Music

Loretta Lynn Pioneered Her Own Kind of Feminism

The coal miner’s daughter recorded our greatest reproductive rights anthem, but she had good reason to resist the “feminist” label.

A portrait of shows the singer and guitarist sitting outside in a wicker chair, wearing a blue-and-white lacy dress, and long faintly curly brown hair, smiling at the camera
 Loretta Lynn in the 1970s Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

You could be forgiven for assuming it’s a relatively recent phenomenon for fans and critics to pressure reluctant celebrities to declare themselves feminists, as the likes of Taylor Swift and Beyoncé eventually did after years of demurring. But it ain’t necessarily so. Just look at Loretta Lynn, the revolutionary country singer-songwriter who came out of the coal-mining Kentucky community of Butcher Holler into teen motherhood and then into a half-century of rhinestone-spangled stardom, prior to her death today at 90.

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From her earliest hit, 1960’s “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl,” to last year’s elegant album tribute to her own legacy, Still Woman Enough, Lynn fearlessly aired her thoughts about the miserably out-of-whack imbalance of the gender seesaw in marriage, sex, and social power. “I didn’t write for the men,” she said. “I wrote for us women.” Her brash twang rang out truths about women’s lives—like unwanted pregnancies or drunken husbands stumbling in and demanding sex that bordered on assault—that might have been disclosed privately across kitchen tables but in the 1960s and early 1970s were rarely acknowledged in public outside of “women’s culture” venues like magazines and soap operas. But like her Nashville peer Dolly Parton, she always held the ideological F-word at arm’s length, no matter how often she was asked.

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No doubt it was partly to avoid putting off the more conservative portion of the country-music industry and listenership. But it was also that the way feminist ideas were advocated by coastal middle-class urban “women’s libbers” felt alien to her Southern, mother-of-six, working-class experience: She notoriously once seemed to doze off in her chair on a 1971 episode of The David Frost Show while the second-wave feminist icon, Feminine Mystique author Betty Friedan, was talking. The sharpest expression of that distance came in her hit from that same year, “One’s on the Way,” in which Lynn looks askance at the “liberated” antics of well-off women and contrasts them with the mundane domestic challenges faced by a beleaguered mama in Kansas:

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The girls in New York City, they all march for women’s lib

Better Homes and Gardens shows, a modern way to live

And the pill may change the world tomorrow but meanwhile, today

Here in Topeka, the rain is a-fallin’

Dog is a-barkin’ and the floor needs a-scrubbin’

One of them is toddlin’ and one is a-crawlin’

And one’s on the way

(Oh gee, I hope it ain’t twins again!)

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When the lyrical scene shifts back to Topeka, a tick-tock woodblock effect from drummer Buddy Harman illustrates not only the drip-drop of the falling rain but the sense of time inexorably slipping away, or perhaps the menacing tick of a timebomb—counting down either to the impending birth, or maybe to the day that “modern way to live” finally explodes into the singer’s own world of traditional duty. Ironically enough, this skeptical view of 1970s liberation politics was originally penned not by Lynn or any Nashville songwriter but by the urbane hippie writer and cartoonist Shel Silverstein—yes, the Giving Tree guy, who also wrote “A Boy Named Sue” for Johnny Cash.

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That foretold explosion arrived in Lynn’s own music most noisily with 1975’s “The Pill,” which had been held back by label MCA since she first recorded it in 1972, the year before Roe v. Wade but the same year that Eisenstadt v. Baird guaranteed the right to contraceptives to all American adults. It finds a married woman crowing delightedly about being set free from constant pregnancy and childbirth: “All I’ve seen of this old world/ Is a bed and a doctor bill/ I’m tearin’ down your brooder house/ ’Cause now I’ve got the pill!”

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Though it wasn’t primarily a Lynn composition (she’s often afforded a credit, but it was mainly written by Lorene Allen, Don McHan, and T. D. Bayless), it certainly articulated her own point of view. As she famously told People magazine in 1975: “If I’d had the pill back when I was havin’ babies I’d have taken ’em like popcorn. The pill is good for people. I wouldn’t trade my kids for anyone’s. But I wouldn’t necessarily have had six and I sure would have spaced ’em better.” In her bestselling 1976 memoir Coal Miner’s Daughter, the source of the acclaimed 1980 biopic starring Sissy Spacek, she also said she supported abortion rights, though she wouldn’t have had one herself.

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The song was banned by dozens of country radio stations, and denounced by religious preachers, but if anything, those efforts to suppress it might have given its signal a boost: It became her highest-charting solo hit on the Billboard Hot 100, and in a 1975 Playgirl interview, Lynn said a rural doctor once told her that its message about birth control “reached more people out in the country and done more than all the government programs put together.”

What no doubt irked the censors most was not just the subject matter but how joyous and celebratory the song is about it. Yet listened to more closely, the cause for that celebration is more complex than a lot of listeners who praise the song as a feminist protest anthem might tend to allow. While “The Pill” is definitely in part a defiant declaration from a wife to a husband, it’s also very much about what’s in it for him—that rather than leaving him to go out cheating because his wife is always too exhausted from childbirthing and childrearing for sex, she can now play the part of his fun-time girl as well: “This old maternity dress I’ve got is goin’ in the garbage/ The clothes I’m wearin’ from now on won’t take up so much yardage/ Miniskirts, hot pants and a few little fancy frills … Oh, daddy don’t you worry none, ’cause mama’s got the pill!”

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This might not have been exactly what Gloria Steinem had in mind. Neither, of course, was the feisty catfight energy of songs like “Fist City” and “You Ain’t Woman Enough (to Take My Man).” Though their aggression felt inspirationally “proto-punk” to many young alt-country fans like me in the 1990s—the spirit that drew the White Stripes’ Jack White to produce Lynn’s comeback album Van Lear Rose in 2004—they were still about punishing another woman for a husband’s propensity to cheat. Lynn did voice the alternative point of view in her 1963 single “The Other Woman,” just as (like many of her country peers) she explored so many tender and painful sides of romance and marriage across her music—often most memorably in her classic duets with Conway Twitty, for example in their portrayal of an anguished cheating couple in 1971’s “After the Fire is Gone.”

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Her legacy can’t be reduced to her social-comment songs, just as those tracks should not be narrowed down to message anthems. Still, her refusal to resign herself to the life that was presented to women, to the strictures the music industry wanted to exert, and to the orthodoxies of any political movement, all of which crackles through those songs, probably is her most lasting gift to the music—carried forward by artists such as Reba McEntire, the Chicks, Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, Margo Price, Ashley McBryde, and countless others who are still seldom welcomed on country radio, which mostly continues to refuse to play “The Pill” even today.

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In real life, Lynn stayed together with the man she married as a teenager until his death in the mid-1990s, in spite of all the transgressions against her that she chronicled in song and disclosed in memoirs and interviews. And in recent years, to the consternation of many fans, she was unabashed about her support for Donald Trump. Looking and listening carefully through her history, this twist should not have come as a shock. The question shouldn’t be why Lynn failed to sign up enthusiastically to the feminism that seemed so inherently vital in her work, but why progressives so often seem to fail to reach successfully across social divides to someone like Loretta Lynn. Though on a more profound level, of course, there never was anyone else like her, and though the time keeps on ticking, there won’t be another one on the way.

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