Six Pack: Classic Country Songs for International Women’s Day

International Women's DayToday is International Women’s Day.   Historically speaking, country music has never enjoyed a reputation for being socially progressive.

For the general public, the definitive statement the genre made was “Stand By Your Man.”  That Tammy Wynette classic is often cited as country music’s counterpoint to the women’s liberation movement, although Wynette wrote the thing in fifteen minutes without any agenda in mind. She just needed a song to sing.

I generally consider the classic country era to have ended with the seventies,  preceding the Urban Cowboy and New Traditionalist movements. What follows are some of the best deliberate statements made by country artists during those years in support for women’s rights.  Some were big hits.  Some were not.  But they were all ahead of their time and are still interesting to listen to today.

Each entry is followed by an embedded YouTube video for your listening pleasure.  Share your thoughts on these and other songs we might have missed in the comments!

Roba Stanley Single Life

“Single Life”
Roba Stanley

Single (1925)

Recorded ninety years ago, Roba Stanley made quite the bold statement with “Single Life”, singing, “I am single and no man’s wife, and no man shall control me.” Stanley was among the earliest women to record country music, and with this song, she set the precedent for women to make the case for female independence in country music.

Jean Shepard Two Whoops and a Holler

“Two Whoops and a Holler”
Jean Shepard

Single (1954)

Shepard destroys the double standard that allows men to go out partying without damaging their reputation, but if a woman does the same thing, “she’s lower than a hound.” She even makes a case for all the women to join her in challenging the status quo, noting that “women ought to rule the world ’cause the men ain’t worth a…”

Loretta Lynn Don't Come Home a Drinkin

“Don’t Come Home a-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)”
Loretta Lynn

Don’t Come Home a-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind) (1967)

Decades before the concept of spousal consent became enshrined in law, Loretta Lynn rejected the advances of her intoxicated husband, making the declaration that “liquor and love, they just don’t mix. Leave the bottle or me behind.”

 

Dolly Parton Just Because I'm a Woman

“Just Because I’m a Woman”
Dolly Parton

Just Because I’m a Woman (1968)

Dolly Parton’s first solo single for RCA explores an idea that is almost quaint in today’s day and age, but at one time was a societal expectation that brought shame upon a woman who violated it. On her wedding night, she notes that her husband is not the first. Rather than begging forgiveness, she stands her ground and holds the mirror back up at him: “Yes, I’ve made my mistakes, but listen and understand. My mistakes are no worse than yours just because I’m a woman.”

Jeannie C Riley Things Go Better With Love

“The Rib”
Jeannie C. Riley

Things Go Better With Love (1969)

A feminist statement with Biblical support. Riley shares her pride in doing what she sees as her womanly duties, provided that her husband acknowledges that they are equals. After all, God made Eve not from a “foot bone to be stepped on” or a “shoulder bone to be leaned on,” but rather from a rib bone, “to be side by side. Not lesser than or greater than but just what Heaven planned.”

When I heard it for the first time in the nineties, I laughed at how antiquated it seemed. In 2015, when an elected leader can actually use the same Bible verse to justify women’s lesser status  (because a rib is “a lesser cut of meat”) ,  Riley seems more forward-thinking than ever.

Margo Smith a Woman

“Still a Woman”
Margo Smith

A Woman (1979)

As her husband’s leaving her for a younger woman, Smith takes a stand against ageism while cutting the man down to size, referring to her wrinkles as her “service stripes” and calling him on his own fear of aging being the catalyst for his roaming eye. “You’re afraid of growing old, babe. That’s your thing. So you’re trying to stay young and have a fling.” Her embrace of getting older flips the script on the man who is rejecting her for that very reason.

22 Comments

  1. Nice write-up showing country music has an unjust reputation.

    I expect to see a similar one for International Men’s Day! Equality and all!

