Women’s Erasure in Patriotic Songs by Caroline Kline

Kline, CarolineA couple of weeks ago, I attended my first grader’s school Patriotic Program. At home he had been singing snatches of “Fifty Nifty United States,” “Proud To Be an American,” and “America the Beautiful” for the last few weeks, so I was not surprised by the selection of songs. What did surprise me, when I actually sat down and listened to several verses of these songs, was the extent of the God language present in them (I thought public schools would avoid that a bit more) and the fact that many of these songs featured verses that were overtly androcentric.

Take “Proud to be an American.” The chorus is: “And I’m proud to be an American,/where at least I know I’m free./And I won’t forget the men who died,/who gave that right to me./And I gladly stand up,/next to you and defend her still today./‘ Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land,/God bless the USA.”

Everyone knows that both men and women died in the Revolutionary War, as colonists fought to free their land from British rule. It would have been pretty easy for the teachers to make the lyrics more gender inclusive and change it to, “And I won’t forget the ones who died.”  At the same time, since I’m not a big fan of using female pronouns to refer to objects, it wouldn’t have hurt to get rid of that “her” pronoun, referring to the land, I assume, and use “it” instead.

“America the Beautiful” also stabbed at my heart a bit when I heard these six and seven year olds sing these lines: “America! America!/ God shed his grace on thee/ And crown thy good with brotherhood/ From sea to shining sea!”

I realize that “America the Beautiful” was written in the nineteenth century when the conventions of English favored androcentric language. However, I’m a big believer in using inclusive God language, so having the male pronoun “his” referring to God still stung a little. I have  been bending over backwards to teach my children that God is the combined unit of Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father, a Mormon understanding that does not get a lot of airtime at church or in society at large. If I had been the teacher in charge, I would have changed that line to “God shed God’s grace on thee.”

I also winced when I heard “brotherhood” sung, with no accompanying mention of sisterhood.  I remember being at an interfaith prayer breakfast several years ago. We were all singing “America the Beautiful,” but I repeatedly sang “sisterhood” in place of “brotherhood.”  A woman near me, a stranger, heard me, smiled at me, and started to sing “sisterhood” as well. In that smile I saw a like-minded woman who understood the importance of not erasing women in our nation’s songs and memories.

I’m an inveterate lyrics changer. Almost every Sunday when I go to church, I’m confronted by hymns that routinely erase women. I refuse to take part in my own erasure, so I add the women back in or change it to inclusive language. I probably annoy those around me, or make them think I’m stranger than they already think I am, but this is an important principle for me. Language matters. In our grammar and word choices, we communicate values and we hold up or erase certain humans.

The next time my son has a program at school, I’m going to pay a bit more attention to what he’s singing, have a discussion with him about inclusive word choices, and maybe even kindly ask the teacher if it would be possible to alter some language. If nothing else, it certainly would not hurt to communicate to teachers that parents are concerned about gender inclusivity, and it might spur them to find creative ways to ensure that women are not erased in poems, songs, and language in general.

Caroline is completing her coursework for her Ph.D. in religion with a focus on women’s studies in religion.  Her areas of interest revolve around the intersections of Mormon and feminist theology and the study of contemporary Mormon feminist communities. She is the co-founder of the Mormon feminist blog, The Exponent.

12 thoughts on “Women’s Erasure in Patriotic Songs by Caroline Kline”

  1. Indeed, Caroline, and I get really irritated when Obama speaks of my “fellow” citizens and refers to women as “our” “wives and daughters.”

    Unfortunately from my perspective, changing pronouns is not enough. The idea that Americans are the only free country in the world or that the divinity shed some kind of special as opposed to prevenient grace on “thee” and “me” is at the root of many of America’s wars.

    Yes we need inclusive language, and yes we need to rewrite our “anthems” to reflect the sense that we are a country among countries, that all lands are sacred, and that the love of Goddess plays no favorites among people, between peoples, or between people and other forms of life.

    Good luck to us!


  2. P.S. What is patriotism from a feminist perspective? Now there’s a subject for someone to write a blog on.


  3. Absolutely agree with Carol. We all need to entirely rethink exactly what we mean by ‘patriotism’, itself a 19th C idea wedded to warfare and the nation state. Apart from which, the notion of ‘freedom’ must, to say the very least, have had a deeply ironic understanding by both the indigenous and forcibly imported peoples of the Americas at the time these songs were written.


  4. As a pagan and a spiritual feminist, I have fun rewriting the lyrics of Christmas carols (“Joy to the world, the Light is born”) and the good ol’ metaphysical songs (“Let there be peace on earth….With Goddess our Mother, children all are we, let me live with my kinfolk in perfect harmony”). What would Irving Berlin do if we started singing, “Goddess bless America”? Yes, let’s hear more about patriotism from a feminist perspective.


