Pass It On!

Pass It On!

The Journal of the Children's Music Network

Girls' Voices Rising:
Sending New Messages in Songs

by Sarah Pirtle

I remember vividly being a teenager and hearing lyrics that disparaged women. I was 17. At a dance at summer camp my friend Karen was lip-synching to the Rolling Stones' song, "Stupid Girl." The words said, "I'm not talking about the clothes she wears. / Look at that stupid girl." It went on to say that she was "the sickest thing in this world," and every other line was, "Look at that stupid girl." The lyrics really hurt. I watched Karen internalize the words. She sang along like she thought she was stupid and by saying it out loud she'd be safe from anyone else saying it first. I wanted someone to step in and intervene. I felt frozen. I'd seen movies that summer on the Nazi concentration camps, and that was the sickest thing in the world to me. What was going on?

Two years later in 1969 I met people who were talking about the phenomenon I'd experienced but had no words for that spooky feeling of perceiving that someone is being mistreated while the dominant reality says it's okay. I attended a program entitled "Women and Music" at one of the early meetings of Cleveland Women's Liberation, where I met peoplebright, interesting, fun-loving women and men who were talking about sexism, and talking about it in relation to music, the place of heartbeat and connection. Recordings were played of popular songs like "Under my Thumb," also by the Rolling Stones, only this time we discussed how the words affected us. We said these songs impacted us, and we told how we felt when we heard them. I realized I wasn't alone. This one experience changed my life; it opened up the world and brought me into the feminist movement at age 19.

This was the time of the explosion of women's music, of Olivia Records and concerts by Cris Williamson, Meg Christian, and Holly Near coming to our city. These songs were lifelines. They invited women everywhere to start to put our own feelings into songs. In the early 1970s, friends and I started a feminist performing group called "Big Mama Poetry Troupe," where I could write and sing my own songs, songs with positive messages for women. The first one I performed said,

We are the tides of morning dancing in the light. 
Raise your head from mourning, we're taking, taking flight.

It was at about that time 30 years ago now that I began teaching elementary school, and I was lucky that I had many such songs ringing in my ears, to remind me of the importance of positive messages for girls. Reflecting upon the intent behind the songs I've collected or written, I see that there are three different ways the songs aim at being supportive for girls growing up. First, they offer messages of encouragement and empowerment; second, they reject abuse and offer antidotes; and third, they teach girls about their long legacy of women's heritage. Let's look at some examples of each of these kinds of songs.

Songs of Encouragement and Empowerment

I want the music I use to convey to girls my encouragement for them to take flight. I look for ways to say, Go for it! You can do it! Child therapist Liz Klock explains that the problem with Barbie dolls is that they imply that what matters most for girls and women is how they look, rather than what they like to do and what they decide is important to them. In toys, rock videos, and television, the old prescription for success to be thought attractive by others, to fit in and not rock the boat, and to focus on having a boyfriend is still very much alive and well and is as lethal to the development of true self-esteem as ever. In other words, if what a developing human really needs is to be able to contact, hear, and act upon their own unique desires and interests, the culture leads both girls and boys in a false direction. Sexism isn't a problem of men against women; it's a problem of imprisoning standards and patterns of behavior that hurt everybody.

To understand how girls form a sense of self in the midst of sexism, I look by analogy to the writing of Beverly Tatum, a professor at Mount Holyoke College who teaches classes on racism and self-concept. The problem for a girl who is building self-concept is to be able to integrate two realities to hold in one hand her developing positive sense of self and to hold in the other hand the reality of sexism. How does a girl develop the courage and confidence to acknowledge that there are sources in the world (such as popular music stars), who are held up as trustworthy guides, who are telling her she should do things that aren't really in her best interest? If the presence of sexism is denied for self-survival and its standards accepted without question, the self grows around a false understanding of the forces and factors in the world. A young woman needs to develop the ability to say, At my core I am good, powerful, and effective, and I am aware of the presence of sexism in my world.

Girls at Journey Camp (Sarah Pirtle, Director) spontaneously creating a chant, 
"We believe in ourselves."  Photo by Sarah Ahearn

Malvina Reynolds' song, "No Hole in My Head," written in 1965, is one that helps to place a wedge between unhelpful messages and one's own sense of direction. It says,

Everybody thinks my head's full of nothin', 
Wants to put his special stuff in. 
So please stop shouting in my ear, 
There's something I want to listen to, 
There's a kind of birdsong up somewhere, 
There's feet walking the way I mean to go, 
And there's no hole in my head, too bad.*

Some songs set forth an example of a woman acting from strength and self-confidence. Sally Rogers' song, "What Can One Little Person Do," does this as she speaks of Rosa Parks (see fall 1999 PIO! for a reprint of Sally's song). In a song for upper-elementary-age children, I celebrate my friend Andrea Ayvazian as she trekked up Mt. Denali, the tallest mountain in North America. In another I wrote, "The Treehouse Song" (for ages 3 to 10), I wanted to bring empowerment into daily life. Three girls are spotlighted as they build a treehouse. Here's the middle verse and chorus:

Tina's in the apple tree fitting boards across. 
She yells for another one and I give it a toss. 
Now we've got the boards down stretching far and wide. 
There's room for the three of us sitting side by side. 
Hold that nail and hit it once again. 
Yank it with the cat's paw if it starts to bend. 
Blam! goes the hammer. Work with all your might. 
Don't give up 'til it's just the way you like. 
No, don't give up 'til it's just the way you like.

