Feminist Music By Gina Messina-Dysert


Last week Caroline Kline shared the article “Feminist Films” and discussed the Bechdel Test as a way to identify whether or not a film is feminist.  It left me wondering – can we identify music as feminist in the same way?  Music generally does not offer dialogue between two women.  But there are instances where we find two women singing together about feminist issues like the 80’s classic “Sisters are Doin’ it for Themselves.”   There are also women singing about or to women, like Juliana Hatfield’s “My Sister.” And there is music that acknowledges women’s struggles as women like Ani Difranco’s “I’m No Heroine,” No Doubt’s “I’m Just a Girl,” and Pink’s “Stupid Girls”.    But is this the only way to identify feminist music?  

What about Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know?”  In the early 90’s when this song was released it left women everywhere claiming it as their anthem.  They recognized Morissette’s experience as their own and utilized the song to help release the anger and suffering they experienced as a result of their relationships with men.  Although some claim it does not support a feminist agenda because it focuses on a woman expressing her rage over her lover’s betrayal, I think it affirms Carol Christ’s notion that women need to hear the stories of other women.*

And what about Pink’s “So What?” Although the song certainly mentions a man, it allows women having relationship struggles to recognize their strength and ability to exist beyond what society has dictated as the norm for women.  It supports the idea that women no longer have to crumble when their relationships with men end; rather women can be and are their own persons.

I think there are so many ways we can identify music as feminist and so many examples of feminist songs by strong women.  But can only women produce feminist music?  This question led me back to Rosemary Radford Ruether’s article “What is Feminism?”  According to Ruether, “Feminism is about both women and men. It affirms women’s full humanity, but it is not a putdown of men’s humanity. Rather it is a critique of patriarchy as a system that distorts the humanity of both women and men,” (Par. 5).

This quote allows music to be understood as feminist beyond the limits of the Bechdel Test.  As a feminist theologian, I find great value in the music of the above mentioned women, as well as many other female artist who utilize their talents to explore issues that challenge women and create lyrics that allow women to recognize they are not alone in their experiences.  However, there is also music by men that I find great value in; music that indeed critiques patriarchy and affirms the full humanity of women.

The Dave Matthews Band is known for the social justice message infused its music.  But I would argue you can also categorize its music as feminist because it acknowledges women’s experience and affirms the full humanity of women and men.  For instance, the song Grey Street laments a woman’s suffering in an abusive relationship and acknowledges her theodicy questions and feelings of being abandoned by God.  The song “Sister” celebrates our relationships with women and the song “Cry Freedom” calls for solidarity and demands justice for all women and men.  Although these songs are written and performed by an all male band, they certainly are feminist.

Thinking of Christ’s recognition that women need to hear the stories of other women and Ruether’s definition of feminism as the full humanity of every person, I think we can expand our understanding of music as feminist beyond the Bechdel Test.  When we listen to music, we bring our history and life experience which attracts us to specific artists and songs.  Because of this, women are often attracted to female artists and songs by women.  However, music by men can also share women’s experience and affirm the full humanity of women and thus, must be recognized as feminist.

*See Diving Deep and Surfacing by Carol P. Christ.

Gina Messina-Dysert, Ph.D. is a feminist theologian, ethicist, and activist, and received her Ph.D. in religion at Claremont Graduate University focused in the areas of women’s studies in religion and theology, ethics, and culture.  She is the Visiting Assistant Professor of Theological Ethics at Loyola Marymount University and co-founder and co-director of Feminism and Religion. Gina has authored multiple articles, the forthcoming book Rape Culture and Spiritual Violence, and is a contributor to the Rock and Theology project sponsored by the Liturgical Press. Her research interests are theologically and ethically driven, involve a feminist and interdisciplinary approach, and are influenced by her activist roots and experience working with survivors of rape and domestic violence.  Gina can be followed on Twitter@FemTheologian and her website can be accessed at http://ginamessinadysert.com.

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Categories: Feminism, Music, Social Justice, Women and Community, Women's Agency

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8 replies

  1. I love some of these songs and really, the larger category of feminist art forms (movies, music, etc.) Let’s keep posts like yours and Caroline’s going!

    P.S. Might I suggest another? Alicia Keys’ debut hit – Fallin’. The lyrics contain standard themes of passion and confusion in love, but when bundled with her music video (it’s one set in the context where the object of her love is a black man in prison) subtly raises a critique of a system that statistically imprisons more black men (then men of other races) for similar crimes and shows the social disruption (to families,etc.) that imprisonment causes–thus blending concerns of feminism with racism, etc.

