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

That Loretta Lynn sang about women's struggles while masterfully projecting the image of an uncorrupted country girl made her all the more convincing as an artist.
Star Tribune via Getty Images
That Loretta Lynn sang about women's struggles while masterfully projecting the image of an uncorrupted country girl made her all the more convincing as an artist.

Loretta Lynn is often credited with saying: "You either have to be first, great or different." In the history of country music, Lynn was the greatest. As a singer, songwriter and commercial artist who savvily crafted her persona as someone who exuded a rural, blue-collar authenticity, no one else has better personified country music. What made Lynn exceptional was not how she was the first woman in country music to sing outspoken material about women's issues, or that she presented herself differently in the context of country music, but that she best exemplified common, even clichéd definitions of what it means to be an empowered woman in the genre.

Lynn wielded unique agency in crafting her country identity. Through a compelling autobiography-turned-Oscar-winning film, Coal Miner's Daughter, that gave listeners all the evidence they wanted to view her as the quintessential authentic country artist who lived the songs she wrote, to endorsements with Crisco that boosted her country cooking bona fides, she persuaded listeners no one was more country than her. Though Lynn gave the persona of a naïve, backwoods country girl, she was a savvy businesswoman who successfully convinced listeners she was the same character presented in her songs. This is not to suggest Lynn faked who she was (although this is at least partially true with discrepancies regarding her age), but that she recognized the value of channeling a backstory as an artist and candidly voicing her reality and rebelliousness through the veneer of a pure, unadulterated country identity.

But for as much as Lynn told us how she wanted to be understood, one way she is interpreted differently from her wishes is when it comes to her role as a woman in country music. After Lynn died earlier last week, reports often identified her as the template for strong, even progressive, women in the genre. Many stories have fixated on the impact of the artist's most notorious song, "The Pill," using it to define her as a feminist, albeit a reluctant one. Upon news of her death Reuters described the singer as a "leading feminist," while Vulture referenced her "feminist country songs." These assertions are being made even as Lynn made continuous strides to distance 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 long-established support for far-right politicians, from the infamous segregationist George Wallace (whom she described as a friend in one interview in 1975 and had even recorded a radio ad in support of in 1968), to the presidency of Donald Trump, further detach her from the feminist label.

By the time Lynn released "The Pill" in 1975, she had established herself as a compelling songwriter who used frank and often humorous lyrics to document brutal struggles women faced. "Don't Come Home A-Drinkin' (With Lovin' On Your Mind)" is about dealing with a drunk partner demanding sex, "Rated 'X' " describes the double standards women experience in pursuing divorce, and "One's On the Way" portrays the difficulties facing mothers left at home to do all the caretaking and household work. Though "The Pill" separates itself from Lynn's previous hits by going a bit further and celebrating the possibility of women's sexual autonomy thanks to contraception, it still fails to imagine liberation beyond the domestic confines of marriage.

Lynn was far from the first or few to record songs documenting women's struggles in country music. In the 1920s, the Carter Family recorded "Single Girl, Married Girl" about the double standards unmarried women face. In the early 1940s one of 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 following Kitty Wells' "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," which became the first No. 1 hit for a solo female artist), wherein she concludes: "If all the gals would stick by me we'd change the world around / We'd make the men walk on their knees and sleep out on the ground."

By the late 1960s, it became strikingly common for Lynn and her contemporaries to record songs about sexism, as heard in the likes of Norma Jean's "Heaven Help the Working Girl," Dolly Parton's "Just Because I'm a Woman," Jeannie C. Riley's controversial, career-defining "Harper Valley PTA," and Wanda Jackson's "My Big Iron Skillet." While virtually all women 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 1970 hit, "Fancy," her "strongest statement for Women's Lib."

What separated Lynn from others, however, was that she documented women's troubles while leaning in to her rural Kentucky roots. As 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 didn't just sound like country, she looked the part more than anyone. That she sang about women's struggles while masterfully projecting the image of an uncorrupted country girl made her all the more convincing as an artist.

Not only is it a common refrain to credit Lynn with feminist ideals, but she is also championed for voicing the concerns of rural, Appalachian Southern women's struggles. While there is no denying many of Lynn's listeners found this vocalization powerful, one should also remember how Lynn fit the stereotype of what a Southern woman signified in the minds of many both then and now. Rather than fall into the trope of identifying all Southern women of this period as monolithically similar to Lynn, or to frame her as the voice for a group that was in truth racially and politically diverse, it is worthwhile to bear in mind that self-identified 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, associate professor of history at West Virginia University and someone whose work focuses on Appalachian women, framing and centering Lynn as a leading feminist voice for Southern women erases the work of artists like Hazel Dickens as well as a history of other women's social activism in the region. Wilkerson has documented such figures in her book To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice. In one instance, she discusses a meeting in 1975 in Wheelwright, Ky. (an hour's drive from Van Lear, where Lynn was raised), where the Appalachian Women's Rights Organization put together an event to celebrate International Women's Year.

As Wilkerson explains, while there is and was much value in Lynn bringing light to women's struggles, to simply point to her verbalization of these issues as an example of feminism obscures much of the labor at the heart of feminist activism. "I think there's a misunderstanding and maybe a refusal to grapple with what feminism actually is, and a failure to define it as an actual politics that is serious and is about collective struggle," she says.

To suggest Lynn's work did not fit a structured definition of feminism is not to claim her songs had no impact. Among prominent women in country music today, Lynn remains the closest template for how a strong woman is portrayed in the genre, and she is heralded as a pathbreaker for female artists in an industry that continues to marginalize women, and especially women of color. Upon news of her death, Carly Pearce, who wrote "Dear Miss Loretta" about the singer, tweeted: "She showed us all how to unapologetically tell the truth. One of the greatest there ever will be." Miranda Lambert added similar words of idolization, saying, "I'm so heartbroken to hear about Loretta's passing. She was so kind to me and she blazed so many trails for all of us girls in country music."

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

It has been nearly five decades since "The Pill" was released and Lynn was at the height of her country music career. Rather than extol her in ways she rejected, we should appreciate the agency with which she so impressively crafted a country persona through a combination of her songwriting, personal mythology and performance of this identity. And while this character didn't quite live up to the radical figure she is often positioned as, Lynn nevertheless suggested that women should have control over their careers and image. That she remains defined as the genre's most iconic feminist figure, however, should lead one to question how country music's relationship to feminism can be reimagined in light of how little has changed for women in the genre, and how we can begin to look beyond Lynn's standards as a framework for what feminism should look like in country music.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Amanda Marie Martinez