Sometimes, I become frustrated with feminists. Not all feminists, you understand (and, yes, that’s meant as a wry reference)– just the ones who have strayed from basic issues and who promote every piece of pop psychology that happens along. Yet my commitment to feminism itself remains as strong as ever, for reasons that I can best explain through two popular songs.
Neither of these songs did anything to form my world view. I had concluded that feminism was a basic necessity years before I heard either. But when I heard each song, I immediately recognized them as expressing the main reasons I supported feminism. Both express essentially the same idea — that the way things are and have been, too many women’s lives are wasted, and too many women live in frustration and desperation. These are observations that I made long ago, but have never been able to express
The first is “Mothers, Daughters, Wives” by Judy Small. These days, Small is a judge in New South Wales, which seems to me like a waste of a perfectly good folk singer, although it reinforces the basic point of the song.
“Mothers, Daughters, Wives” is written by a second wave feminist to her mother’s generation of Australian women. It begins with the observation that the mother’s generation had watched their fathers, husbands, and sons in succession march off to war. Meanwhile,
you never thought to question,
You just went on with your lives,
‘Cause all they taught you who to be,
Was mothers, daughters, wives.
The song describes their experiences as girls, then as adults during World War 2, when they worked in factories and helped behind the lines while raising their families:
But after it was over,
You had to learn again,
To be just wives and mothers,
When you’d done the work of men.
But you learned to help the needy
And you never trod on toes,
And the photos on the piano
Struck a happy family pose.
This, for me is the core of the song: the fact that the mother’s generation had found meaningful work, making a serious contribution to the war effort, only to find that, after the necessity was over, they had to retreat into the narrow roles dictated by convention, hiding their frustrations and pretending nothing was wrong. The fact that anyone should be forced into such a basic denial of their humanity always angers and saddens me.
Yet Small is not quite finished. After describing the mother’s sons marching off to what must be the Vietnam War, where some of them died, Small depicts the mother’s generation in widowhood, watching
How your daughters change their lives,
Seeing more to our existence
Than just mothers, daughters, wives.
Bad enough that their potential should have been wasted. Yet now, when the future looks brighter for their daughters, the change has come too late for them.
The song ends with repetitions of the chorus. Then Small concludes with what for me is the most horrible part of the song:
‘Cause all they taught you who to be,
Was mothers, daughters, wives —
And you believed them.
In others words, they were complicit in all the waste and loss that shaped their lives, because they always did what was expected of them, and never imagined even the possibility of an alternative or a revolt. All I can think when I hear the last four words is what a horrible way that must be to spend your life. Yet that is a description of millions of lives in the mother’s generation, and of billion of women’s lives before.
In fact, as the second song makes clear, the changes of the last few decades haven’t been nearly enough for many women. The song is “All This Useless Beauty,” a song that Elvis Costello wrote for June Tabor, perhaps in the ultimately realized hopes of convincing her to stop being a pub owner and become the singer she was meant to be.
As the title suggests, the song contrasts women as the target of the male gaze — including the artistic one — and how little good that attention does a woman herself. It only leaves her tied to a man who both attracts and repels her, holding him when he has self-doubts and dressing “to impress his associates.”
The song opens on frustration:
It’s at times such as this she’d be tempted to spit
If she wasn’t so ladylike
She imagines how she might have lived
Back when legends and history collide ….
Those days are recalled on the gallery wall
And she’s waiting for passion or humor to strike.
Yet, at the same time, the woman in the song knows that her longing for a heroic past is all about the stereotypes that seem her only option: the movies made from “the great tragic books”
won’t even make sense, but you can bet
If she isn’t a sweetheart or plaything or pet
The film turns her into an unveiled threat.
Evidently married for some years, she can only conclude that all purpose is either an illusion or temporary:
Nonsense prevails, modesty fails,
Grace and virtue turn into stupidity
While the calendar fades almost
All barricades to a pale compromise.
As the song ends, she is reflecting, “If something you missed didn’t even exist / It was just an ideal, is that such a surprise?” The song ends with the chorus, repeating its question over and over: “What shall we do, what shall we do / With all this useless beauty?”
The question has no answer, because the woman is trapped as much as the mother’s generation in “Mothers, Daughters, Wives,” with nothing to lend meaning to a life of living up to the conventions of traditional genre roles.
I have tried many times to express my own perception of such things, but I always end up so abstractly angry that I soon become incoherent with abstract anger, and my writing skills — such as they are — desert me. If I go into both songs in such detail, it is only because they express what I have never been able to say for myself.
Yet I do know one thing, beyond any dispute: so long as such songs correspond to anyone’s reality, I am going to stay a supporter of feminism, no matter how silly or beside the point some of the other supporters sometimes are.