  2. Jeez this site has gone off the deep end. Just what we need another site that politicizes everything.

  3. If there is one thing I dislike about this otherwise great site, it is that a lot of it seems to have politics lying just underneath the surface. For instance, Automatic was denounced as being regressive, and Pam Tillis’s degree of feminism was analyzed on the greatest singles of the 90s countdown.I like artists on each side of the political spectrum, and I do not take politics into account unless an artist records an overtly political song.

  4. I’d add Kitty Wells’s “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels”, though I think the case for it requires being placed in the context of being a retort to Hank Thompson’s “Wild Side of Life”. Waylon & Jessi’s medley of the two songs is terrific.

    As for the subject of politics brought up in previous comments, I don’t believe it’s very likely to find truly apolitical art (yes, even the commercial kind), much less criticism. Art is meant to explore our collective experiences and values, whether to affirm and celebrate or to question or even denounce them.

    To wit: the half dozen songs selected for this very blog piece all faced resistance from more than a few listeners (and radio stations) when they were new. We accept them now as part of the genre’s heritage, but they only earned that acceptance after not just country music, but society at large caught up to them.

    A lot of people tend to think that whatever values they hold are the norm for everyone else, and because of this they look right past the political nature of songs that speak to them. It’s only when a song challenges those values that those listeners “detect” politics.

    Take any given song and its politics should be easily enough revealed. Songs about faith in country music by default are about Christianity; other faiths and atheism are excluded. Working class anthems? Military devotionals? Even something as seemingly “general” as drinking songs make the assumption that the listener isn’t a teetotaler.

    And this is how it should be, because songs should reflect life experiences. We don’t all share the same points of view, and that’s okay. But they’re fair game for expression and should be, at the very least, expected if not accepted, by anyone who listens to music or reads criticism of it.

  5. Thanks for this great post, Kevin!

    First of all, I can’t even fathom that a post discussing/advocating empowering female perspectives is being dismissed as political rhetoric. It’s disheartening.

    Second of all, Country Universe hasn’t suddenly gone off the deepp end, since if you look at our archives, the site has always had a social conscience. While this post is excellent and important, it’s certainly not the most “political” article featured here.

    I, for one, am proud to be a part of a site that has a social and even a political conscience.

    Finally, ditto to Travis’ comments.

  6. Travis. I was not denying that some songs are, and indeed should be, political and/or religious. What I was complaining about was the politicization of songs that are not, on their own, political. I did not pick up a political message from Automatic, and it was the reviewer forth this site (I cannot remember who) who needlessly brought politics into the discussion.

  7. All I was asking for was an article for International Men’s Day. What I got was an YouTube video response. Brilliant rebuttal. I am perfectly fine with this article existing. Introducing quality music is very crucial to saving country music, however, it is really too much to ask for the men to have an article highlighting the difficulties of the male experience. Males suffer from various harmful stereotypes too.

    After all, true equality would entail both articles for both genders.

    (Frankly if I had my way neither day would exist. I tire of “days” for everything.)

    Travis, I assume you have the same pitfalls detailed in your paragraphs? Because you were doing a lot of preaching. And I agree with all the sentiments that the women sing about in their songs.

    I fail to see how ask for equal treatment for men equals political rhetoric. That type of judgment should be reserved for the mindless, ALL CAPS statements.

    Ditto to Truth No.2 comments.

  8. CountryKnight,
    What songs would you choose for International Mens’ Day that is in the same spirit of this post? Please tell me how men are constantly marginalized in country music as women are. If anything, the men are stereotyping themselves as beer drinking, daisy duke chasing, truck tailgating goodtimers. It’s not the women who are making those stereotypes.

    “Automatic” certainly has a social commentary bend. That’s the whole point of the song. You may agree with all that it says, but it’s saying something, which, in turn, warrants a review that critiques what it is saying. I’m sure even the writers and the artists singing it intended to make a point with the song.

  9. Ah! Someone spoke of true equality. I think we should have an international men’s day the day after congress passes a law guaranteeing women equal pay for equal work. Guess that’s not going to happen with the current congressional membership.

