Music

Could Taylor Swift Have Written “F— the Patriarchy” a Decade Ago?

A history lesson behind the now-infamous keychain.

BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 05: Taylor Swift attends the 77th Annual Golden Globe Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 05, 2020 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Taylor Swift’s 10-minute version of “All Too Well,” released with much fanfare earlier this month as part of the rerecorded reissue of her 2012 album Red, has received obsessive levels of textual analysis that would make a Talmudic scholar blush. A song that listeners already heavily scrutinized for potential clues about Swift’s short-lived relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal has become dissected in even more detail, now that she has released what she says is the original, unexpurgated version, composed a decade ago.

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But wait! Should we trust the narrative that Swift has built for “All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version) (From the Vault)”? (Yes, all those parentheticals are in the official title.) On Gawker, Olivia Craighead—despite being a self-declared Swiftie—injected a healthy dose of skepticism into the conversation, under a clickbaity headline announcing that “Taylor Swift is lying.” Craighead took issue with what Swift has said in interviews about the song’s backstory; as she told Jimmy Fallon, “The 10-minute version of ‘All Too Well’ is what was originally written for the song before I had to cut it down to a normal-length song.”

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Craighead’s j’accuse centers on one line in the 10-minute version: “And you were tossing me the car keys/ ‘Fuck the patriarchy’ keychain on the ground.” If, based on Swift’s timeline of events, these lyrics were written sometime in 2011, can we believe that she would have inserted the feminist phrase “fuck the patriarchy” at the time, or was it something added later—which would undermine the notion that these are the song’s initial lyrics, which were pared down for the original Red album?

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Let’s leave aside for a moment the burning question of how to interpret the line. (Was “fuck the patriarchy” said by the car-key tosser, assumed to be Gyllenhaal, or something written on the keychain? And whose keychain was it anyway?) And let’s also leave aside the role that the song’s co-writer Liz Rose might have played in shaping the lyrics in their various manifestations. Is Craighead right to dismiss “fuck the patriarchy” as an anachronism revealing that the lyric couldn’t have been written in 2011? As she puts it, “There is absolutely no conceivable way that [Swift] had even heard the phrase ‘Fuck the patriarchy’ at the time of writing the song.”

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The evidence for the “Swift is lying” theory is actually fairly slim. Granted, it’s true that the frequency of the phrase has risen, um, swiftly over the past decade, as is evident from looking at its usage pattern in a corpus of texts like the one available on the Google Books Ngram Viewer. But Craighead stakes her dubious claim on another analytical product from the Googleplex: Google Trends, a tool that graphs the volume of different search queries over time. Based on the fact that Google Trends shows nary a blip for “fuck the patriarchy” before 2012, Craighead concludes: “If Swift is to be believed, she either actually coined the phrase a full year before any written mention of it made its way to the internet and then didn’t say anything about it for a decade, or, more absurdly, Jake Gyllenhaal did.”

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But Google Trends won’t tell you when a phrase was coined, just when people started having enough interest in it to do Google searches in large quantities. As it turns out, there’s plenty of history behind “fuck the patriarchy” dating back well before the past decade. In fact, it goes at least as far back as Swift’s birth year, which even casual fans know was 1989.

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In July of that year, just months before the dawn of the Swiftian Era, the New York–based LGBTQ magazine OutWeek ran a photo from an Independence Day pro-choice rally in Boston. As the photo appeared in the magazine, a woman is holding a sign that says “FUCK…” on it. The un-cropped photo later appeared in a 1995 anthology published by the Cambridge, Massachusetts feminist newspaper Sojourner: The Women’s Forum revealing that the full phrase on the sign was “FUCK THE PATRIARCHY.” The protester who held the sign, Brenda Pitts, recalls that she first made the sign for an abortion rights rally held on April 10, 1989, in Washington, D.C., inspired by fellow activist Lois Leveen.*

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A group of women stand together holding a sign that says "Fuck the patriarchy."
Marilyn Humphries
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Just a week after OutWeek published the photo from the Boston rally, the magazine’s news editor Andrew Miller wrote a piece with the headline, “How to Fuck the Patriarchy (and How It Fucks You).” Another example appeared in 1991, in Girl Germs #3, a riot-grrrl zine released by Molly Neuman and Allison Wolfe of the band Bratmobile. A piece by Dana Younkins (later reproduced in The Riot Grrrl Collection) contains the line, “He kills for sport or lust or greed, I kill to fuck the patriarchy.” And in April 1992, Lavender Reader, another LGBTQ magazine from Santa Cruz, California, carried an article with the headline, “From Sex Radical to Boy Toy, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Fuck the Patriarchy.”

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While many of the early examples show “fuck the patriarchy” appearing as a phrase in a longer sentence, it was also being used as a rallying cry, as on that 1989 rally sign. Tim Keefe’s 1993 book, Some of My Best Friends Are Naked: Interviews With Seven Erotic Dancers, has this quote: “One by one we all left that meeting, and I finally said to her, ‘Fuck the patriarchy!’”

While “fuck the patriarchy” may have emerged as a slogan in activist circles by the mid-’90s, it was still a long way from reaching more mainstream exposure of the kind that might have caught the eye of a young Taylor Swift. But let’s fast-forward to 2009, when Swift was turning 20 and already had two albums under her belt. That year, in a piece for Jezebel, Anna Holmes wrote, “Fuck the patriarchy: With all this slut-shaming and victim-blaming, maybe it’s fuck the matriarchy.” Meanwhile, in a recap of an episode of The L-Word on Autostraddle, a blogger opined, “I’m generally a fan of ‘fuck the patriarchy’ messages, but it’s getting tired.”

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Even if, as Craighead asserts in her Gawker piece, “Swift herself did not enter her feminista era until 2014,” she still could have encountered these bloggy mentions of “fuck the patriarchy” and incorporated the phrase in her songwriting. Now, did those words appear on an actual keychain, one that Jake Gyllenhaal might have owned a decade ago? That seems much less likely, even if Swift is currently capitalizing on all the attention “All Too Well (10 Minute Version)” is getting by selling “F*ck the Patriarchy” keychains as part of the merch on her site. In any case, let’s give Swift the benefit of the doubt on this one. The songwriter in her may have been initially struck by the internal rhyme of “car keys” and “patriarchy,” and from there she spun out a line that can be endlessly debated and reinterpreted—a situation that Swifties know all too well.

For more on the history behind Taylor Swift’s lyrics, listen to Slate’s podcast Spectacular Vernacular.

Correction, Nov. 22, 2021: This story originally misstated that the pro-choice rally pictured was from 1995. It is from 1989.

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