Readers recommend playlist: songs about feminism

Our reader picks the best of your nominations on the theme – from sarcastic punks and accidental celebrations to a war on the glass ceiling

Below is this week’s playlist – picked by a reader from the comments on last week’s blog. Thanks for your suggestions. Read more about the weekly format of the Readers recommend series at the end of the piece.

Of all the suggestions for this topic, the fictional Ophelia, a victim of what would later be called “chauvinism”, stretches farthest back in time. She and Hamlet were advised against marriage by family and court, despite their mutual passion. Did Hamlet rape her? Was she pregnant when she fell into the stream and drowned? Something drove her mad. When handing out flowers she saved rue for herself. Rue for regret; rue with powerful abortive properties. She was driven to her death by those twin bastards custom and culture. Natalie Merchant brilliantly captures the character’s mindset in her Ophelia.

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Women’s suffrage played a crucial role in the development of 20th-century Britain. Where would we be without women in government, commerce and the arts? Dame Ethel Smyth, with her comfortable life as a respected and successful composer, placed herself at the sharp end of the movement and was jailed for her beliefs. Women marched and sang outside Holloway prison, as the redoubtable dame, through her window, conducted them with a toothbrush. Ms Smyth’s The March of the Women (to words by Cicely Hamilton) became the rousing anthem of Women’s suffrage.

A rather mournful song which seems to extol feminist values but ends with a suggestion that this course could lead to madness. Ophelia

by Natalie Merchant The lyrics include the following:
Ophelia was a rebel girl
A blue stocking suffragette
Who remedied society
Between her cigarettes

and similar lines but ends with the ominous

Ophelia's mind went wandering
You'd wonder where she'd gone
Through secret doors
Down corridors
She'd wander them alone
All alone...

“Now this is a song to celebrate the conscious liberation of the female state,” declares a righteous Annie Lennox. The band couldn’t get Tina Turner for the Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves duet, so they had to settle for Aretha instead! A trio of Heartbreakers made up the numbers and Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin steamrollered into the charts.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, not an obvious feminist, wrote in Emile (1762), “In the union of the sexes, each contributes equally to the common aim, but not in the same way.” The Au Pairs in their driving post-punk masterpiece, It’s Obvious, distilled this thought into the truism, “You’re equal, but different, it’s obvious.”

Some people can get confused about love, even women. But when it’s a man attempting to construct a possessive relationship, a woman could find herself suffering. In Certainly, Erykah Badu gazes steadfastly into the face of male power and refuses to submit. The relationship she didn’t ask for has to be conducted on her own terms. “You know that the world is mine. When I wake up I don’t need nobody telling me the time. The world is mine, mine, mine. I don’t need no little rollin’ over looking after me!”

Sister Carol is a sister who did it for herself with what severin described as “rastafeminism”. In Call Mi Sister Carol she asserts herself alongside Jamaica’s rude boy culture, demanding recognition for her own contribution to society, as a mother, musician and educator.

The SlitsTypical Girls hurls cliches and stereotypes away from the stage as if discarding detritus. There is a bad smell in the air, and it’s not them. It’s the commercialisation of femininity, and the marketing ploys designed to hook vulnerable minds into the belief that only a typical girl will wind up with a typical boy. Not only are The Slits not having any of it, they are mocking the very idea.

It’s hard to imagine Julian Cope firing a Tommy gun into the massed lines of the establishment in the cause of a feminist revolution. But it’s not that his heart isn’t in the right place – as his Militant Feminist Dream amply demonstrates. He sees a gender war in front of him, and as he believes we’re only here once and had better get it right, he tools up. Right on, Jools.

Been a Son has Nirvana apparently channelling the Byrds. But this isn’t a song that Roger McGuinn and co could ever have written. Kurt Cobain enters character and holds up for our appraisal the sick mind of a misogynous father who actively wishes his baby daughter hadn’t been born. Shoulda been a son ...

Alice Cooper addresses the issue of violence toward women with some effect in his powerful and much admired Only Women Bleed. His penchant for theatrics seeps into the lyrics to lend even greater depth to this rock masterpiece.

Here’s irony: Fela Kuti, the late arch-patriarch proud to be described as sexist, inadvertently wrote a feminist anthem for African women, Lady. Even Angelique Kidjo is involved in a new version. Whilst setting out his ground rules for the servility of Nigerian women, he ended up celebrating the fact that those very women traditionally stand up for their rights and won’t be pushed around by their men. He winds up looking askance at the situation with a sense of grudging admiration.

"Glass City" by War On Women concerns unequal pay.

Is the wage gap
Not big enough
To get your ego through

Even when women manage to break through the glass ceiling there’s still the prospect of dealing with antiquated attitudes in the workplace. There are still men around who don’t believe that a woman should receive equal pay for the same job. War On Women direct their well-aimed rant, Glass City, at those who bandy about fact-free anecdotes about women making more money than they do.

New theme

The theme for next week’s playlist will be announced at 8pm (UK time) on Thursday 28 April. You have until 11pm on Monday 25 April to make nominations.

Next week’s playlist will be assembled by a reader Sheila Deane, who posts in the comments as thoughtballoons.

Here’s a reminder of some of the guidelines for RR:


George Boyland

The GuardianTramp

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