The XX Factor

Lesley Gore, Feminist Icon

Lesley Gore rocking out in 2013.

Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for SiriusXM

Singer Lesley Gore died on Monday from lung cancer at age 68. Gore became famous as a teenager in the early 1960s “girl group” era, when the charts were dominated by pretty young women singing songs about high school heartbreak. Gore’s 1963 hit “It’s My Party” is a perfect example of the form: lush production, overwhelming emotion, all in service of a story about teen drama that feels like the end of the world when it’s happening but seems a bit silly to adult ears. 

But while the girl group genre, at the behest of older male producers like Phil Spector, was dominated by songs that portrayed girls as boy-crazy damsels in distress—“The Leader of the Pack” by the Shangri Las and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” by the Shirelles being iconic examples—Gore stood out by showing a more defiant, feminist side with her 1963 hit “You Don’t Own Me.” The song portrays a narrator standing up to her controlling, possessive boyfriend: “You don’t own me, don’t try to change me in any way/ You don’t own me, don’t tie me down ‘cause I’d never stay.”

“You Don’t Own Me” was a real precursor to the kind of wash-that-man-right-out-of-my-hair songs that would start to become more common in the late ’60s and into the ’70s (“These Boots Are Made for Walking” by Nancy Sinatra, “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor), reflecting the growing popularity of feminism during the era. Gore told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in 2010 that she was drawn to “You Don’t Own Me,” written by Philadelphia songwriters David White Tricker and John Madara, because of its “humanist quality,” adding, “As I got older, feminism became more a part of my life and more a part of our whole awareness, and I could see why people would use it as a feminist anthem.” The song was used in that capacity in a 2012 video encouraging women to vote, complete with Gore saying, “I’m Lesley Gore and I approve this message.”

Gore herself spent much of her life working for liberal causes, volunteering for Robert Kennedy in 1968 and, most recently, hosting some episodes of In the Life, a PBS show about LGBT issues. Gore came out publicly as a lesbian in 2005, though she told the website AfterEllen that she never really hid it from people, saying, “I just kind of lived my life naturally and did what I wanted to do. I didn’t avoid anything, I didn’t put it in anybody’s face.” Considering there was a storyline about a lesbian singer unsubtly modeled on Gore in the 1996 movie Grace of My Heart, it’s reasonable to assume that Gore’s sense that her sexual orientation wasn’t a big secret was exactly right. The song the character, played by Bridget Fonda, sings in the movie is called “My Secret Love” and was co-written by Gore