  5. In my Presbyterian church, St. Luke, Minnetonka, MN, we use only inclusive language. Whether it’s the sermon, hymns, readings, choir anthems, it has been changed. I have noticed that when language is made inclusive….it has much more meaning and depth.
    In America the Beautiful…I’ve changed it since the 70s to “God shed your grace on thee”, and “crown thy good with all that’s good, from sea to shining sea”.
    How about changing “kingdom” to “kindom”? I takes creative thinking to change wording, but it makes a difference.


  6. I really dislike that “Proud to be an American” song for the reasons you mention and always change the station if it comes on the radio. Also agree with Carol that patriotism itself can be problematic.


  7. I attended a weekend conference for inter-faith work a few years ago. At one meeting we broke up into smaller groups to discuss topics with fewer numbers – I proposed the idea of the importance of creating a better vocabulary in hopes of not building walls between us by clinging to our own terminology. My idea was vetoed by every person in this splinter group as being something totally unnecessary – after all everyone knows what we mean by God…..


  8. When my son was in Elementary school they had concerts every Friday morning. Sort of a tiny pep rally. Has anyone heard the entire song My Country tis of thee? When they started singing about Christ our King I asked for a meeting with the principal. I was thankfully not alone. Christianity is so pervasive in our culture I think these things happen without any thought. I always speak up when I see this in public schools. I wish there had been fewer instances where speaking up was needed.


  9. July 4 is coming up. Howard Zinn in A People’s History of the United States asks: would it have been so bad to have been Canadians? In Long Island “a not inconsiderable Quaker element was [at the time of the Revolutionary War] on principle opposed to war, as itself a greater evil than any it might seek to right.” (Bockee Flint, 340) The Hempstead Colony which had many Quakers refused to join the American Revolution and was violently punished by the revolutionary army. In her book Early Long Island Martha Bockee Flint asks concerning the Hempstead Resolutions that petitioned for a peaceful resolution of the conflict: “Could ‘honest men’ and good citizens do any less than here resolved? Yet these Resolutions branded all concerned therewith as “Tories,” the synonym of traitor.” (501) Still today one might be branded un-American for even asking these questions.


  10. Great points, Carol. I agree that removing traces of American exceptionalism from patriotic songs is key. I love the United Church of Christ hymnal. They have a selection of reworded patriotic songs that emphasizes God’s love for all people in all lands.

    Barbara, I would love to see your lyrics for Christmas songs sometime! Make that a blog post as we get nearer to winter. :)

    Ginny Jones, great ideas. I really like ‘kindom’ rather than ‘kingdom”

    Deanne, how depressing that the inter-faith people didn’t see the need for altered language.

    Paleopagan, did the school change its program after you complained? It would be interesting to know how receptive teachers and principals are to these kinds of suggestions.


  11. This is the original version of America the Beautiful. I like this one better especially the verse:

    America! America!

    God shed His grace on thee

    Till selfish gain no longer stain,

    The banner of the free!

    I bet she and her partner of 25 years, Katherine Coman, would be amazed at the changes since they were around. I hope they would see an America where they didn’t have to hide.

    Original poem (1893) Katherine Lee Bates

    America. A Poem for July 4.

    O beautiful for halcyon skies,

    For amber waves of grain,

    For purple mountain majesties

    Above the enameled plain!

    America! America!

    God shed His grace on thee,

    Till souls wax fair as earth and air

    And music-hearted sea!

    O beautiful for pilgrim feet

    Whose stern, impassioned stress

    A thoroughfare for freedom beat

    Across the wilderness!

    America! America!

    God shed His grace on thee

    Till paths be wrought through wilds of thought

    By pilgrim foot and knee!

    O beautiful for glory-tale

    Of liberating strife,

    When once or twice, for man’s avail,

    Men lavished precious life!

    America! America!

    God shed His grace on thee

    Till selfish gain no longer stain,

    The banner of the free!

    O beautiful for patriot dream

    That sees beyond the years

    Thine alabaster cities gleam

    Undimmed by human tears!

    America! America!

    God shed His grace on thee

    Till nobler men keep once again

    Thy whiter jubilee!


  12. I love to rewrite lyrics too and have been doing it for years. During a collaborative project the group decided we would work with the “America the Beautiful” lyrics. I was having trouble with those lyrics, so rewrote them: “America / America / The Goddess smiles on thee / and bids thee grace / the human race / from sea to shining sea.”


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