Songs of Choice

Women’s rights and freedoms have made a strong showing political world recently. Primarily, these debates have centered on issues of women’s health; should states be allowed to mandate trans-vaginal ultrasounds for abortions, should religious institutions be required to provide birth control for their employees. In addition, the issue of marriage for lesbian women has also come into the spotlight. 

I am very lucky. I have complete freedom in who I chose to marry. Perhaps my mother would like me to marry someone who is tall enough that my children will be basketball players, and my friends from home certainly hope that I’ll marry someone who wants to move back to the Midwest, but in reality the choice is entirely my own. That is not the same for lesbian women, or gay men for that matter, in the states where they are not allowed to marry, and it was not the same for African-American women prior to the abolition of slavery.

Most of us are familiar with the stories of what women faced during slavery. Couples could be divided and sent away from each other with no hope of being reunited, parents were sold to different owners than their children, and women were bred like they were cattle. The scandal of Thomas Jefferson’s supposed relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings, is more shocking because of the ease with which the other Jefferson men were named as potential fathers to her children. [1] Their story demonstrates the commonplace nature of relations between African American women and their owners. All of these together demonstrate just how little choice over their sexual identities African-American slaves had.

In Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, Angela Y. Davis discusses the importance of music as a means of expressing the newfound sexual freedom that came with emancipation. This was an aspect of the end of slavery that I had never before considered. According to Davis, blues songs demonstrated “sexuality as a tangible expression of freedom.” [2] Separate from the religious spirituals and work songs that had previously defined African-American music, blues songs gave a voice to sexual freedom and new found independence for women.

Davis paints the women who sang these songs as secular ministers who “preached about sexual love” and gathered in listeners at “revival-like gatherings.” [3] Their message was one of independence, not only from slave owners but also from men and marriage. Female blues singers were independent women who had careers outside of the home, a practice that was uncommon even for middle-class white women. The songs they sang broke down the idea that women were confined to being wives and mothers, and instead spoke of sexual choice. This unique position, and the microphone these singers were given, allowed them to broadcast a message of identity that had not been seen before.

The blues were at their most popular during the 1920’s, but their message is one that is still extremely relevant. Women choose their own identity, and must be given the right to do so. Although those singers who first produced this message are no longer around today, there are others whose voice is just as strong and who strive to carry on the message of women’s independence today.


[1] “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: A Brief Account”, Monticello.

[2] Davis, Angela Y. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Hoilday. New York: Vintage Books, 1999.

[3] Ibid. 

8 thoughts on “Songs of Choice

  1. The message that the blues women were portraying is still relevant today. While reading this post I kept on thinking of the artist “Lady Gaga” who has been adamantly campaigning for equal rights for the LGBT community through both her music and through her pop cultures persona. It’s important for young people to have role-models that are not the cookie cutter version of “perfect” in our society. Gaga and others personify the confidence that the blues women originated: to be true to who you are no matter what the cost.

  2. The women who sang the blues, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, can easily be confused with women who pined for men who abused them, and then left them. However, singing about “sexual love” in the 1920s was a form of empowerment, their way of standing up to the men who had mistreated them. Today, singers such as Adele personify this form of empowerment through song. Her songs, “Rolling in the Deep” and “Set Fire to the Rain” are reminiscent of the Blues, singing of failed relationships, but turning them into powerful songs that show her strength. These songs show how women were able to rise above their pain and show their independence both in the 1920s, as well as today.

  3. While I don’t intend to make a list of empowered women musicians, I can’t help but agree with Tori and Cate. I find the most true testament of the blues spirit to come from strong African American women like Beyonce. Sexy and a smart business man, I know Billie Holiday would give her a high five. While there are a few great example of powerful, positive women, I must play devil’s advocate in wondering if all of this makes up for all the negative images our culture as a whole bring to women through advertising, movies and the like. I can only hope these women are making a dent.

  4. I agree that women have the right to choose their own identity, but I certainly think we’re a long way from society believing that women have the right to choose their identity, especially when it comes to sexual freedom. Even today, if a woman is on birth control and keeps a condom in her purse she’s perceived as s slut, not as a woman practicing safe sex. Why do we care so much about what each others’ image is? When will we start accepting people for who they are?

    1. “we’re a long way from society believing that women have the right to choose their identity”

      The statement above is powerful. Women in the music industry, and in all sectors of society, are constantly confronted with the idea of appropriateness–how they should act and look, and what they should do.

  5. I agree that our society is far from women being truly empowered to be who they feel they are. I believe that a lot of it has to do with the judgement we as women have against ourselves and other women. Often women are the harshest critics of other women and if we wish to feel truly free to be whoever we desire to be as individuals then I argue that we need to cut the judgement and peer pressure to be the image that the media puts forward as a model for us to desire.

  6. I wonder if the field of music is one that lends itself to female empowerment. By that I mean, is it more socially acceptable for a woman to have a career in the music industry than say a career in finance? Do we traditionally see music as one of those few areas that fall within the “woman’s sphere” and as such find a female musician’s success more acceptable than if she were the CEO of Goldman Sachs?

    1. I wonder the same thing, Keith. Women in the music industry are increasingly sexualized while they making music and becoming business women, like Beyonce. Is it necessary for a successful female artist to be sexy as well? Tori brought up Adele, who has been amazingly successful in music, but who has been criticized for appearance, specifically her weight. She doesn’t fit perfectly into the ideal “sexy” for women. Even in the last issue of Vogue, which celebrated her grammy wins and immense popularity, her cover image was photoshopped to be almost unrecognizable, and surely more “sexy”.

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