Women’s suffrage was not won easily and it was not won early. It is astonishing that it is only 100 years ago this month that women finally secured the right to vote—and that was 72 years after the 1848 Women Right’s Convention at Seneca Falls, New York, when the suffrage movement officially launched.
This month’s Music that Matters is sparked by suffrage’s centennial and focuses on women’s rights, feminism, and related issues. But as we issue this edition, we can’t help but note how the long fight to win the vote remains threatened today, through voter suppression, voter intimidation, and blatant efforts to disenfranchise eligible voters. The persistence of the Black and white women suffragettes should inspire us today in our continuing fight to ensure that voting rights are protected and extended. That’s why we chose Election Protection as this year’s JusticeAid grantee-partner. We hope you are already working with us in support of their efforts; the Donate button is at the ready, should you want to do more now.
As always, we give “protest songs” a broad read. We have songs about misogyny, unequal treatment, sexual freedom, basic respect, and multiple other topics. There is so much great music in this space that we have to apologize in advance that we could not include all we’d like: we only highlight 10 songs in the blog (as always), and we didn’t want a playlist that lasted days! We hope you enjoy the music.
Artist: Aretha Franklin (1968)
Songwriter(s): Otis Redding
Aretha’s great song could not be confused with an outright feminist anthem, but with her demand for respect she was saying a lot. And just in case men didn’t get it, she spelled it out for them:
“R-E-S-P-E-C-T—Find out what it means to me!”
On just this one, we’ll forgive that it was written by a man—Otis Redding—because it was written for her. And here is a link to her doing it live—no lip-synching for the Queen of Soul—in 1968
Artist: Loretta Lynn (1975)
Loretta Lynn is a bad-ass to this day. This song was controversial. The record company and radio stations tried to keep it from rotation, but the people, especially women, demanded to hear it over and over. Loretta’s anthem accomplished more than the efforts of medical experts in getting the word out about a woman’s choice to have safe and effective control over her decisions to bear a child, thus reflecting the new freedoms celebrated by the women’s movement of the 1960s and 70s. And Loretta wasn’t shy—she said it was time for women to have some fun:
This old maternity dress I’ve got
Is goin’ in the garbage
The clothes I’m wearin’ from now on
Won’t take up so much yardage
Miniskirts, hot pants and a few little fancy frills
Yeah I’m makin’ up for all those years
Since I’ve got the pill
Loretta recorded and released The Pill in 1975, at the height of her career and in the face of all sorts of resistance and criticism. Other great country songs, especially recent ones, explore women’s issues, and some made it to the playlist. The Huffington Post has this more expansive collection worth checking out.
Can’t Hold Us Down
Artist: Christina Aguilera w/Lil’ Kim
These two superstars took on the issue of misogyny in society, and the music world, in particular. In Can’t Hold Us Down, Aguillera and Lil’ Kim contrast the double sexual standards for men and women, and do it in their usual great style and stunning voices. And, lest there be any mistake about the message, this video gives you the lyrics on scroll.
If you look back in history it’s a common double standard of society
The guy gets all the glory the more he can score
While the girl can do the same yet you call her a whore
Owning one’s own sexuality and not being shamed for it is a recurring theme of more recent songs, and this is but one great example.
Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues
Artist: Ida Cox (1924)
Well before the years of folk, hip hop, and rap, a generation of great women Blues singers were exploring sexual roles, misogyny, and women’s freedom. This song, by Ida Cox, stakes out a position that traditional female sexual roles are limiting and leave women vulnerable. Ida sings that women would be better off free and wild.
You never get nothing by being an angel child
You better change your ways and get real wild
I wanna tell you something, I wouldn’t tell you a lie
Wild women are the only kind that really get by
When you compare Ida with Christina, they were really singing the same song. They keep company with other women artists in expressing their disdain for a double standard that sets women back, holds them in bondage, and subjects them to shame—for doing the same things as men. The great women Blues singers—like Ida Cox, Bessie Smith, and Alberta Hunter—had started to make those points long ago, including their desires for sexuality they could define themselves.
Artist: Connie Lim and Adrianne “AG” Gonzalez (2015)
MILCK is the stage name of a Los Angeles artist, Connie Lim. She wrote Quiet in 2015 with Adrianne “AG” Gonzalez in 2015, but the song became better known when Lim organized a capella performances of it at the 2017 Women’s March in Washington D.C. She organized 26 singers from various choirs around the U.S. into the #ICANTKEEPQUIET chorus to perform the song flash mob-style during the March. Featured here is one of those performances with the singers from the GW Sirens & Capital Blend. (We use the official release in our Playlist). Some have called the song the “unofficial anthem” of the Women’s March.
