What 'Respect' says about women

May 1, 2007

BRISBANE, Australia — A hundred years ago, popular songs about women tended to reflect their dependence on men, Dr. Dorothy Marcic, a former university professor, says. And most of the time, women themselves didn't even do the singing -- men did.

"It wasn't really until the 1920s that women sang in any numbers," she says, noting that this coincided with women getting the vote in the U.S. and other countries.

The oldest song in her musical "Respect" is "Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home," from 1902. The lyrics relate how Bill Bailey's wife threw him out of the house, apparently because he beat her, then "moans the whole day long" for him to come home.

"I'll do the cookin', darlin', I'll pay the rent, I know I done you wrong," the song goes.

The tune "I Wanna Be Loved by You" came out in 1928 and became famous as the song of animated superstar Betty Boop.

"Basically it says that the only thing I want in life is to fulfill your desires," Dr. Marcic says, adding that the same idea appears in many songs, all the way through to the 1960s. "There was a blip in the 1940s when the men went off to war and women took over factory and office work. But after the war women lost their jobs when men returned and they were sent back to the kitchen."

Feminine domesticity continued in the 1950s - "If I Knew You Were Comin' I'd've Baked a Cake" is one famous song from the time. But Dr. Marcic points out that this was also the decade of Rosa Parks' famous refusal to give up her seat in the front of an Alabama bus, and this event helped inspire a new feeling among women.

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The playbill cover.

"'You Don't Own Me' came out in 1964, and it was really the first song to push back," she says. Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman," with its famous declaration "I am strong, I am invincible," was No.1 in 1972.

Then there was Janis Ian's "At Seventeen," the No.3 song in 1975, talking about the disappointments of love, and Madonna's "Material Girl" from 1985, when cynicism has taken over.

A turning point came in the 1980s, Dr. Marcic says, with songs like Whitney Houston's "Greatest Love of All," referring to the love of oneself and the attendant responsibility for one's own successes and failures. Later came "Hero" by Mariah Carey, "Independent Woman" by Destiny's Child, and "Video" by India.Arie, all reflecting a stronger, more confident woman.