The History And Role Of Music In The Evolution Of Feminist Movements

Music, in whatever form and genre, is a powerful medium; one that has the power to bring people together across social and political boundaries. The lyrics, composition, rhythm, dynamics, and instruments used, together create a sensory experience, wherein different emotions and meanings are conveyed. It comes as no surprise that feminist movements across generations have found a powerful medium in music to unite women, non binary individuals, the queer community, and allies for feminist struggles.

The history of feminist movements is fairly a recent one, dating back to 150 odd years. Nonetheless, it encompasses many methods of approaching the concept within the spectrum. Each generation of feminists, owing to the legal and structural environment around them have prioritised and fought for specific freedoms and rights by gaining strength from each other as well as other civil rights movements. 

Broadly, the history of feminist movements is categorised into four waves, and it can be seen that each wave also has corresponding music that aligned with the dominant struggles of the time in terms of theme and lyrics.

First wave: Songs about voting rights

The first wave of feminism predominantly entailed the landmark protests for equal voting rights for women. This movement is also called the Suffragist Movement in America, where the focus was to achieve suffrage for women i.e., the right to vote in elections which lead to the 19th Amendment of the U.S Constitution in the year 1920. The movement gained traction and coincided with the Abolitionist and Racial Justice movements in the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth century America, eventually becoming one of the biggest democratic protests in modern history. 

“We’re clearly soldiers in petticoats, dauntless crusaders for women’s vote”, this lyric from the song Sister Suffragette (Mary Poppins, 1964) pops mind as one recalls the movement and it isn’t too far off. The Suffrage Song Book published by Henry W Roby in 1909; Songs of the Suffragettes, sung by Elizabeth Knight, Folkways Records, 1958; Women’s Suffrage in Sheet Music, a digital collection of sheet music from the movement available at the Library of Congress, are testimonies of how the movement took popular songs of the time such as ‘Yankee Doodle’ and ‘America’ and replaced them with their own lyrics. These songs were sung at rallies, parades, parlours and even in prisons. 

The marches were accompanied with drums and popular soldier tunes of the time giving the sense that women were marching to a war to have their demands accepted. Rally speeches were replaced with songs since the police had prohibited “votes for women” speeches. Moreover, suffragist organisations across the country held song competitions encouraging suffragists to pen music for the movement. 

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Some notable songs are Human Equality, written by social activist William Lloyd Garrison, sung to the tune of ‘A Man’s a Man for a That’ (written by Scottish poet Robert Burns); the song Eliza Jane which highlighted women riding bicycles in bloomers while championing for voting rights; the brass band song Fall in Line written specifically for suffrage marches; and the song The March of the Women composed by Ethel Smyth in 1910, which later became the anthem of the movement in the U.K and the U.S.A. 

Influenced by two books The Second Sex (Simone de Beauvoir, 1949) and Feminine Mystique (Betty Friedan, 1963), the second wave quickly gained momentum and focused on issues such as gender pay gap, marital rape, birth control, beauty standards, clothing, and so on. These topics also found themselves in popular songs of the time charting top spots in the Billboard Music Charts. One such song was You Don’t Own Me by the 17-year-old Lesley Gore, that ranked 2nd on Billboard Hot 100 in February 1963

As the suffragists took over the mainstream with their originals, renditions and parodies, many anti-parties mocked the movement in songs such as Bloomer’s Complaint and Since My Margaret Became a Suffragette, that had misogynistic lyrics. However, suffragists carried on writing more songs for the movement, some under their names while others under aliases. 

The legendary Bessie Smith, an African American singer who popularised blues in the 1920s, used her unique vocal techniques and the soulful sounds of blues to openly sing about love, relationships, liberation, her wants and needs from the society. Black feminist writers Daphne Duval Harrison and Angela Davis note that Bessie Smith’s songs were about the liberated women who are not afraid to speak up about what they wanted, owning their sexuality and bodies. 

Also read: Meet 7 Indian Suffragettes Of The British Suffrage Movement

Second wave: Gender roles, bodily rights, women’s music festivals

During the second wave of feminism which started in the 1960s, the aftermath of the wars in the U.S lead to women losing their jobs to their male counter parts and being forced into domestic life. The frustration of systemic sexism that imposed strict gender roles pushed women to question their social rights and freedoms. 

Influenced by two books The Second Sex (Simone de Beauvoir, 1949) and Feminine Mystique (Betty Friedan, 1963), the second wave quickly gained momentum and focused on issues such as gender pay gap, marital rape, birth control, beauty standards, clothing, and so on. These topics also found themselves in popular songs of the time charting top spots in the Billboard Music Charts. One such song was You Don’t Own Me by the 17-year-old Lesley Gore, that ranked 2nd on Billboard Hot 100 in February 1963.

In the lyrics, she urged women to be independent and to make choices that benefit them. The song soon became an unofficial anthem associated with second-wave feminism. By this time, the frequency of demonstrations and protests had increased and many iconic feminist songs were born including Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots are made for Walkin (1966) and Aretha Franklin’s Respect’(1967). Another unofficial, popular anthem was Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman (1971) which became number one hit, eventually selling over one million copies as a single!  

Other notable titles include Loretta Lynn’s The Pill (1975) which quite literally talked about how birth control pills would help women go back into public life and have fun instead of staying at home and taking care of her baby. While talking about iconic feminist singers, one cannot leave out Dolly Parton who not only is a feminist icon but is also a very important figure to the LGBTQIA+ community for her outspoken, unapologetic, and accepting personality. 