Meanwhile, here is a lesser-known fact about the Suffragettes. Many city ordinances purported to ban speaking of a woman’s right to vote: local governments tried to silence Suffragette voices. So, the Suffragettes sang their message—putting their words to music.
From the Library of Congress:
On June 15, 1911, The New York Times published a story about suffragists in Los Angeles who were holding a public rally. Police informed the women that “votes for women” speeches were prohibited at the rally; to circumvent the ordinance, the suffragists set those suffrage speeches to music and sang their message instead.
Perhaps nothing speaks to our endeavor to honor the role of music in protest than taking the time to listen to the women who refused to be silenced and sang their truth. In that regard, we’d be remiss if we did not link to March of the Women, composed by Ethel Smyth and Cicely Hamilton, a song that became an unofficial anthem of the Suffragettes. This is a beautiful version by the Glasgow University Chapel Choir.
Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves
Artists: Eurythmics (with Aretha Franklin)
Annie Lennox has always been cool, but never cooler than when she got Aretha to perform this duet with her. The title says it all—women are not waiting around for men to get anything done. It’s a great song with two great singers.
Now this is a song to celebrate
The conscious liberation of the female state!
Mothers, daughters and their daughters too.
Woman to woman
We’re singin’ with you.
The song is now anthemic in its own right but remains completely danceable and fresh many years after its recording.
Artist: Noname, Fatimah Nyeema Warner (2019)
Noname (Fatimah Nyeema Warner) is one of the best rappers out there, though she has spoken of shutting down her musical career. This short song is emblematic of so much: in its focus on personalizing women’s roles, in its look at misogyny in the world of rap, and in its unique wordsmithing. Here Noname explores how women are referred to as “pussy” and then lays this down:
My pussy teaches ninth-grade English
My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism
In conversation with a marginal system in love with Jesus
Y’all really thought a bitch couldn’t rap huh?
It’s safe to say that no one else out there is rapping about colonialism’s conversation with a system wrapped up in religion. Nomame is also a critical voice and spirit in her other guises. In 2019 she formed a unique book club that she described as “a little bit of a fuck you to Amazon, and kind of a fuck you to the FBI.” Noname encourages support of independent bookstores owned by people of color, and earlier this year she created “Library Card Registration Day.” She uses Noname as her identity in music because she refuses to be categorized or limited. We are happy to highlight this great song and related video.
Pass on You
Artist: Lillian Frances (2020)
Of course, great women artists are creating fresh new songs right now on issues of importance to women. Lillian Frances’s Pass on You gets to the heart of a woman’s right to be left the hell alone when she wants to be left alone. She wrote the song in response to being groped by some jerk while traveling in Spain, and she gets to the point:
Did I stutter?
No means no
That’s an order
Sadly, women need to deal with unwanted, forced aggressions (micro and otherwise) far too often, but Lillian shoves them off with style.
You Don’t Own Me
Artist: Leslie Gore
If you have not heard of Lesley Gore, now is the time. She recorded her first hit (It’s My Party) in 1963 with Quincy Jones (yes, that Quincy Jones) when she was a high school junior. She had multiple other hits, including You Don’t Own Me (also produced by Jones), an outright feminist anthem. There is nothing subtle about this one:
And don’t tell me what to do
Oh, don’t tell me what to say
And please, when I go out with you
Don’t put me on display
But there’s more. Gore eventually came out and self-identified as a lesbian. She said she had been out since age 20 in a music world that she described as “homophobic.” Beginning in 2004, she hosted the long-running PBS series, “In the Life,” which focused on LGBTQ issues. Looking at You Don’t Own Me in a rear view mirror, perhaps these lyrics were most urgent to her:
I’m young and I love to be young
I’m free and I love to be free
To live my life the way I want
To say and do whatever I please
Here is Gore singing a passionate version of the song in 1964—two minutes of incandescence.
I Am Woman
Artist: Helen Reddy
Written by: H. Reddy and R. Burton (1971)
It’s impossible to publish a list of 10 songs of note on women’s issues and not include Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman. The song was wildly successful, occasionally controversial, and stoked the national conversation on a woman’s independence and power. And, what seems almost inevitable, her co-writer, a man, tried to take all the credit for its lyrics. For our playlist, we do not use Reddy’s original but instead an outstanding reinterpretation by Betty Wright. However, here is a video of Reddy doing a live version, back in 1971.
Whatever songs you sing today, JusticeAid sings them with you.
That’s it for this month’s Music that Matters. As you listen, think of the Suffragettes and their marching—and realize they were marching during the worst pandemic in American history, just as we march during our current pandemic. Those women (and their male supporters) risked their lives to make their voices heard. They wore masks, just as we do today, in order to preserve their health and the health of others. It took a long time, but they persisted and we listen to these songs in homage to them. March on!