'You Don't Own Me,' A Feminist Anthem With Civil Rights Roots, Is All About Empathy Ever since a 17-year-old Lesley Gore sang it in 1963, the coolly mutinous song has moved women to reject passive femininity. Its writers, though, say there are layers of resistance in its words.

'You Don't Own Me,' A Feminist Anthem With Civil Rights Roots, Is All About Empathy

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In 1963, a young singer who was best known for a hit about getting ditched at a party unleashed a ferocious feminist anthem.


LESLEY GORE: (Singing) You don't own me. I'm not just one of your many toys.

KING: Lesley Gore's song was an act of musical mutiny, and it's had a special place in the culture ever since. The song is still so much an anthem that all of the women of "Saturday Night Live" performed it on the one-year anniversary of the Women's March, along with the actress Jessica Chastain.


CECILY STRONG: Hey, we'll march with you, Jessica.

KATE MCKINNON: Yeah, yeah, I'm always wearing practical footwear.


JESSICA CHASTAIN: Girls, let's tell them what's up.

JESSICA CHASTAIN, KATE MCKINNON AND CECILY STRONG: (Singing) You don't own me. Don't try to change me in any way.

KING: For our series American Anthem, NPR's Neda Ulaby tells us about a song that from the beginning has been a catalyst for personal change.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Before "You Don't Own Me," Lesley Gore was a teenage pop star known for a string of unthreatening hits.


GORE: (Singing) It's my party and I'll cry if I want to, cry if I want to, cry if I want to. You would cry too if it happened to you.

ULABY: She sang mostly about boys - getting dumped by boys, getting attention from boys - all standard stuff for girl singers of the era. But even at age 17, Gore craved more challenging material. The late Lesley Gore discussed "You Don't Own Me" on WHYY's Fresh Air in 1991.


GORE: At the time, I know I chose it because I liked the strength in the lyric. But for me, it was not a song about being a woman. It was a song about being a person and what was involved with that. Of course, it got picked up as an anthem for women, which makes me very proud.

ULABY: This feminist anthem was written by two men sick of how much music for female singers of the time was about mooning over guys.

JOHN MADARA: Let's write a song about a woman telling a guy off.

ULABY: John Madara co-wrote "You Don't Own Me" with David White, who's now deceased. Madara is 82 years old. He says the song is not just about boys and girls. He grew up in a multiracial Philadelphia neighborhood and says that informed the song's sensibility, as well as his participation in the civil rights movement.

MADARA: I saw how black people got treated. It was horrible, horrible. And my black friends, they got hit more than I got hit. They had billy clubs. They'd hit you across the legs. But the black guys got hit across the bodies. You know, those are things that you don't forget.

ULABY: And those things linger in the song.


GORE: (Singing) I'm free and I love to be free, to live my life the way I want, to say and do whatever I please.

ULABY: Professor Shana Redmond, who teaches musicology at UCLA, says the minor key of "You Don't Own Me" underscores the risk of standing up to oppression, enduring violence and a lack of control over your body.

SHANA REDMOND: All of these things still exist, and so that is literally the haunting of "You Don't Own Me" - all of the ways in which systems of patriarchy continue to reveal themselves in our everyday lives.

ULABY: "You Don't Own Me" is a protest song, she says, made up entirely of declarative sentences.

REDMOND: There are no ellipses, no question marks whatsoever. She is not mixing messages. You understand what she is saying from line one.


GORE: (Singing) You don't own me. I'm not just one of your many toys.

ULABY: The songs unvarnished feminism appealed to a young Australian singer who goes by the single name Grace. In 2015, the same year that Lesley Gore died, Grace recorded a hit remake with the rapper G-Eazy.


G-EAZY: (Rapping) She's the baddest I would love to flaunt, take her shopping, you know Yves Saint Laurent but nope, she ain't with it, though, all because she got her own dough, boss bossed if you don't know. She could never, ever be a broke ho.

GRACE: (Singing) You don't own me. I'm not just one of your many toys.

You know, she was 17 when she recorded the song, which was coincidentally the same age I was when I recut it as well.

ULABY: Both versions of the song were produced by Quincy Jones. Gore's success helped Jones become the first black executive at Mercury Records. Today, he's one of the biggest names in music.

GRACE: And he happened to hear a couple of my songs, so he got to hear my voice. And he just, like, came out and said we should remake "You Don't Own Me." Like, we should do an updated version for this generation.

ULABY: Before she sang it, Grace says Jones educated her about the song's roots in racial politics and feminism.

GRACE: It's just I am who I am. Sorry, not sorry, you know (laughter)?


GORE: (Singing) Don't tell me what to do. Don't tell me what to say. And please, when I go out with you, don't put on display.

GRACE: Everything about it was just mesmerizing. The original is unbeatable (laughter).


GORE: You don't own me takes on a whole other set of meanings for me now.

ULABY: Lesley Gore died before her song was adopted as an anthem during the #MeToo movement, but she used it nearly 50 years after she first recorded it in a public service announcement urging women to vote.


GORE: It's hard for me to believe, but we're still fighting for the same things we were then. Yes, ladies, we've got to come together. Get out there and vote and protect our bodies. They're ours. Please vote.

ULABY: Lesley Gore revisited "You Don't Own Me" on the last album she ever made, says her biographer, Trevor Tolliver.

TREVOR TOLLIVER: And if you listen to that version, it's sort of heavy with wisdom and life experience.


GORE: (Singing) You don't own me. Don't try to change me in any way.

ULABY: By the time Gore rerecorded the song, she'd come out as a lesbian. She and her partner, Lois Sasson, were together for more than 30 years.

TOLLIVER: So it's really interesting the growth between the two versions from the same artist. The original version is that of this sort of assertive young lady. Her remake in 2005 sounds more self-assured and mature, that of a woman who's already staked her claim and doesn't really need to please anyone but herself.


GORE: (Singing) I'm young. I love to be young. Oh, I'm free. I'm free. I love to be free.

ULABY: An anthem gives language loudly to feelings we might not otherwise be able to express. Co-songwriter John Madara says "You Don't Own Me's" message is ultimately one of empathy.

MADARA: Listen to what people have to say. Be kind and loving to the people you come in contact with. And I think "You Don't Own Me" says that. It says that. It says treat people fairly.

ULABY: It's not the anthem of a big social movement, but "You Don't Own Me" is a clapback against feeling powerless in a relationship, at a job or as a citizen.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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