  10. Ha! Exactly, Bob!

    For the record, I am not at all suggesting that all men perpetuate inequity for women. In fact, I’m fortunate and privellaged to know many thoughtful men (including my husband, the 5 male Country Universe staff with whom I write and many of our readers) who champion women’s rights and understand that we’re not all the way to equality yet.

  11. Travis, I assume you have the same pitfalls detailed in your paragraphs? Because you were doing a lot of preaching. And I agree with all the sentiments that the women sing about in their songs.

    What pitfalls was I supposed to detail, and in which paragraphs?

  12. Bob,
    FYI: there is already an International Men’s Day. Along with Talk Like a Pirate Day.
    I absolutely agree with equal pay. Don’t paint that picture of me. But you cannot argue that true equality agrees with an article for men and women.

    Aren’t some of the biggest album sellers female artists? I would argue (from reading Saving Country Music), that the marginalization of women has only been a recent (and tragic) trend. I wouldn’t be surprised if the trend reserves itself in due time. Saving Country Music makes a passionate case that bro-country is basically dead. However, I would say that many male artists feel obligate to push that image because many female fans enjoy the tailgate warrior stereotype. Luke Bryan’s fan base defends him on the basis of his booty. I’m not arguing that men have faced the same barriers as the ladies, far from it, but country music has treated women far better than the cliché public opinion would imply. (Also, it doesn’t help (women artists) that many current women (and other) listeners of country music support the bro-country crowd, instead of them.) FGL didn’t get popular because of 50 year old men!

    I would never say or make an argument that man are marginalized as woman. It would be fair to say that some women artists are marginalizing women. Miranda Lambert is pushing the rebellious hellfire hellion image. Carrie Underwood jumped aboard the train with “Before He Cheats” and “Somethin’ Bro”. Which was just a female take on bro-country. It is as drastic as the bro-country craze, no merely because of sheer numbers, but if there were more charting female artists, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more of those songs on the charts. Female artists on the whole appear to be rash and wild or sweet and sugar. Male artists can be boiled down to bro-country or old fashioned romantic. Well, maybe just Jackson, Strait and Turner at this point.

    What songs would I pick for such a list? I will admit (I’m man enough to own up to my shortcomings) I don’t have a librarian’s knowledge of country music as Kevin does. But I would suggest “A Boy Named Sue” as a starting song. Men from Adam have dealt with the issue of surviving in a physical world. “Drinkin’ Man” by George Strait deals with the alcoholism of manhood. “You’ve Got To Stand for Something” and “I Wouldn’t Have It Any Other Way” by Aaron Tippin are completely relevant for men in peer pressure situations. “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” “Take This Job and Shove It” “High Maintenance Woman” tells the tale of a blue collar man who has no chance with a model-like woman merely because of his job. “You Ain’t Much Fun” has a man trapped in a marriage that is only fun because of beer. “Shouldn’t Have Been a Cowboy” could be interpreted as a man nostalgic for cowboys because he doesn’t understand what manhood is in the present day. “Sinners Like Me” etc.

    Is my list incomplete? Absolutely. I know I am missing some songs. Do some male artists paint themselves into a corner with those stereotypes? Yes, they do, but regardless they are harmful images for non-partiers for me (and other “Guys Like Me” (pun intended) to combat in the real world.

    My suggestions may not cover exactly the same scenarios as this article, but male and females are different creatures and thus face uncommon situations and direct comparisons may prove hard to find. Do you have any suggestions?

  13. A lot of people tend to think that whatever values they hold are the norm for everyone else, and because of this they look right past the political nature of songs that speak to them. It’s only when a song challenges those values that those listeners “detect” politics.

    And this is how it should be, because songs should reflect life experiences. We don’t all share the same points of view, and that’s okay. But they’re fair game for expression and should be, at the very least, expected if not accepted, by anyone who listens to music or reads criticism of it.

