Personifying a country ideal, Loretta Lynn approached sexism through a complicated lens


Loretta Lynn is often credited with saying, “You either have to be first, or great, or different.” In country music history, Lynn was the greatest. As a singer, songwriter, and commercial artist who skillfully shaped her persona as someone who exuded rural, blue-collar authenticity, no one else personified country music better. What makes Lynn exceptional is not that she was the first woman in country music to sing openly about women’s issues, or that she presents herself differently in the context of country music, but that it best illustrates common, even clichéd, definitions of what that means. to be a gender empowered woman.

Loretta Lynn exercised unique agency in shaping her country’s identity. Through a captivating autobiography that became an Oscar-winning film, coal miner’s daughter, which gave listeners all the evidence they wanted to see her as the quintessential authentic country artist who lived the songs she wrote, to the endorsements with Crisco that boosted her bona fide country cooking, she has convinced listeners that no one was more country than her. Although Lynn gave the persona of a naive, upcountry country girl, she was a shrewd businesswoman who managed to convince listeners that she was the same character featured in her songs. That’s not to say that Lynn faked who she was (although that’s at least partially true with discrepancies regarding her age), but that she recognized the value of channeling a story as an artist and expressing frankly its reality and its rebellion through the veneer of a pure and unadulterated country identity.

But as much as Lynn told us how she wanted to be understood, one way she’s interpreted differently from her wishes is in her role as a woman in country music. After Lynn’s death early last week, news reports have often identified her as the model for strong, even progressive, women of the genre. Many stories have focused on the impact of the artist’s most notorious song, “The Pill,” using it to define her as a feminist, albeit a reluctant one. At the announcement of his death Reuters describe the singer as a “leading feminist”, while Vulture reference her “feminist country songs”. These claims are made even as Lynn has made steady progress in distancing herself from the term, as she did in her 1976 book coal miner’s daughter, where she explained, “I’m not a big fan of Women’s Liberation.” The singer’s longstanding support for far-right politicians, infamous segregationist George Wallace (whom she described as a friend in a 1975 interview and even had recorded a radio ad in support of in 1968), to the presidency of Donald Trump, detach her further from the feminist label.

By the time Lynn released “The Pill” in 1975, she had established herself as a compelling songwriter who used candid and often humorous lyrics to document the brutal struggles women faced. ‘Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)’ Is About A Drunk Partner Demanding Sex, ‘Rated ‘X” Describes The Double Standards Women Face In Pursuing Divorce , and “One’s On the Way” depicts the struggles that stay-at-home mothers face to take care of all the caregiving and household chores. While “The Pill” departs from Lynn’s earlier hits by going a step further and celebrating the possibility of women’s sexual autonomy through contraception, it still does not contemplate liberation beyond the domestic confines of the wedding.

Lynn was far from the first or few to record songs documenting the struggles of women in country music. In the 1920s, the Carter family recorded “Single Girl, Married Girl” on the double standard faced by single women. In the early 1940s, one of the country’s most prolific songwriters, Cindy Walker, released “Don’t Talk to Me About Men.” In the 1950s, Jean Shepard was known for her strong lyrical content, nowhere more evident than ‘Two Whoops and a Holler’, released in 1954 (two years after Kitty Wells’ ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels’). , which became the first number one hit for a solo female artist), in which she concludes, “If all the girls stayed by my side, we’d change the world / We’d make men walk on their knees and sleep on the floor.” ”

In the late 1960s, it became extremely common for Lynn and her contemporaries to record songs about sexism, as heard in Norma Jean’s “Heaven Help the Working Girl”, “Just Because I’m a Woman” by Dolly Parton, Jeannie C Riley’s controversial career-defining “Harper Valley PTA”, and Wanda Jackson’s “My Big Iron Skillet”. While virtually every woman in country music at the time rejected the feminist label as Lynn did, Bobbie Gentry was the notable exception who proudly identified as a feminist and called her self-penned hit from 1970, “Fancy”, her “strongest statement for Women’s Lib.”