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    • Hi Grace, Thanks so much for your comment! I know, I love talking about feminist art forms. I have to say, I am not familiar with this song by Alicia Keys – I am going to download it from iTunes immediately. I absolutely love hearing what other women (and men) are embracing as feminist art forms, as I am always looking to surround myself with new expressions – so now, I must see Brides of Christ and listen to “Fallin’.” Awesome!

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  2. Back in the day I was mesmerized at concerts by Holly Near, Cris Williamson, and Meg Christiansen. Spillin up and fillin over its an endless waterfall, spillin up and fillin over, over all… Ode to a gym teacher… Bein an old time woman ain’t as bad as it seems… And I don’t forget Jennifer Berizan.

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  3. The Jezebel article “Five Songs: A (Sort Of) Feminist Playlist” by Anna North ventures to guess what feminist music might be in the last paragraph. She concludes, “Probably the best feminist approach to music is to demand that female artists have creative and economic control over their careers — and to add women’s voices to what can often seem like the man’s world of music journalism and criticism.” She wrote it in response to an AV list of “17 well-intended yet misguided feminist anthems,” in which AV includes as “misguided” Pink’s “Stupid Girls” and Eurythmics & Aretha Franklin, “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves.” Also, a womanist student at my university, Claremont Lincoln University, recently expressed to me a sense of being excluded by “white feminist” scholars, so she might feel that the Jezebel article’s mention of Janet Jackson’s “Control and Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor” is more fully inclusive of feminist artists. Jezebel: http://jezebel.com/5493710/five-songs-a-sort-of-feminist-playlist. AV: http://www.avclub.com/articles/a-soundproofed-room-of-ones-own-17-wellintended-ye,39169/

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  4. Hi Jonathan,

    Thanks so much for sharing the article, your thoughts, and critique. I have to tell you the first thing I thought when I was reading Grace’s comment was that I should have included Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor.” This being said, note that the songs I referenced were simply meant to be examples of what the Bechdel test would classify as feminist (Sisters are Doin’ it for Themselves and Stupid Girls), and then examples of songs that do not fall in that category, yet still should be characterized as feminist. In no way are my selections meant to be exhaustive of what could possibly be representative of feminist music. Although, again I want to acknowledge that I should have chosen more diverse examples.

    Also, I get why Pink’s “Stupid Girls” would be critiqued, but I also think she is making such important points in this song. Girls and women today easily fall prey to the culture that demands that women dress a certain way, act a certain way, remain submissive, sexual objects with no depth. As Pink asks, “What happened to wanting to be the first woman president?” Why are so many women giving into the culture rather than challenging it? These are important questions, and although it is problematic to use language like “stupid girls” I think Pink is offering valid critiques.

    Thank you for sharing the article link – a great resource!

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  5. The music I like best is folk, both traditional and contemporary. Some of it is explicitly political and feminist.

    I love Peggy Seeger (well, who wouldn’t) and some of the songs of the Greenham women.

    “The Doffing MIstress” is a traditional song about working women’s solidarity, as is “Bread and Roses”.

    There are some inspiring songs about women’s resistance to abuse, but given the Bechdel test, I think these perhaps are not feminist (Martin Carthy singing “Prince Heathen” comes to mind).

    And yes, Carol, I like your choices too, I was very fond of a couple of Cris Williamson’s songs.

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  6. Hi Gina,
    I like the way you draw attention to the need to always push and challenge how we are defining feminism. Static definitions and narrow confines can be such a trap.

    Training to teach yoga, our teachers talked a lot about he importance of music selection for classes– how we’d better make sure the music we chose was not violating in any way and sent the right kind of messages to our students, who often put themselves in a very vulnerable place when practicing their yoga. This made me think a lot about the kind of music I’ve found uplifting and liberating.

    I’m actually a big fan of electronic music and have used dance with this form of music to work out kinks in the freedom of my body. Some drum and base is meant to mimic the natural rhythms of the Earth. However, I also weighed this music against the culture that sometimes surrounds venues of electronic music.

    Its very interesting to me to think of how so much music can kind of liminally pass into and yet also outside of the feminist impulse, or vice-versa. It is definitely a kind of living thing. ;)

    Thank you for your post!

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