era contain underlying themes or a direct representation of stalking. One such song is Lou Christie's, “I'm Gonna Make You Mine.
57 In the song, Christie is singing to a woman, who he clearly feels intimate with, referring to her as “baby."58 However, the language that Christie utilizes for the song tells a different story. In the first lines of the song, Christie says: 

“I'll try every trick in the book
With every step that you take, everywhere you that you look
Just look and you'll find
I'll try to get to your soul, I'll try to get to your mind."

Here, Christie reveals that the woman he is singing to does not know him on the intimate level that is suggested by Christie's later use of the term of endearment “baby.” Further, Christie opens his dialogue to this woman with a promise of deception. He says that he will be following her, and that she will not be able to avoid seeing him—that he will get into her soul and her mind. This does not depict a healthy or normal relationship. Christie promises in the next verse to “never give [her] up” and that he will “make [her his]."60 The chorus has six instances of Christie making this promise.61 This is a clear, emphatic use of a possessive pronoun to express the relationship between Christie and the woman. Further though, the way that he uses the pronoun “mine” is important, as it reduces the woman to be an object. Additionally, Christie's use of tense is telling If Christie used the present (“you are mine”) or past tense (“you were mine”), it would still be an assertion of dominance and possession of this woman, however, it would not have the same stalking implications that come with the use of the future tense of the phrase. He further says that he will “never give up” and that he will be “knockin' night and day at [her] door."62 This shows his intent to follow and interact with the woman directly, which is essentially stalking. Not only is this representative of the culture, but being a part of culture, it acts as part of the normalization process for stalking for people in the United States—especially for children.

