Music and Feminism – Do We Need Some New Anthems?

I used to fool myself that I would work on airplanes. What a great pocket of time to get things done, right? And I see lots of passengers with spread sheets, word documents, or (now) email open – these folks are clearly being productive.

I don’t think this anymore. Instead, I accept that for me a flight is a liminal space with time and place suspended. I allow myself to feel okay about listening to music and letting my mind drift. And sometimes my mind drifts to interesting ideas and I even feel like I’ve accomplished something by the end of the flight.

So that’s where I was a few days ago on a flight between Seattle and Phoenix. Ear buds in, playlist on shuffle. And my mind swirling around with thoughts of recent and upcoming writing about the role of feminism in women’s lives over the last half century. The music and thoughts merged on the question of how music has – and has not – driven feminism over the years. I’m no expert on such issues, but here is where my thoughts took me by the time I landed at Sky Harbor airport.

There were many anti-war movement songs in the 1960s and 1970s. Fortunate Son, Ohio, Eve of Destruction, Give Peace a Chance – heck, even Billy Don’t be a Hero. But if you’re looking for an anthem for the women’s liberation movement, there’s only one option – Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman. The song hit the #1 spot in late 1972 and clearly struck a chord with many. I can picture my 13-year-old self, always the ham with a hairbrush microphone, singing with gusto: “I am woman, hear me roar / In numbers too big to ignore / And I know too much to go back and 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.” And then, the impassioned crescendo that only a newly-pubescent girl can pull off: “I am strong! I am invincible! I am woman!”

What of today, though? Do we have any feminist anthems that speak powerfully about equality, rights, and the need to hear women’s voices? Given Helen Reddy’s opening line – I am woman, hear me roar – it’s tempting to consider Katy Perry’s Roar as an option. “You held me down, but I got up / Already brushing off the dust / You hear my voice, your hear that sound / Like thunder, gonna shake the ground .” Tempting, yes. But her comment that “I’m not a feminist” gives me pause, even though she continued “but I do believe in the power of women.” Of course, Katy Perry is not alone among female pop artists in disavowing feminism. In recent months, she’s been joined by Lady Gaga, Madonna, Bjork, and Lily Allen rejecting the f-word for a variety of reasons: the fight has been won, feminists hate men, the label has baggage they don’t want to carry … and the list goes on.

So I turn, instead, to another of today’s female singing stars whose music surfaces frequently on my playlist (a lot more frequently than those in the last paragraph): Sara Bareilles. She was nominated for two Grammys this year. She is an engaging young woman with a powerful voice. Her duet with Carole King teamed her beautifully with an iconic singer-songwriter of the women’s liberation era. And she embraces the f-word: “I’m definitely sort of a feminist, and I don’t think that being a feminist has anything to do with hating anything. It’s about celebrating women and being productive for females.” Yes.

But it’s Sara Bareilles’ songwriting that leads me to nominate her work for contemporary feminist anthem status. On her Little Voice album, she spins the stories of Cinderella, Snow White, and Rapunzel in Fairytale, a quirky attack on patriarchy:

Once upon a time in a faraway kingdom

Man made up a story said that I should believe him

Go and tell your white knight that he’s handsome in hindsight

But I don’t want the next best thing

So I sing and hold my head down and I break down these walls round me

Can’t take no more of your fairytale love

In King of Anything from the Kaleidoscope Heart album, she takes her disputes with patriarchy to the relational level, refusing to “jump on board with you / and ride off into your delusional sunset”:

Who cares if you disagree?

You are not me

Who made you king of anything?

So you dare tell me who to be

Who died and made you king of anything?

And the momentum continues on her most recent album, The Blessed Unrest. My favorite song on this album is Chasing the Sun: “There’s a history through her / Sent to us as a gift from the future, to show us the proof / More than that, it’s to dare us to move / And to open our eyes and to learn from the sky.” The biggest hit from this album, though, is Brave:

You can be amazing

You can turn a phrase into a weapon or a drug

You can be the outcast

Or be the backlash of somebody’s lack of love

Or you can start speaking up

I’ll grant that these songs weren’t entirely intended as feminist anthems. Indeed, Brave was written with Jack Antonoff from Fun., an activist for gay rights and marriage equality. Sara supports these causes and is gratified that the song was picked up by this community, but she also says, “it can speak to a range of meanings and definitions for the listener. It doesn’t have to be about gay rights … what I like about being called upon to be brave is that it’s not about the outcome, but the intention, and turning to face the fear.”

Feminism may never have another anthem like I Am Woman. And Sara Bareilles is undoubtedly writing to connect with a wide range of human experiences. But when I hear her songs, I know I look for a hairbrush and start belting it out. For this is music that makes me – as a woman – feel strong and feel invincible. Thanks, Sara.


  1. Yes! And don’t forget “Love Song,” written in defiance of her record label:

    Is that why you wanted a love song?
    ’cause you asked for it
    ’cause you need one, you see
    I’m not gonna write you a love song
    ’cause you tell me it’s make or break in this
    If you’re on your way
    I’m not gonna write you to stay
    If your heart is nowhere in it
    I don’t want it for a minute
    Babe, I’ll walk the seven seas when I believe that there’s a reason to write you a love song today

  2. I’m contributing a playlist based on the post, because we need anthems not anthem. In the past it might have been a mixtape, but now it’s a playlist. We cannot have just one anthem. We need them all, and through technology, we can have them.

    I am woman is triumphant and powerful in a way that, for me, Bareilles does not yet match. It’s the voice.

    Are there other songs we might add to list that speak to that powerful, open, soaring Reddy track?

    1. I’m great with all the anthems we can get! But let’s remember that there are a lot of ways to be triumphant and powerful – and I’ll keep both Sara and Helen on the list. But yes, let’s add more!

  3. Good suggestion! While on Indigo Girls, we should also think about Watershed. Not “anthemy” but great themes.

  4. I used to listen to Holly Near and Ronnie Gilbert a lot — not very mainstream but pretty powerful in lots of feminist and other social justice ways. And “feminist,” like “liberal,” gets a bad rap — I claim them both!

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