Like most movements, the fight for gender parity has its own soundtrack. Throughout the struggle for women’s rights, artists have penned and performed songs that empower and inspire not only women but society as a whole. Here’s a brief list of songs to encourage you throughout Women’s History Month—and beyond.
“Four Women,” Nina Simone (1966)
The song tells the story of four different African American women, each of whom represents a stereotype in society. In “I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters and Their Craft,” a book of interviews compiled by Sarah Lawrence College professor Lashonda Katrice Barrett, Simone explains, “I am emphatically against the injustices of black people, of third world people. ‘Four Women’ came to me after conversations I had with black women. It seemed we were all suffering from self-hatred. We hated our complexions, our hair, our bodies. I realized we had been brainwashed into feeling this way about ourselves by some black men and many white people. I tried to speak to this in the song. And do you know, some black radio stations wouldn’t play it? It is true what they say: The truth hurts.” Moviegoers will have the opportunity to learn more about Simone in the biopic “Nina,” which will be released in theaters on April 22, 2016.
“Respect,” Aretha Franklin (1967)
In the 1960s, African Americans and women were struggling to be recognized as equals in society, but progress wasn’t coming easily. So when Franklin said she wasn’t going to take it anymore, the world echoed her heartfelt lyrics: “All I’m askin’ / Is for a little respect.” On the Queen of Soul’s version of the Otis Redding classic, she demands the right treatment—and she got it. Nearly 50 years after its release, “Respect” defined a movement and a generation.
“I Will Survive,” Gloria Gaynor (1978)
This disco tune describes the discovery of personal strength following an initially devastating breakup. Released in October 1978, “I Will Survive” reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart a few months later and received the Grammy Award for Best Disco Recording in 1980. Almost 40 years after it first hit the airwaves, Gaynor’s anthem still has staying power and crossover appeal. In fact, it was a pivotal song on the soundtrack of the 2015 Academy Award–nominated 2015 space thriller “The Martian.”
“I’m Every Woman,” Chaka Khan (1978)
Written by Nick Ashford of the husband-and-wife songwriting team Ashford & (Valerie) Simpson, this song reveals a strong woman who takes good care of her partner, supporting him and making him a better person. The first solo hit by Chaka Khan, who was still performing with the group Rufus at the time, “I’m Every Woman” served as an anthem for powerful, nurturing women. What’s more, it introduced a 14-year-old Whitney Houston, who sang background with her mother, Cissy Houston, on the original version. Whitney Houston—who would become one of the best-selling pop-music artists of all time—covered the song in 1992.
“Superwoman,” Karyn White (1988)
In a 2012 interview with Essence.com, White said, “That song and my whole image was for women’s empowerment. I’m really glad I made … songs that helped women find their voice. When I’m on stage singing that song, I can’t help but think, ‘God, this is a testimony.’ I really try to share that because I want to empower women.” The song declares, “I’m not your superwoman / I’m not the kind of girl that you can let down / and think that everything’s okay / … I am only human”—as a reminder that even the most powerful woman wants and deserves love and respect.
“U.N.I.T.Y.,” Queen Latifah (1994)
At a time when misogynistic lyrics were the norm in hip-hop culture, this song spoke out against the disrespect of women in society, addressing issues of street harassment and domestic violence against women. It won the 1995 Grammy Award for Best Solo Rap Performance. U.N.I.T.Y. was not Queen Latifah’s first women’s-empowerment anthem, though. In 1989, along with fellow rapper Monie Love, she released “Ladies First.” Called an Afrocentric feminist ode by some scholars, it features the following bars from Queen Latifah: “Strong, stepping, strutting, moving on / Rhyming, cutting, and not forgetting / We are the ones that give birth / To the new generation of prophets because it’s ladies first.”
“A Rose Is Still a Rose,” Aretha Franklin (1998)
The Queen of Soul makes her second appearance on our list. “A Rose Is Still a Rose,” written and produced by Grammy Award–winner Lauryn Hill, was recorded and released by Franklin on her album of the same name. This feminist-based tune focuses on a motherly figure giving advice to an insecure younger woman who repeatedly gets into bad relationships. Throughout the song, Franklin advises that in spite of everything “… a rose is still a rose / Baby girl, you’re still a flower / He can’t lead you and then take you / Make you and then break you / Darlin’, you hold the power.”
“Independent Women, Pt. 1,” Destiny’s Child (1999)
According to Songfacts.com, Beyoncé wrote this song after an argument with her then-boyfriend. She thought to herself, “I don’t need a man, I’m independent.” Then she went into a studio on her own and recorded vocals for the first version, which promoted female independence, both financially and relationally. At the time, she was still with the group Destiny’s Child, which was tapped to provide a theme song for a remake of the 1970s television show Charlie’s Angels. The song was the biggest hit of 2000 and held the number-one spot on the U.S. music charts for 11 weeks, a record for an all-female group. It also is the longest running soundtrack song to be number one in the U.S.
“A Woman’s Worth,” Alicia Keys (2001)
In this tune describing how a woman supports her love interest as he gets acclimated to society after being released from prison, Keys croons, “A real man knows a real woman when he sees her / And a real woman knows a real man ain’t afraid to please her / And a real woman knows a real man always comes first / And a real man just can’t deny a woman’s worth.”
“No More Drama,” Mary J. Blige (2001)
The video for this hit song touches on domestic violence, with scenes of woman gathering the courage to leave her significant other and live a safer life. “No More Drama,” according to Songfacts.com, “is about going through hard times and moving on from the pain.” In a 2008 interview with The Telegraph, Blige said, “when she sings [the song] today, [she goes] … through the emotion of being a child growing up in the projects, getting robbed, … being shot at, having to fight physically every day of your life, … every woman around you being beaten so badly by men you can’t even understand it, and then growing up and realizing you’re repeating all those patterns. … I rewind through that every time I sing it. I want to give people the real truth.”
“Yesterday,” Mary Mary (2005)
Surprisingly, not many gospel tunes make the list of female-empowerment songs, but this hit from the Grammy Award–winning duo Mary Mary offers encouragement from beginning to end. It starts with, “I had enough heartache and enough headache / I’ve had so many ups and downs / Don’t know how much more I can take.” And it wraps up with, “There ain’t nothing too hard for my God … / Any problems that I have / He’s greater than them all … / So I decided that I cried my last tear yesterday.”
“Brother’s Keeper,” India.Arie (2013)
This track from the album SongVersation reveals the Grammy Award–winning songstress as an empowered woman singing of nourishing the men in her life with her love. “It’s been my joy to sing songs with empowerment themes all my career. SongVersation is the same, maybe even more so,” India.Arie said in a Billboard magazine interview. “Brother’s Keeper is about us as women supporting the men in our lives—sons, brothers, husbands, lovers, nephews, friends—in that way that only a woman can.” On the hook she sings, “Am I my brother’s keeper? / Yes I am / Am I the one teach him? / Yes I am / Am I the one to reach him? / Yes I can / Am I my brother’s keeper? / Yes I am.”
Source: Wikipedia.com; Shmoop.com; Cinemablend.com; Songfacts.com.