Songs Contradicting Abuse

A second kind of message that I feel is important for girls to hear through music is that mistreatment is not okay. No one deserves to be hurt. When asked by a local battered-women's shelter to create a song for children to be sung at a take-back-the-night presentation, I used these words:

Like a tree on a mountainside, I take my strength from the rain. 
Like a tree on a mountainside, I drink in hope again. 
When the day is tough, when my tears fall down, 
I reach my roots down to the ground. 
Like an old tree standing here, I have the power to heal. 
And the rain says, no one deserves to be hurt.

This year I had a sobering experience at an elementary school. Sixth-grade girls shared the CD they had selected for a dance they were creating. They pushed the button for their selection, and I settled back to discover what popular music is like these days. They'd chosen a song by Britney Spears. As they smiled and danced, the main phrase in the song jumped out incongruously: "Hit me, baby, one more time." I was aghast. After appreciating their dance, I had to share my feelings about the lyrics. We talked about the problem of date violence, and I asked them to go on a search for music that didn't say it was okay to hurt someone. One of the most sobering aspects of this was that one of the mothers in the school community had just nearly died from domestic abuse. The girls replaced that music with a Back Street Boys song, "The Perfect Fan," which honors mothers.

One of the music presentations I do for grades 6 to 12 is called "The Opposite of Violence Is Connection." Among the songs I use is "Don't Pass It On," which was co-authored by myself and eleventh-grade students at a high school in Springfield, Massachusetts. We began by discussing ways they experienced violence in their lives. Two students said that their parents had been hit as children by their grandparents and had told them explicitly that they would never hit them. Our conversation led to this song:

There are secrets in some families nobody wants to say. 
A slap in the face, a scream in the night. 
A life of fright, push the troubles away. 
Don't pass it on, don't pass it on. 
But I won't do that to my child, 
Even though it was done to me. 
Take my hand and take a stand. 
We won't pass on what should not be.

In elementary schools there's a particular way that verbal violence can encourage sexism. I saw this at a school in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, while leading a residency on respect for diversity. Teachers said a big problem was that of boys calling other boys "girl." To help address this problem, I used a song with this chorus: "Speak up, we need your voice," and I set up role plays where I pretended to be a person engaged in put-downs. Students could come up in teams of two or three and practice speaking up to me and giving me new information so that I could understand why I needed to stop the hurtful behavior.

In one role play, I took the part of a boy named Jack who called his friend a girl because the friend wouldn't play baseball with him that particular day. As we unpacked the situation, we addressed it on many levels. To start off, we said that to call someone a girl shouldn't be used as a put-down because it's not true that being a girl is something negative, and it hurts everyone to imply that it is. We agreed that individuals get to decide what they want to do, based on how they feel and not based on their gender. Girls can do carpentry, and boys can take dance classes. You decide what is fun for you to do in the world. Afterward one girl in the front row seemed ignited by the discussion. She said, "Listen to the song I just wrote." She sang, "Whatever you do, you're still you."

Songs That Teach Women's Heritage

A third key message for girls to hear is contained in songs that teach the long legacy of women's heritage. I want girls to know that they belong to a history of courage and essential contribution. For instance, at a program I do for Girl Scouts and their mothers, I focus on 12 women in history and share verses to a song I wrote, called "I Want to Know Your Name." One verse says,

Rachel Carson, 
You told the truth about pesticides. 
I want to know your name.

Then the participants focus on their own families and female ancestors and write new verses to the song, telling about these women's lives. One daughter wrote about her mother:

June Roberts, 
You didn't let not having parents stop you 
From making your mark on the world. 
I want to know your name.

Women's heritage is also contained in archetypes. I've discovered that girls carry favorite positive archetypes and that writing songs can provide a way to express them. At a summer peace-camp program I lead, each participant devises a character that they will represent in our final pageant. One year, 11-year-old Susannah Berard wrote this song to accompany the part she selected:

I am the Goddess of children. 
I am the mother of the plants and the people and the deer. 
I am the Goddess of children. 
I am the power of new life born each year.

Pat Humphries' song, "Never Turning Back," was used as the central theme song at the 1995 U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing. This song and Ruth Pelham's "I Am a Woman" come from this spirit of heritage and sustained strength. They are staples of concerts that spark a discussion on gender equity and mutual respect.

Girls at Journey Camp in Deerfield, Massachusetts, 
directed by Sarah Pirtle. Photo by Sarah Ahearn

The folksong "Hard Is the Fortune of All Womankind" is one that bothered me a lot as a girl. The original lyrics are,

Hard is the fortune of all womankind. 
She's always controlled, she's always confined. 
Controlled by her parents until she's a wife. 
A slave to her husband the rest of her life.

At that life-changing program I attended at age 19, it was one of the songs we discussed. I like to talk with young people about how my youth was different than theirs is today. I was raised by my parents with the expectation that I would never have a job, but instead would sit in a stationwagon, like my mother and all the visible mothers of my friends in suburban New Jersey, and wait to pick up my husband arriving home on the train. Young people and I discuss what has changed since then and what has stayed the same. Here are two new verses I've written to go with that old folksong:

Those are the words that I learned as a child. 
And those are the words that made me feel wild. 
I stood and decided no, I won't walk that road. 

I will not stay small and do as I'm told. 
Hard is the journey as we stay true 
To the light that's inside us, but it pulls us through. 
This life is no harder than to live what is false. 
And with good friends beside us we can make it across.

May the songs we sing and the choices we make in our lives become beacons lighting the path that girls and boys walk today. May they avoid the pitfalls of becoming obedient to the gender roles set for them and learn instead to be true to themselves.

Copyright 2000 Sarah Pirtle

* "No Hole in My Head," by Malvina Reynolds, © 1965 by Schroder Music Co. Used with permission

Sarah Pirtle, of Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, launched the CMN newsletter and named it "Pass It On!" She has written three peace-education books and made four recordings.