(originally appeared in Shindig! issue 75)
To understand “women in music” in ’68 – and to understand why that’s even a thing worth talking about – we have to look at what was going on during that time with women in society. In ’68, women in music and women in society were second-class citizens, and they were angry. That anger laid the groundwork for change that would happen in subsequent years.
But before we go there: why “women in music”? Why not “everybody in music”? Men were, and are, the majority in the music business, so looking at women in music does have the effect of making them the outsiders, the oddities, the exceptions. But that separation is necessary to fully understand those women’s experiences, and to assess their impact on music then and now.
So roll back, Father Time, roll back, to the early ‘60s – when father knew best, when mother was at home, and when women only stayed in higher education or the workplace until they found a husband. In ’63, Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique started turning all that on its head. For many women, the book was the “aha!” that identified why, even though they had everything that they were supposed to have, their lives felt meaningless and unfulfilled. Discovering that they weren’t alone, and realizing that society had shortchanged them by selling them a false ideal, sparked an activism among women that coalesced into the women’s liberation movement.
Consider now what things looked like for women in the music industry around that same time. The folk music boom of the early ‘60s created one stereotype for women performers, which Kris Needs of this parish has described as “fragile, guitar-picking songstrels”: doe-eyed flaxen-haired waifs usually found flitting through an idyllic forest or a field. Another dominant stereotype for women in music was that of the girl groups, who made some great records but, especially in the disposable universe of producers like Phil Spector, came and went in clouds of hairspray and interchangeably trendy dresses. Solo female artists usually looked and sang like girl group members who had somehow become separated from their herd, and the occasional woman musician, like drummer Honey Lantree of the Honeycombs, was regarded more as a novelty act rather than as a serious performer.
By the mid-‘60s, the legalization of the birth control pill, along with wider access to legal abortion, gave women more control over their lives and careers. That contributed to more liberal societal attitudes toward lifestyles and sexuality. However, what was presented as sexual freedom for women often became a different form of oppression. To be “cool” and “with it”, women were expected to be agreeable to casual sex whenever a man was so inclined. This expectation was particularly oppressive in the music industry, where women performers were often subjected to unwanted advances from producers, executives, or even fellow musicians, and often gave in simply because they feared consequences to their careers if they refused.
At the same time, though, some women in the music business had started escaping the constraints of female stereotypes. Artists like Lesley Gore, Aretha Franklin, and Jackie DeShannon were being recognized as songwriters, producers, and arrangers. There were successful women behind the scenes, such as songwriters Carole King and Ellie Greenwich, composer Delia Derbyshire, and TV producer Vicki Wickham. Journalists such as Lillian Roxon, Penny Valentine, and Ellen Willis were breaking into the previously all-male domain of music writing. And a few performers, such as Cass Elliot and Janis Joplin, were so prodigiously talented that they became successful despite not fitting into standard norms of attractiveness.
’68 was the year of several key events in the women’s liberation movement: for example, the strike by female workers at Ford’s Dagenham plant, protesting unequal wage rates between men and women, and the “bra burning” rally at the Miss America beauty pageant, protesting the outdated feminine ideals that the contest promoted. (It should be noted that the bras in question were actually tossed in trash bins rather than incinerated, since the local police forbade the protesters from setting anything on fire.) If we look at what happened in ’68 to three specific female artists – Joni Mitchell, Dusty Springfield, and The Supremes – we can see how some of the dynamics behind those events were also affecting what was happening to women musicians.
Mitchell’s first album, Song to a Seagull, was released in ’68. Mitchell had already established herself as a distinctive songwriter and an innovative guitarist, but those accomplishments were apparently less newsworthy than her looks – Rolling Stone described her as “a penny yellow blonde with a vanilla voice” – and her famous boyfriends. She told one interviewer that “all people cared about” was “who was she schtupping” when they tried to figure out the meanings behind her songs.
It’s been suggested that Mitchell initially got a record deal not because of her own skills, but because David Crosby, one of those famous boyfriends, was willing to produce her first album. Crosby had enough power in the industry to insist that the album be acoustic, rather than having the elaborate orchestrations that were the sonic palette du jour. But the recording had technical flaws – the miking of the performances produced an audible hiss on the master tapes, and reducing the volume of the hiss dampened the album’s overall sound. Critics nevertheless praised Song for a Seagull, admiring Mitchell’s poetic lyrics and the album’s song-cycle structure – but the album was promoted with an ad proclaiming in large letters “Joni Mitchell is 90% Virgin”. The smaller type below revealed that the 90% figure referred to the part of the potential audience who had not yet heard the album, and offered a poster of Mitchell to anyone who mailed in their address and 25 cents. It’s difficult to imagine a male artist of the time being marketed with a come-on like “We’re hoping this generous offer will help Joni cure her 90% virginity”. Mitchell’s website dryly notes, “Joni was not impressed”.
