The Queen of Feminist Soul

(Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

Aretha Franklin at Radio City Music Hall on April 19, 2017

Aretha Franklin, the greatest of singers, who died Thursday at 76, was indisputably the “queen of soul.” But she also should be acknowledged as a feminist pioneer.

Several popular songs, including Aretha’s “Respect,” can be seen as early anthems of second-wave feminism. Otis Redding first recorded “Respect” in 1965, but Aretha re-interpreted it as a feminist song in 1967. Redding’s version was a plea from a man for respect from his wife for bringing home the money. Aretha’s version was a feminist declaration of independence by a woman who demands (not begs for) respect from her man. Aretha’s version added the chorus that spelled out “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” which punctuated its feminist message.  

A number of Aretha’s other big hits, including “A Natural Woman” (1967), “Chain of Fools” (1967), “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man (1967),” and “Think” (1968),  merged gospel fervor with R&B intensity, and reflected a strong woman’s insistence on being taken seriously. 

Probably the first song to herald second-wave feminism was Leslie Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me,” recorded in 1964, when she was 17 years old. It came one year after Betty Friedan’s manifesto/book, The Feminine Mystique, and several years before the rise of the women’s liberation movement. When it was released, Gore’s song wasn’t viewed as feminist, and it seemed out of character for Gore, who rose to fame singing “It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want to” and “Judy’s Turn to Cry” (both released in 1963). But even in 1964, “You Don’t Own Me” struck a chord with the public, rising to the number two hit that year behind the Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” (Much later, Gore became active in feminism. She said that she knew she was a lesbian at age 20, but didn’t come out until 2004).

Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” was released in 1971 and became a number one hit the following year, eventually selling over one million copies as a single. Reddy performed the song on all the major TV shows and in sold-out concerts around the country. By then, the women’s liberation movement was in full swing. Ms. magazine was founded in 1972. The opening stanza says: “I am woman, hear me roar / In numbers too big to ignore / And I know too much to go back an' pretend / ’Cause I’ve heard it all before / And I’ve been down there on the floor / No one’s ever gonna keep me down again.”

All this paved the way for the women’s (or womyn’s) music movement, led by Holly Near (a Broadway and TV actress who got involved in the anti-war movement before she began writing and singing feminist songs), Meg Christian, Cris Williamson, Margie Adam, Alix Tobkin, Linda Tillery, and Bernice Johnson Reagon of Sweet Honey in the Rock. The movement encompassed women’s music festivals (beginning with the Sacramento Women’s Music Festival in 1973), record companies (starting with Holly Near’s Redwood Records in 1972 and Meg Christian’s Olivia Records in 1973), and feminist/lesbian bookstores where you could purchase these records.

Of all these endeavors, Aretha’s body of work, and “Respect” in particular, are the ones most certain to survive the test of time, due to the sheer brilliance of her inextricably combined performance and persona.

Aretha came of age in, and in time enhanced, a world of movement politics. Her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, was a leading Baptist minister, civil rights activist, and close friend and ally of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Franklin organized the Detroit Walk to Freedom on June 23, 1963, which attracted more than 100,000 participants. It was a dress rehearsal for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom two months later. King delivered an early version of his “I Have A Dream” speech at the Detroit March, when Aretha was 21 and starting her recording career.   

Not surprisingly, Aretha wasn’t afraid to lend her powerful voice to causes and public figures she respected. She sang at the Democratic convention and King’s funeral in 1968, at pre-inauguration concerts for Jimmy Carter in 1977 and Bill Clinton in 1993, and at Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. 

All social movements inject new ideas into mainstream culture through music, art, literature, and drama. Aretha Franklin’s rise to prominence is typically and rightly associated with the upsurge of civil rights activism and black cultural expression. 

But she should also be seen as a part of the incipient feminist movement and consciousness that, though not sufficiently, has changed America.

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