Music has always reflected the era and culture in which it was produced. There’s probably no better example of that than the music of the Boomer Generation. Mister Boomer will argue that while society was changing in a myriad of ways after the War, social morés would follow suit only at a glacial pace. Thankfully, boomers and their music did help to push things along, if only by creating more awareness of the issues.
One of these issues that have spanned the boomer decades is equality between the sexes. Our society had been a male-dominated culture before World War II, and continued to be so into our boomer years (and arguably to this day). A case in point is that while men were at war, women “manned” the factories and shops, but as soon the men returned home, women were once again relegated to the house. It was this very “demotion” that set the stage for the Baby Boom of 1945-1965, so, in some ways, we have this societal male control to thank for our very existence. Yet we’ve been speaking about the unfairness of the situation since.
From the fifties through the seventies, songs sung by and about women reflected the reign of the male. While the role of women was changing, the Ford Motor Company started advocating “more independence” for women at home in the far-spread suburbs (in a self-enriching way) by suggesting husbands buy a second car that the little woman could use while he was at work. Well, at least women could drive.
No better song exemplifies the plight of early boomer women than Sandy Posey’s Born A Woman (1966).
It makes no difference if you’re rich or poor
Or if you’re smart or dumb
A woman’s place in this old world
Is under some man’s thumb
Even with such self-flagellation, the song concludes that she’s glad she was born a woman, and wouldn’t have it any other way.
Three years earlier (1963) Lesley Gore sang what can be described as a plea for women’s independence with You Don’t Own Me, defiantly stating, “Don’t tell me what to say; don’t tell me what to do.” Yet like all revolutions, there would be continual push and pull. The very next year she released That’s the Way Boys Are, which sounds more like a capitulation to the status quo than a call for change.
When he treats me rough and acts as if he doesn’t care
Well I never tell him that he is so unfair
Plus he loves me and I know it but he’s just afraid to show it
‘Cause that’s the way boys are
Also in 1963, The Crystals had their biggest hit with And Then He Kissed Me.
Then he asked me to be his bride
And always be right by his side
I felt so happy I almost cried
And then he kissed me
The song survives as a young girl’s romantic daydream, but it also shows the indoctrination of the generation.
That same year Jimmy Soul electrified dance floors with a catchy tune that would have a hard time reaching the airwaves today: If You Wanna Be Happy.
If you wanna be happy
For the rest of your life,
Never make a pretty woman your wife,
So from my personal point of view,
Get an ugly girl to marry you.
A second male voice enters the song to tell the singer his wife is ugly, and his response is, “she’s ugly but she sure can cook!”
One year later (1964) Dusty Springfield climbed to number six with the Burt Bacharach and Hal David song, Wishin’ and Hopin’.
Show him that you care just for him,
Do the things that he likes to do,
Wear your hair just for him,
‘Cause you won’t get him, thinking and a praying
Wishing and a hoping
Once again a woman is reminded that her place is to please the man. The fact that it reached the Top 10 speaks of how normal the whole sentiment was.
In 1968, a new cigarette that was targeted at women was introduced by (the then-called) Phillip Morris Companies. Their Virgina Slims brand ran print and TV ads with the slogan, “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.” The far-from-subtle message was a woman could smoke whatever she wanted. By connecting their brand to woman’s freedom, some marketing historians suggest that it was responsible for an uptick in smoking among teenage girls at the time.
So it went throughout the sixties and into the seventies. For every song (or commercial) “promoting” female independence, there were more counterparts reflecting the status quo. Take Todd Rundgren’s We Gotta get You A Woman (1970).
We gotta get you a woman,
It’s like nothin’ else to make you feel sure you’re alive.
While the song may be about a friend helping another who just experienced a break-up by suggesting they visit prostitutes, it certainly objectifies women. The singer exclaims, “They may be stupid but they sure are fun,” then later adds, “when we’re through with you, we’ll get me one, too.”
In 1971, a new voice brought the conversation back to female empowerment when Helen Reddy released (in collaboration with Ray Burton), I Am Woman.
I am woman, hear me roar
In numbers too big to ignore
And I know too much to go back and pretend
Once Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem heard the song, they used it to close out the 1973 convention for the National Organization for Women in Washington, D.C., launching it into anthem status for the feminist movement.
Mister B, of course, is male. His closest connection to the subject, however, dates to 1980. That year Mister B joined thousands in a protest march in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment. More than thirty years later the Amendment has not been ratified, and the push and pull seems to continue on all fronts. Boomers took pride that their generation wanted to upend the status quo; we welcomed a blending of the races in our teen years through music, and have always stood for the rights of the underdog.
How about it today, boomers? Surely woman have “come a long way.” Women have run for the highest office in the land, yet still pay more for dry cleaning than men. Can our generation nudge change along again by instilling in our children and grandchildren that all men — and women — are created equal, and will they write — and listen to — the songs that will help to move the society forward? Let’s hope the times they will continue to be a-changin’.