This period also paved way for female artists by the introduction of the first ever women’s music festivals such as the Sacramento Women’s Music Festival in 1973 and the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival in 1976. 

Third wave: Intersectionality, artists of colour

The first two waves of feminism were largely dominated by White upper-class men and women. However, the third wave saw an intersectional aspect to the movement. The focus shifted from just gender to gender, race, class, and sexuality. The movement started in the 1990s, which is also the era of underground punk bands and indie rock bands. Black artists had moved from Blues and Jazz to new genres like Rhythm and Blues and Hip hop. The mainstream was flooded with girl groups such as Spice Girls, Salt-N-Pepa, TLC and Destiny Child, who also had iconic lyrics supporting women’s rights.

Music and concerts became even more important than ever before to push the feminist agenda. Artists such as Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy, Excuse 17, Slant 6, Emily’s Sassy Lime, Huggy Bear, and Skinned Teen were part of an underground feminist punk rock group called the Riot grrrls who held concerts and distributed zines having information about sexual harassment, abortion clinics and activism. 

They wrote the words like “Slut” and “Rape” on their bodies with marker pens to bring attention to the victim shaming that was rampant and how women needed to get past such problematic social attitudes to fight for their rights. Bikini Kill’s iconic song Rebel Girl’ which was recently featured in Amy Poehler’s directorial debut Moxie (2021), promotes the idea of female solidarity and women having women’s back. However, it is important to note that Riot Grrrls remained in the same middle to upper class White demographic and persons of colour and members of the trans community had to find other ways to be included in the popular discourse. 

Rapper Queen Latifah became iconic for the Black feminist community as she became the “First lady of Hip Hop” with her albums All Hail the Queen (1989) and Nature of a Sista (1991). Her hit song, Ladies First, a duet with British rapper Monie Love, became a rap feminist anthem and manifesto. Queen Latifa also won Grammy for her song ‘U.N.I.T.Y.’ in 1995. In her lyrics and interviews she openly talked about catcalling, domestic violence, and misogyny in the industry. 

Asian singers like Awkwafina, Hayley Kiyoko, Chanmina are also challenging various stereotypes in their music. Doja Cat’s ‘Woman’ from her latest album ‘Planet Her’ was among the most played in Tik Tok and Instagram. Another feminist anthem coming up on these social media platforms is ‘I am woman’ by Emmy Meli that goes, “I am woman, I am fearless, I am sexy, I am divine, I’m unbeatable, I’m creative, Honey you can get in line” 

The start of the 2000s saw an influx of Hip Hop into the mainstream pop music. While many songs sexually objectified Black women, there were also hard-hitting hits like Beyonce’s If I were a boy. The lyrics of this song brought attention to how women have to bear the burden of a man’s misbehaviour. 

A person of colour icon who carved a niche for herself is Matangi Arulpragasam, a London based Sri Lankan immigrant who is better known by her stage name ‘M.I.A.’ She was very politically inclined in her music, constantly referencing to her roots and calling out gender roles and stereotypes. She brought indigenous instruments to her music, giving it an experimental edge. Her song Bad Girls (2010) became a feminist anthem and won her an MTV award.  

Fourth wave: Internet, popular culture 

The fourth wave of feminism is the period post 2012 and is described as the age of the internet, also fueled by the #metoo movement. This is by far the most queer-inclusive and world-wide movement thanks to internet communities and social media. The focus is on security from sexual assault, talking about rape culture, addressing survivorship and gender power structures and dismantling beauty and body standards. Emphasis is also given to mental health. 

In the western pop music industry, TIME magazine and Billboard announced 2014 as the year of ‘Pop Feminism’ where female artists such as Beyonce, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, Lorde, Billie Eillish, and many others rose to fame. While Katy Perry’s “I kissed a girl and I liked it” gave visibility to bi-curious, bisexual, and lesbian women, Swift’s songs tackled the emotional pain she went through as a girl seeking love in the male centric world which resonated with a lot of young women.

This year, Taylor Swift has become even more popular among feminists as she is re-releasing her old music under her own label, securing rights to her own intellectual property. Subsequently, she brought attention to how many artists actually don’t own their music in the western music industry. 

There are many new and upcoming artists of colour in the mainstream now, thanks to YouTube, Instagram and Tik Tok that have enabled independent non-studio recordings to reach people. Cardi B and Meghan Thee Stallion have carved themselves an irreplaceable spot in the current Hip Hop culture with the song ‘WAP’ that celebrates the female sexual expression and freedom. 

Asian singers like Awkwafina, Hayley Kiyoko, Chanmina are also challenging various stereotypes in their music. Doja Cat’s ‘Woman’ from her latest album ‘Planet Her’ was among the most played in Tik Tok and Instagram. Another feminist anthem coming up on these social media platforms is ‘I am woman’ by Emmy Meli that goes, “I am woman, I am fearless, I am sexy, I am divine, I’m unbeatable, I’m creative, Honey you can get in line.” 

It is incredible to see big mainstream and small independent artists join in to make new feminist anthems as it ties a full circle to the impact of music from the Suffragist era to the Tik Tok hits today. The idea of music and feminism going hand in hand is a subject with a lot of scope for evolution and influence moving forward. Both music and feminist movements are changing, growing and adding to our relationship with ourselves and each other.

Also read: A Brief Summary Of The First Wave Of Feminism


Featured Image Source: Media Room Hub

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