    More the second paragraph than the first. Would you be ok with a well-written song if the singer has lyrics referring to marriage as strictly male-female? Or just any view that you didn’t agree with (Be it, religious, political, sports, etc). And OK, I mean, would you accept the song as a differing point of view and not demean as the singer as “backwards”?

  14. That’s far too ambiguous a hypothetical for me to answer. “Well-written” by what standards? What’s the subject, and what’s the song’s perspective on that subject? What’s the tone (thematic, not aural) of the song? “Well-written” is an accolade, a recognition of thoughtfulness. I’ve yet to encounter any expression of ignorance – of any kind – that I found to be thoughtful.

    I feel as though you’re trying to set some kind of trap for me here in which I’ll expose that I’m only tolerant of views that are the same as mine. I will only say that the more forcefully a song attacks values I hold closely, the more apt I am to reject it – and possibly the artist(s) who produced it. In that, I’m no different from anyone else.

    For instance, you mentioned man/woman marriage as an offhand example subject. Want to write/sing about a man and woman getting or being married (or divorcing, for that matter)? Go for it; the genre has since before Ralph Peer brought his recording equipment to Bristol, TN in 1927. It’s a perfectly legitimate subject for exploration. But if you were to present me with an anthem denouncing marriage equality? Yeah, that’s going to provoke me.

  15. Well, this certainly got interesting overnight!

    @CountryKnight,

    I thought you were being cheeky when you suggested a post about International Men’s Day to show equality, so I replied with a cheeky video.

    Now that I know you were actually being serious, I can tell you straight up that I wouldn’t even know where to begin for an International Men’s Day post. The male point of view is the default in country music and crafting a similar post would be very difficult. Most of the male songs that struggle against privilege in country music have more to do with class than gender, and I’d be more likely to craft a post for Labor Day to cover it.

    Furthermore, I have little patience for when the topic of conversation is specifically about women and the female point of view, the response being, “What about the men?” The amount of coverage male artists get, in addition to awards attention and radio airplay, is vastly disproportionate to their female counterparts. Throwing the word “equality” in there to insist for equal coverage of men, in response to one post about women on International Women’s Day, is ridiculous.

    I don’t see any comments throughout the year when we cover male artists that ask, “What about the women?” Just like when we review male artists, I don’t see comments about how they’re dressed, yet Ashley Monroe’s reviews have had comments about her hemline, as if that has any relevance to the music that she’s making.

    Regarding this site’s political undertones, a couple of points:

    1. Great art holds a mirror up to society and all art is connected in some way to the society that produces it. Some of it preserves the status quo, some pushes against it, and some longs for an earlier version of it. As noted well above, what’s controversial now can end up sounding mainstream a generation later.

    2. A primary reason for the establishment of Country Universe was the backlash against female artists as a whole and the Dixie Chicks in particular. It’s easy to take blogs for granted now, but ten years ago, the only place you could read about country music were on corporate websites like CMT and Billboard, and a handful of independent news sites that joined in on the witch hunt.

    Country Universe was established as a place where female artists would be treated with respect and where what’s considered canonical country music would be wider in scope.

    Now, I don’t even know the political leanings of all of my writers, but I would think that for people everywhere on the political spectrum, it would be offensive for women to be referred to as “a lesser cut of meat.” I would be disgusted by that no matter what party the one who said it was in.

    There’s an obvious connection there to “the Rib”, and it would’ve been disingenuous of me to not explicitly make the connection.

  16. Kevin’s comment is exactly why I was/am proud to join/be a part of Country Universe!!

    Travis,
    Well said!! …And I’m impressed by the Ralph Peer reference too!:)

  17. What about “The Pill”? I’m still astonished that it was even made, let alone that it charted.

  18. I have no problem with the article but why not also include a song like Crystal Gayle’s ‘You Never Gave Up On Me’, which shows a woman appreciating that her man stood beside her when she was failing HIM. Women also go through rough times in a marriage or relationship when they are the ones who mess up or need emotional support from the guy.

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