Working-Class Women are Too Busy for Gender Theory – But They’re Still Feminists
In late 2014, Billboard magazine asked Dolly Parton about feminism.
“Are you familiar with Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In?” the interviewer inquired.
“What is it?” Parton asked.
“Lean In – it is a book,” the interviewer explained. “Have you ever ‘leaned in’?”
“I’ve leaned over,” Parton said, cracking herself up with a possible innuendo. “I’ve leaned forward. I don’t know what ‘leaned in’ is.”
That a female trailblazer in music, business and popular culture wasn’t up on the feminist conversation du jour reveals where Parton came from: a place where a woman’s strength and independence is more about walk than talk.
In the women’s movement, that talk – the articulation, study and theories of advancement toward gender parity – has been crucial to social progress. Of equal import and less acclaim, though, is what working-class women such as Parton do for the cause.
Their worlds often resist the container of politicized terminology that is often the exclusive province of college-educated people. But working-class women have seen the most devastating outcomes of gender inequality. Impoverished mothers with hungry children, abused wives too poor and rural to access the legal system, work that is not only undervalued and underpaid but makes their fingers bleed.
For these women, the fight to merely survive is a declaration of equality that could be called “feminist”. But here’s the thing: in my experience, right or wrong, they don’t give a shit what you call it.
Earlier this year, the Women’s March and related strike on International Women’s Day again exposed the old class chasm that tends to run through any political movement. With the Oval Office newly occupied by a man casually referring to sexually assaulting a woman, today’s crucial political resistance owes much to the hard work and fury of civically engaged women.
Just who is able to participate in such activism has a lot to do with economic agency, though. You can bet that most photos of marchers wearing pink “pussy” hats document middle- or upper-class women able to take time away from work, obtain transportation to a protest site or afford a babysitter.
For a woman like me, a feminist who grew up in a place that was more like Parton’s childhood home in rural Tennessee than a well-connected progressive hub, marches and strikes are simultaneously something to cheer and look upon with some skepticism. I’m proud to call myself a feminist but feel no self-satisfaction about my framework for what the word means – a privilege of education and culture most women where I’m from have not experienced.
Working-class women might not be fighting for a cause with words, time and money they don’t have, but they possess an unsurpassed wisdom about the way gender works in the world.
Take, for example, the concept of intersectionality. The poor white women who raised me don’t know that term, but they readily acknowledge that the dark-skinned women they know face harder battles than they do, in many ways. They know this from working on factory floors and in retail stock rooms alongside women of color who they have watched endure both sexism and racism along with their poverty.
There is, then, intellectual knowledge – the stuff of research studies and think pieces – and there is experiential knowing. Both are important, and women from all backgrounds might possess both. But we rarely exalt the knowing, which is the only kind of feminism many working women have.
Parton’s career took off at the same moment the women’s liberation movement did, providing a revealing contrast between feminism as political concept and feminism embodied in the world.
Like most women in poverty, Parton knew little of the former but excelled at the latter. You won’t get very far as a poor woman without believing you are equal to men. The result of that belief is unlikely to be a leaning in, Sandberg’s possibly sound advice to middle- and upper-class women seeking to claim the spoils enjoyed by the men in their offices and homes. A poor woman’s better solution is often to turn around and walk away from a hopelessly patriarchal situation that she cannot possibly mend with her limited cultural capital.
First, Parton left Sevier County, Tennessee, where she famously came up slopping hogs and wearing rags as one of 12 children in a two-room cabin. By the time she took off, she had sensed herself a star and had been hustling recording opportunities with an uncle’s help for years. The moment she finished high school, she got on a Greyhound bus pointed toward Nashville.
It was 1964, a presidential election year, and the country was torn by political uprising and tragedy. Young men were returning from Vietnam in caskets, and John F Kennedy had been assassinated less than a year prior.
In her 1994 autobiography, Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business, Parton recalled hearing news of Kennedy’s death over her boyfriend’s car radio while en route to perform on the Cas Walker radio show during a school break.
“I had loved John Kennedy … in the way one idealist recognizes another and loves him for that place within themselves that they share,” she wrote. “I didn’t know a lot about politics, but I knew that a lot of things were wrong and unjust and that Kennedy wanted to change them.” Her boyfriend, however, had responded to the announcement by calling Kennedy a “nigger-lovin’ son of a bitch”. She promptly dumped him.
“I couldn’t believe that young person with whom I had shared intimacy and laughter could be so ignorant, biased and insensitive,” she recalled.
Congress was on the cusp of passing the Civil Rights Act, but the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s had not yet reached fever pitch. Kennedy had created a commission on the status of women before his death, but the National Organization for Women did not yet exist. Strict, conformist gender roles still trapped women of all socioeconomic classes as wives, mothers and second-class citizens.
When Parton stepped off the bus in Nashville, the most transformative feminist texts of that movement were yet to be published, but they likely wouldn’t have reached Parton anyhow. The women of her area were too busy feeding hungry mouths, too isolated from discourse in a pre-internet, rural place, to read such literature – written in a form of English they didn’t speak, anyway.
