The impact of feminism – or songs you thought you knew

Sometimes it is hard to credit progress when it happens incrementally over decades. Watching “Mad Men” (whose long anticipated Season 5 is scheduled to begin in March, 2012) provides a jolt of noxious memories from the 1960s – the restrictions on abortion, and the casual sexism which dominated gender relations, to name just two. It provides a useful reminder that between the 1960s and today, there have been several waves of feminism which have profoundly improved modern society. Popular music provides another interesting marker of these changes. Here’s a little story about two songs which indicate the impact of several decades of feminism and the women’s movement.

Start with the great anthem “Respect.” Aretha Franklin made it famous when she released her version in 1967, a 1960’s woman singing to a 1960’s man. “All I’m askin’, is for a little respect when you come home.” Watch “Mad Men,” any episode, any season, and you’ll know why some respect was demanded. Watch Franklin singing this song in 1990, and enjoy one of the great political songs of the 20th century, from one of that century’s greatest voices.

But what will surprise some, is that hers was a cover. The original “Respect” was released two years earlier by Otis Redding, possessor of another of the great voices of the 20th century. His version, the original, ends: “Respect is what I want; Respect is what I need.” As an African American man living in the United States in the 1960s, it should not be surprising that Redding might pen lyrics demanding respect. But listen to all the words of both versions. Franklin’s anthem is about a woman demanding respect from a man in a sexist society. Redding’s original has a whole different angle – it is a man singing to a woman.

Compare the lyrics. Redding sings: “What you want, honey you got it; And what you need, baby you got it.” In Redding’s version, the man is providing for “his” woman, her needs and her wants. And in return: “All I’m askin’ is for a little respect when I come home.” Franklin turns this on its head. The woman sings to the man: “What you want, Baby, I got; What you need, Do you know I got it?” In Franklin’s version, it’s the woman demanding respect from “her” man. “All I’m askin’; Is for a little respect when you come home (just a little bit).” A song which originated in a framework of the patriarchal male-female relations which dominated the 1960s, was transformed into a demand for women’s equality, a demand for respect. It was also a demand which implied agency. “I ain’t lyin’” sings Franklin. If there’s no respect: “When you come home … you might walk in … and find out I’m gone.”[1]

But changes in gender relations do not happen quickly. In 1969 – two years after the release of Franklin’s version of “Respect” – Led Zeppelin’s debut album contained a hugely popular hit song, “Babe I’m gonna leave you,” where the agency is all with the man. “Baby, you know I’m gonna leave you” sings the young Robert Plant. He has itchy feet: “I ain’t jokin’ woman, I got to ramble.” The rock and roll is fantastic, the message, not so much. This iconoclastic band is painting a very conservative image – the ramblin’ youth (male of course) sowing his wild oats; the woman a passing and passive moment in those travels.

But again, this is not the original. Seven years earlier, the radical folk singer Joan Baez released the first recorded version of the song – and its effect is extremely different from the Zeppelin version. First, and most importantly, it’s a woman’s voice. “Babe, the highway is a-callin’; the old highway’s a-calllin’; callin’ me to travel on, … callin’ me to travel on alone.” The lyrics don’t say that this is about a woman leaving a man. There are no gender references in the entire song. But when these words are delivered by Baez’ beautiful voice, the implication is pretty strong that this is about a woman, not a man, moving on. And in fact, the song was written by a woman, Anne Bredon.[2]

Many of us grew up on the Zeppelin version – a hymn to agentic men and passive women. The earlier Baez version, with its very different emphasis, was much less well-known. That is starting to change. A contemporary rock and roll star has definitively put this song into the camp of agentic women. Pink’s 2009 cover is a 21st century challenge to the gender-role stereotypes of the 1960s.

It’s a woman’s voice. It’s a rock and roll voice. And with a powerful band and her own incredible performance, she retains the gendered references from the Zeppelin version, and gives them a same-sex twist. “I ain’t jokin’, woman, I’ve got to ramble;” a woman’s farewell song to her girlfriend. It’s a great performance. And like Franklin’s decades-earlier “Respect,” her version asserts the equality of women in a world still steeped in sexism.

There’s a whole lot more work to get done before we get real equality in this world, a world which now houses seven billion souls. In the 21st century, in Canada, “women working full-time for the full year earned an average of $39,200, or 70.5% as much as comparable men.”[3] Stephen Harper’s now majority Tory government has a “no abortion overseas” policy when it comes to funding development projects.[4] Except in Quebec, childcare remains exorbitantly expensive for the vast majority of parents.[5] In the Global South, there has been a disastrous feminization of poverty, women accounting “for a growing proportion of those people who are considered poor … not only in industrial countries such as the United States, but also in the developing world.”[6]

But listen to these songs, listen to the lyrics – and you’ll realize that the organizing, demonstrating, agitating and movement building of the 1960s, 1970s and into this century have had an impact. We have a foundation from those years of activism on which to construct the gains of this century. So hats off to the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s – and hats off to this generation, occupying everything from Wall Street to Bay Street.

© 2011 Paul Kellogg

[1] There is an unfortunate mistake on lyrics’ web sites, as it concerns “Respect”. Franklin is often credited as saying, “And all I’m askin’ in return, honey; Is to give me my profits” – which doesn’t make any sense. Instead of “profits” it should read “propers.”
[2] Turn me on, Dead Man. “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.” www.turnmeondeadman.net
[3] Canadian Labour Congress. “Women in the Workforce: Still a Long Way from Equality.” Ottawa: 2008, p. 1.
[4] Tonda MacCharles. “Planned Parenthood left in Tory funding limbo.” Toronto Star. Sept. 21, 2011.
[5] For a quick overview of the situation in Quebec – a product of the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s and a magnificent organized women’s movement – see Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care. “Quebec’s Universal Child Care System.”
[6] Mayra Buvinic. “Women in Poverty: A New Global Underclass.” Washington, D.C.: July 1998, p. 3