Saturday, January 28, 2006

You don't own me

Lesley Gore

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?

10 Comments:

Blogger -tr0y- said...

i LOVE that song--"you dont own me" is right up there with "bang bang" by nancy sinatra for me!!

1:59 PM  
Anonymous Martyn said...

Great stuff. One of Mojo magazine's '100 Greatest Protest Songs' along with Masters of War, We Shall Overcome, Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud, God Save the Queen, Strange Fruit, and Summertime Blues. (And 93 others, obviously, but still.)

That's a delicious pic of Lesley, too.

I didn't think it was a Barry/Greenwich number, though. Usually credited to John Madara and David White (who wrote At The Hop for Danny And The Juniors). Do you know different? Either way, very good.

3:10 PM  
Blogger Amy said...

You're right, Martyn. I used an unreliable source when I should have checked Allmusic. Have changed the post. Thanks!

3:15 PM  
Blogger The DoorKeeper said...

Ah! I only knew the Dusty Springfield version. Thank You. Did you catch the Jean Shepard post over at Locust St - her 'Two Whoops and a Holler' is a great feminist/protest record for 1953, especially the last verse. Posted two weeks ago, still around today, but probably not for long.

3:45 PM  
Blogger No Frontin' said...

I would happily be a "stay at home dad," even though I graduated from one of those "elite" schools they mentioned in that article and will probably go into law. However, studies have shown that women refuse to marry "down." What's more is that the wealthier or better educated women become, the stronger the tendency to marry "up." Thus the most successful women won't give you the time of day unless you're even more successful than they are, and the laws of economics say (and a whole host of social pressures, sure) that the woman will be the one to stay at home since her opportunity cost of taking care of the kids is lower than that of the husband's. I like that one of the solutions was to marry down, marry older men, or marry artsts -- I just don't see it happening.

"The movement did start out radical. Betty Friedan’s original call to arms compared housework to animal life. In The Feminine Mystique she wrote, '[V]acuuming the living room floor -- with or without makeup -- is not work that takes enough thought or energy to challenge any woman’s full capacity. ...'"

As if any of these wealthy women are actually vacuuming their own floors!

"The 50 percent of census answerers and the 62 percent of Harvard MBAs and the 85 percent of my brides of the Times all think they are “choosing” their gendered lives. They don’t know that feminism, in collusion with traditional society, just passed the gendered family on to them to choose."

Wow, it sounds like the author doesn't think very highly of these extremely intelligent women.

1:36 AM  
Blogger Amy said...

No Frontin: Agreed. The problem isn't so much with women as men. Men can't afford to stay home with children or pursue less-prestigous or less-remunerative careers because it undermines their very identity--society in no way rewards it. For what it's worth, I think you guys have it much worse than us these days.

And also agree the author is condescending towards her subjects. As I suggested, my main objection is her narrow definition of "success." Some of us would simply rather be happy than "successful" ...

Doorkeeper: Thanks for the tip--those are great songs!

9:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Quite the double edged sword. Because women generally marry younger than their spouses they have less time before child bearing to get professional degrees (masters level) or experience in the work force that provides the larger pay men have access to.

The answer is to forgo inflated standards of living for greater gender equality. Don't allow a purely economic less v. more rob talented working women and men from the choices to stay home, work or do both.

That we believe we are making choices independent of the constraints of gender testifies to the hegemony of masculinity and femininity.

6:34 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

just found your site thanks to the Elbows forum and wanted to say hi and that this is an excellent post here.

11:41 PM  
Blogger Amy said...

Anon: I agree that forgoing inflated standards of living would help. We probably don't need most of the stuff we think we do.

Matt: Thanks!

10:23 AM  
Anonymous Christy Webb said...

I just received this website in an e-mail from John Madara. I know he would want you to know that he really appreciates the kind words about his song "You Don't Own Me." It was an empowering message for women in the 60's and still resonates today. By the way, John has a website that I think fans of his music would enjoy. www.thatphillysound.com. Check it out.

Christy

1:36 PM  

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