In ‘68 Dusty Springfield had been a solo artist for five years. She started her career in The Lana Sisters trio, singing songs that weren’t to her taste – at the time, according to Wickham, “women performers in Britain tended to get a raw deal from the music publishers” – and then found success with her brother Tom in The Springfields. However, her ideas for production and arrangements were usually dismissed by male musicians and executives, and she gained a reputation as being a perfectionist and “difficult” – even though often her ideas were eventually used, to the extent that she was effectively the uncredited producer of many of her records. By the start of ’68 she had had more than a dozen hit singles – but, she told Valentine, “I don’t think the public realises how much pressure is put on artists by certain parts of the management. Eventually you have to comply with this business of being ‘a good girl’. I’ve probably complied a lot less than many other poor singers in the business. I did a pantomine in Liverpool which I really didn’t want to do, because they said, ‘If you do the pantomine you can do this,’ and ‘this’ happened to be my first ‘Talk Of The Town’ season, which I knew I really NEEDED for my career.” (Valentine’s article also noted, prosaically, that Springfield had purchased over 50 “special dresses” for performing, each at a price of £250 – the equivalent of £4000 today).
Springfield struggled to pursue musical directions that were not typical for a white female singer; she was implicitly pressured to conceal her lesbianism at a time when same-sex relationships were seen not only as immoral aberrations but also as career-ending. In late ’68, Springfield took an unusual step for a woman performer of that era by assuming management of her own career – a risky move that paid off the following year with the Dusty in Memphis album and the international hit ‘Son of a Preacher Man’.
The Supremes, unlike many other girl groups, had a highly successful career throughout most of the early and mid-’60s. However, by ’68 they were trapped in the pop style that had brought them fame but which was becoming increasingly outdated as musical tastes shifted to heavier rock and psychedelica. The group also was under the heavy-handed control of Motown Records as both their record label and their management.
Modern sociologists might identify the pressures facing The Supremes as an example of “intersectionality” – the interaction of multiple social identities (in this case, young, female, black, and working-class) that produces discrimination more intense than the discrimination associated with any of those identities on their own. The original members of The Supremes grew up in a Detroit housing project, and were taught by Motown’s ‘finishing school’ to act like ‘classy’ young women in voice, demeanour, and dress. Some activists objected to the idea that young black women were only ‘classy’ if they were mimicking the behaviour of upper-class whites, but The Supremes appealed to some black audiences precisely because of the societal aspiration they embodied. Former Vogue editor André Leon Talley, who was raised by his grandmother in segregated rural North Carolina, has recalled that, as a child, seeing The Supremes on TV was his only opportunity to see “women of colour looking affluent. They were living the dream.”
Despite that attractiveness to black audiences, by ’68 The Supremes’ audience was primarily white – paradoxically, at the same time that black Americans were protesting the rampant discrimination and poverty in communities like The Supremes’ hometown. Motown was criticized for coaching the members of The Supremes to avoid controversy in interviews, to the extent that they came across as being oblivious to current issues such as feminism and civil rights. Motown so micro-managed The Supremes’ public image that, according to Motown historian Gerald Posner, when Motown received thousands of letters from black fans begging the label to let the Supremes wear their natural hair, the staff in Motown’s Artist Development department refused; they did not want to “give [the women] a radical edge that could scare away white fans”. To Motown’s credit, The Supremes did get to stretch out artistically in ’68 with songs like “Love Child” that touched on previously taboo subjects such as premarital sex and single parenthood. But the conflict between producing innovative, current-sounding records while maintaining the group’s core audiences at cabarets and show clubs ultimately proved to be unresolvable.
’68 was clearly a year of upheaval, but its outcomes resulted in significant advances for women in society and in music. The next few years saw many female performers find success through their own voices and their own personas, including the proud feminist lesbians that started the “women’s music” movement – a genre that would have been unthinkable even a decade earlier. On a more mainstream level, mega-selling albums like Carole King’s Tapestry and hit singles like Helen Reddy’s ‘I Am Woman’ proved that audiences would respond to women performing songs of individuality and empowerment.
Opinions are divided on whether things are better or worse now for “women in music”. MTV and social media have been condemned for making appearance and image possibly even more important for women musicians than was the case in ’68. There have definitely been improvements for women in society, in areas such as pay equity, employment, education, and reproductive rights – but women are still underrepresented in the management and executive ranks of the music industry. The recent cascade of revelations about sexual misconduct in the entertainment industry also suggests that harassment is still a serious problem for women performers. Some societal observers suggest that now is a watershed moment – where the #metoo movement will result in serious and lasting change that will see women in music and in society treated respectfully and as equals. But we can look back to ’68 as the time when the seeds of that change might have first been sown.