That Parton even learned to read was a privilege that her father, a farmer and sometimes coal miner who was illiterate for lack of schooling, didn’t share. But Parton was living femini
sm without reading about it. Leaving home alone, as a woman with professional aspirations and no financial means, demonstrated that she wanted a better life and thought she deserved it, though no model existed for the journey ahead beyond her own imagination.
Meanwhile, the place where she would pursue that life – the recording capital of country music – couldn’t have been a more harrowing gauntlet for a woman. Even if America had by then put a few small cracks in the ceiling that held women down, Nashville was squarely situated under the thickest glass.
Patsy Cline, who died in a plane crash the year before Parton got to town, had recently challenged the industry’s old-boy network, in which women almost never headlined shows. In 1960, she dared to wear pants on the Grand Ole Opry stage and was called over by a male host to be reprimanded before the crowd. That was the sort of heat headstrong Cline was born to take and dish back, but she couldn’t beat economic injustice as she trail-blazed for her gender.
According to the PBS documentary American Masters: Patsy Cline, her first record deal, in the 1950s, gave her half the industry-standard pay rate men received and reserved all publishing rights for her label. This enslaved her voice to the studio’s demands. But Cline – eager to escape her own poor, working-class origins in Virginia – found it preferable to her previous job slitting chicken throats on an assembly line.
It was a hard row for a female singer-songwriter, and Parton’s dreams didn’t materialize as quickly as she had hoped. She was soon so broke she fed herself by stealing food from grocery stores or roaming hotel hallways in search of room service trays left outside doors for pickup.
Over the course of a few years, she made a small name for herself around town doing mercenary gigs: live spots on early-morning radio shows, a jukebox convention in Chicago. She garnered attention as the uncredited backup singer on a hit pop song she had co-written with her uncle, Put It Off Until Tomorrow, which was named BMI Song of the Year.
The next year, 1967, Parton finally got the chance to cut her first country song, Dumb Blonde. It became a Top 10 hit.
The irony of a song called Dumb Blonde – an admonishment of a man who calls a woman stupid – being Parton’s big break is rich. Its theme of a woman being smarter than the man who underestimates her would be a recurring one throughout her career. Parton didn’t write that song, as she would most of her hits to come, but she lived it so thoroughly that she couldn’t even perform it on television without a man doing the precise thing the song articulates.
To perform her popular number on the syndicated Bobby Lord Show, 21-year-old Parton wore a fitted orange dress with a high neckline. Her massive blond beehive may have reached a couple inches higher than the mainstream norm, but there was no obvious trace of country or the over-the-top look for which she’s now known.
When Parton spoke, though, her East Tennessee accent showed, as did the fact that she was more capable than the male host. Someone had written a goofy segue to her performance in which Lord was supposed to cleverly call her a dumb blonde with a well-timed pause – as in, “Why don’t you go sing, dumb blonde,” rather than “Why don’t you go sing Dumb Blonde”. Parton did her part – act confused and smile – but even on the second try Lord couldn’t deliver the line right, and the joke flopped.
Still, suffering those sorts of indignities for exposure or a small check turned out to be a good gamble. Porter Wagoner, whose country music hour was the No 1 nationally syndicated show on television, said he had been following Parton’s work and saw “something magical” in her, she recalled in her autobiography. Would she join his show? The salary offer: $60,000.
It was a rip-off considering Wagoner and the show’s wealth, but it was a fortune in Parton’s eyes. She said yes, of course.
Parton’s big risk – leaving home as a teenager without two dimes to rub together at an age by which her own mother was already married with two children in a Smoky Mountain holler – had paid off. She had ended up in another sort of bind, though: what would turn out to be a long, often torturous tenure alongside the male host’s thunderous ego on The Porter Wagoner Show. But Parton would never haunt hotel hallways seeking scraps of room service meals again.
With that first bit of money, according to that 2014 interview with Billboard, Parton bought her first new car. She was married by then, to a man who ran a concrete-pouring business, but the new blue station wagon was paid for with her money.
Still, his preferences decided what kind of car it would be.
“I think it was a Chevrolet,” Parton said, “because Carl, at that time, only drove Chevrolets.”
Like many women at the time and certainly poor ones, she didn’t know how to drive. En route to record with Wagoner for the first time, she drove the car into the wall of Nashville’s Studio A. That she rolled up and knocked bricks off a powerful recording studio in the man’s world where she was tearing down walls has some poetic significance. The bricks were replaced but never quite matched.
“When [the studio] used to do tours,” she told Billboard, “they’d go around and say, ‘This is where Dolly Parton ran into the wall.’”
Sarah Smarsh is a journalist who has reported on public policy and socioeconomic class for The New Yorker and Harper’s online, The Guardian, Guernica, and others. Smarsh’s book In the Red, on the American working poor and her upbringing in rural Kansas, is forthcoming from Scribner.
Co-published with The Guardian.