You don't own me
You Don't Own Me - Lesley Gore
Then He Kissed Me - The Crystals
There's some talk among women I know (and also, obviously, among social theorists, feminist scholars and journalists of a left-leaning persuasion) about the kinds of choices American women today have. Earlier this week, a friend emailed me this piece from The American Prospect. The author Linda Hirshman asserts--girded by convincing stats--that too few American women are succeeding at the highest levels of business and government. That the best educated are instead "choosing" to raise children and pursue less rigorous, less lucrative career paths. So the real failure of feminism, she says, isn't in the workplace, but in domestic life, where the fundamental inequality of marriage means women settle for changing diapers when they could be issuing federal appeals court rulings.
My friend's reaction to this article almost exactly matches my initial take and is powerfully expressed--so I'm going to quote her.
I take issue with the presupposition that all people clearly want to achieve those positions as a marker of success.. . .There is something missing in a definition of "women's flourishing" if it only looks at seats in the board room or congress. The fact is, both men and women have their own definitions of personal success and I think those should be respected. So her dismissal of "choice" is unfair...And I personally think a bigger part of the challenge-solution equation is not only redefining gender roles for women, but gender roles for men. Would men like to take time off from work or put themselves on a slower career track to raise a family? Perhaps. But it is not socially acceptable.
Her retort, I think, marks a significant generational divide. Welcome to third (fourth? fifth?) generation feminism.
If the issues--agency, autonomy and the awkward power dance between men and women--were fundamentally the same when Lesley Gore sang a startling proto-feminist statement, they were also less complicated:
Just let me be myself
That's all I ask of you
I love to be free to live my life the way I want
to say and do whatever I please
Like most popular female singers of that era, Gore's work was orchestrated by male producers (in this case, Quincy Jones) and she sang words written by others (John Madara and Dave White Tricker). So maybe that undermines the message. But even today the lyrics of "You Don't Own Me," drawled by such a nice girl seem rather bold, even a bit strident. It's amazing, therefore, that the song went to #2 in 1964.
If my peers have benefited from the blunt message of first-wave feminism, it doesn't stop them from being seduced, if only temporarily, by that older romantic fantasy. I've been in groups of highly accomplished young women who cheered and cooed when "Then He Kissed Me" came on an oldies radio station. I count it one of my favorite songs and yes, prefer it to "You Don't Own Me." Sure, there's incalculable magic in a Phil Spector production. But we're talking more than sonic fairy dust; it's also this:
One day he took me home
to meet his mom and his dad
Then he asked me to be his bride
and always be right by his side
I felt so happy I almost cried,
and then he kissed me.
What resonates? Is it just that every girl loves a love story? Or is it the pretty simplicity, the absolutes, rightnesses and wrongnesses, certainties and forevers offered by such a denouement?