What separated Lynn from the rest, however, was that she documented women’s issues while leaning into her rural Kentucky roots. While Lynn sang “You’re Lookin’ at Country” and “Coal Miner’s Daughter” in long prairie dresses, peers like Riley or Gentry were seen as sex symbols in miniskirts and hot pants. Lynn not only looked country, she looked the part more than anyone. That she sings of women’s struggles while masterfully projecting the image of an uncorrupted peasant woman makes her all the more compelling as an artist.

Not only is it a common refrain to credit Lynn with feminist ideals, but she is also being defended for voicing the concerns of rural women’s struggles in southern Appalachia. While it’s undeniable that many Lynn listeners found this vocalization powerful, it’s also worth remembering how Lynn fit the stereotype of what a Southern woman meant in the minds of many then and now. . Rather than fall into the trope of identifying all Southern women of this period as monolithically similar to Lynn, or presenting her as the voice of a group that was in truth racially and politically diverse, it is worth keeping Keep in mind that Southern feminists and musicians existed before, during, and after the singer documented things like access to contraception in “The Pill” or the stigma of divorce in “Rated ‘X’.”

According to Jessica Wilkerson, an associate professor of history at West Virginia University, and someone whose work focuses on women in Appalachia, framing and centering Lynn as a leading feminist voice for women in the South clears the work of artists like Hazel Dickens as well as the history of other women’s social activism in the region. Wilkerson documented such numbers in his book To Live Here You Must Fight: How Women Led Appalachia’s Social Justice Movements. In one instance, she recalls a 1975 meeting in Wheelwright, Kentucky (an hour’s drive from Van Lear, where Lynn grew up), where the Appalachian Women’s Rights Organization held an event to celebrate the International Year. of the woman.

As Wilkerson explains, while there is and has been great value in Lynn illuminating women’s struggles, simply highlighting her verbalization of these issues as an example of feminism obscures much of the work at heart of feminist activism. “I think there’s a misunderstanding and maybe a refusal to tackle what feminism really is, and a failure to define it as real politics that is serious and about collective struggle,” says -she.

To suggest that Lynn’s work did not fit a structured definition of feminism is not to claim that her songs had no impact. Among the leading women in country music today, Lynn remains the closest model of how a strong woman is portrayed in the genre, and she is heralded as a trailblazer for female artists in an industry that continues to marginalize women, especially women of color. On hearing news of her death, Carly Pearce, who wrote ‘Dear Miss Loretta’ about the singer, tweeted, “She showed us all how to speak the truth shamelessly. One of the greatest that will ever exist .” Miranda Lambert added similar words of idolatry, saying: “I am heartbroken to learn of Loretta’s passing. She was so kind to me and opened up so many avenues for all of us girls in the country music.”

But as much as Lynn is credited with opening doors for women, there’s little evidence to suggest female artists have it any easier than they did at the singer’s peak half a century ago. . According to Jada Watson, assistant professor of information studies at the University of Ottawa and senior researcher at SongData, when Lynn had her first hit on the Hot Country Songs chart in 1962, 13.7% of hits were recorded by women. Although this number has fluctuated over time, in 2016 women dropped again to just 13%, almost all of whom remained white. Such a low number of women on the national charts indicates a structural sexism (and racism) that remains pervasive in the music industry.

It’s been nearly five decades since “The Pill” was released, and Lynn was at the peak of her country music career. Rather than exalting her in a way she rejected, we should appreciate the agency with which she so impressively shaped a country persona through a combination of her writing, personal mythology, and performance. of this identity. And while this persona doesn’t quite live up to the radical figure she’s often positioned as, Lynn nonetheless suggested that women should be in control of their careers and their image. The fact that she remains defined as the genre’s most iconic feminist figure, however, should raise the question of how country music’s relationship to feminism can be reimagined in light of the little change for women in the genre, and how we can start looking beyond Lynn. standards as a framework for what feminism in country music should look like.

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