A narrative of liberation for women in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s exists within the popular collective consciousness. It exists within the minds of scholars of the time, as can be seen by Jo Freedman, who wrote about how the organizational structure of women's groups at the time allowed for great gains to be made. It exists in the minds of later scholars, such as Alice Echols, who writes about how the era was a time of massive gains—the advent of birth control, the legalization of abortion, and higher wages and graduation rates for women. Some later scholars, such as Judy Kutulas, argue that music at the time is representative of the culture that it comes from, and that the music that existed in the 1960s and 1970s is indicative of a growing turn from tradition—that it is reflective of a culture of change. Popular magazines at the time, such as Rolling Stone, help perpetuate this narrative implicitly through articles heralding the rise of female artists within the rock industry—though women constituted a diminutive part of the industry. However, there is a problem with this narrative, which can be seen by analyzing the popular music produced in the United States from 1969 to 1971. This was the height of the traditional women's liberation narrative. As Kutulas argues, music, and more broadly culture, is representative of the values, traditions, and ideals that the people who produce it hold. Through analysis of the one hundred most popular songs of the three aforementioned years, themes of masculine dominance and feminine submissiveness, stalking and the objectification and possession of women become immediately apparent, with thirty-six or twelve percent of the songs containing one or more of the themes. It was not just music that contributed to this culture of objectification. Rolling Stone also contributed to the objectification of women through many of their articles. Thus, through examination of popular songs from the time and their contemporary media coverage, the traditional narrative of the 1960s and 1970s being a time of liberation for women can be seen as, at least in part, false.
1 For information on contemporary print media supporting traditional women's liberation narrative see, Michael Sherman, “These Four Girls Have Got Class,” Rolling Stone (June 24, 1971): 14, and, Ben Fong Torres, “The World's Greatest Heartbreaker: Tales of Ike & Tina Turner, God Knows How Many Ikettes, and the Closed circuit TV System,” Rolling Stone (October 14, 1971): 37-40. These articles misrepresent the state of women in rock music, portraying Tina Turner and Fanny as representative of women more broadly, instead of as the outliers that they were. Alice Echols, Shaky Grounds: The '60s and Its Aftershocks, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 75-79, 86, provides a clear and concise scholarly summary of the gains made by the women's liberation movement. Jo Freeman, “The Origins of the Women's Liberation Movement,”
American Journal of Sociology 78, no. 4 (1973): 801-802,, provides historical context for the foundation of the women's liberation movement and its organization. Judy Kutulas, “That's the Way I've Always Heard It Should Be': Baby Boomers, 1970s Singer-Songwriters and Romantic Relationships,” The Journal of American History Vol 97, no. 3 (December 2010): 684,, argues for the significance of music in the advancement of the women's liberation movement, and how music was reflective of a growing, inclusive culture. For information on the treatment of gay prisoners, see, Jim Downs, Stand By Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation, (New York, Basic Books, 2016), 163. For information on popular music from 1969-1971 see, Joel Whitburn, Joel Whitburn Presents The Billboard Hot 100 Annual, 7th ed. (Menomonee Falls, WI: Record Research, 2016). John Grissim Jr., “California White Man's Shit Kickin' Blues,” Rolling Stone (June 28, 1969): 12-19, 22-30, and, Robin Green, “That the Bee Gees Mean to Me,” Rolling Stone (April 15, 1971): 20, show contemporary music industry print media objectifying women.
2 Alice Echols, Shaky Grounds: The '60s and Its Aftershocks, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 75-79, 86.
3 Ibid., 78-79, 86.
4 Jo Freeman, “The Origins of the Women's Liberation Movement,”
American Journal of Sociology 78, no. 4 (1973): 801-802,
5 Judy Kutulas, “'That's the Way I've Always Heard It Should Be': Baby Boomers, 1970s Singer-Songwriters and Romantic Relationships,” The Journal of American History Vol 97, no. 3 (December 2010): 684,
6 Ibid.
7 Michael Sherman, “These Four Girls Have Got Class,” Rolling Stone (June 24, 1971): 14.
8 Ibid.
9 Ben Fong Torres, “The World's Greatest Heartbreaker: Tales of Ike & Tina Turner, God Knows How Many Ikettes, and the Closed Circuit TV System,” Rolling Stone (October 14, 1971): 37-40.
10 Ibid., 37.
11 John Grissim Jr., “California White Man's Shit Kickin' Blues,” Rolling Stone (June 28, 1969): 12-19, 22-30.
12 Ibid., 30.
13 Ibid.
14 Ibid.
15 Robin Green, “What the Bee Gees Mean to Me,” Rolling Stone (April 15, 1971): 20.
16 Ibid.
17 Ibid.
18 Joel Whitburn, Joel Whitburn Presents The Billboard Hot 100 Annual, 7th ed. (Menomonee Falls, WI: Record Research, 2016), 223-225.
19Ibid., 241-243.
20Ibid., 257-259.
21Genres for songs were determined by how songs were classified based on their search results on their Wikipedia entries. Often, songs had multiple genres. In particular, many songs were considered to be both rock and pop, especially in 1969. By 1971, rock and pop songs were more distinctly classified. An R&B/Soul genre classification was reserved solely for black musicians, with no white artists examined having been assigned the R&B/Soul genre to their music. This is especially apparent with the song “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” originally performed by Simon and Garfunkel, which was considered folk-rock and pop when they performed it in 1970, but R&B/Soul when Aretha Franklin performed it in 1971. Occasionally, some black musicians had songs that were considered both R&B/Soul and another genre—typically pop.
22Whitburn, The Billboard Hot 100, 257-259.
23 Ibid., 223-225, 241-243, 257-259.
24 Ibid.
25 Ibid.
26 Alphonso Mizell, Berry Gordy Jr., Deke Richards, and Freddie Perren, “'I Want You Back',” accessed May 14, 2017,
27 Ibid.
28 Ibid.
29Eddie Cornelius, “Treat Her Like A Lady,” accessed June 4, 2017,
33 Whitburn, Joel Whitburn Presents The Billboard Hot 100 Annual, 257.
34 “'She's A Lady'” accessed May 14, 2017,
35 Ibid.
36 Ibid.
37 Ibid.
38John Brackman and Carly Simon, “That's The Way I've Always Heard It Should Be,” accessed June 4, 2017,
43Ben Walsh, “Vanity Case: Will Carly Simon reveal the identity of the mystery man in her Seventies hit You're So Vain?” The Independent (March 11, 2010).
44Jim Downs, Stand By Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation, (New York, Basic Books, 2016), 113.
45Ibid., 163.
46Shel Silverstein, “A Boy Named Sue,” accessed June 4, 2017,
51Mel Tillis, “Ruby Don't Take Your Love to Town,” accessed June 4, 2017,
54“She's A Lady,” and, Silverstein, “A Boy Named Sue.”
55Tillis, “Ruby Don't Take Your Love to Town.”
56While “Ruby Don't Take Your Love to Town,” is the most extreme assertion of masculine dominance found within the three hundred songs examined, it is not the most explicit. For that, please see, Silverstein, “A Boy Named Sue.”
57Tony Romeo, “I'm Gonna Make You Mine,” accessed June 4, 2017,


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