My Feminists: Aretha Franklin

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mf-arethaBy Jeri Asaro

[dropcap background="no" color="#333333"]I[/dropcap]'m living my 60th year of life. Sounds so old to me (and probably to you too!), but I still feel vibrant, delighted to be alive, and energetic about what great things are right around the corner. Through my years, I've lived through and grown with the second wave ('60s to the '90s) and third wave (mid-90s forward) of feminism. Some believe we're in the fourth wave now, and I'm still growing with the movement even as I write about feminism here. With its ins and outs, feminism is woven into the texture of who I am as a person. I've been heavily influenced by some prominent women along the way, maybe not all known so obviously for their views on feminism, but whose ideas, more importantly, brought out the feminist in me. For that, I am forever grateful.

We've come a long way, baby! Sometimes, I don't believe the trailblazers of the second wave feminist movement are given the credit they deserve. Having lived through it all, I can very clearly see it, and I'm proud of all the accomplishments we've made thus far. Before the 1970s, women couldn't get credit cards if they were single and needed their husband's signatures if they were married. In most states, women couldn't serve on juries, or become lawyers. Hence, all important court rulings were decided by men. Women couldn't attend Yale, Harvard, or Princeton. Women couldn't work while they were pregnant. Better yet, they couldn't do something as simple as enter the Boston Marathon. These are just a few of the advancements made in the last 50 years! Do we have a way to go? Yes, of course. In every aspect of life, there's always room for modifications, but for feminism, the tides do continue to change.  [divider type="short" spacing="10"]

[dropcap background="no" color="#333333"]I[/dropcap]n 1969, when I was testing the waters as an adolescent 13-year-old, I was pushing back the influences of my parents and trying to become my own person. At the same time, the world was in turmoil and watching television was a major event, so viewing the news and seeing the drastic changes in the world unfold before my very eyes had much influence on me. In many ways, it frightened me and held me back as I was nearly afraid to step outside my door. The Vietnam War was in full swing and the protest movement against it was publicized every night. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had just been assassinated, and the Civil Rights Movement filled the headlines of every newspaper. Those tumultuous events were just the tip of the iceberg. It felt, maybe like it feels today to our media-bombarded youth, like the world was falling apart, and violence and disagreement was everywhere.

In the 1960s, there were few women pursuing professional careers other than being teachers or nurses, and the faces in the media were all men. The actresses were still very much seen as sex-objects or cutie pies, and many female vocal artists were known more for their pretty voices than their songwriting or instrumental capabilities. As much as the influence of musical lyrics was changing the social climate of the world, female artists were just coming out of their shells.[divider type="short" spacing="10"]

It was 1969, and "free love" was a controversial topic. The hippie movement was in full swing, and Woodstock had just occurred. Schools didn't allow girls to wear slacks to school, and certainly not jeans, and I may have been fearful of the big world around me, but there were situations that were in my own control. I was a curious young teen. At that time, I had found my first boyfriend.

The year before, in grade six, I had my first kiss, behind my locker door in the school hallway. Of course, we were caught by a teacher, and my friend and I were brought down to the principal's office. It was traumatizing, but somehow, that kiss was intriguing. For a while after that, I stayed away from boys, but the next year, I pushed the envelope a bit further.

There was a different boy who was "cool" and interested in me. He had a brooding way about him, and he was a bit sulky, but that is exactly why I thought he was so cool. The word "beatnik" might suit his physical description. I guess I had a thing for the bad boys. Our form of dating was simply to hang around school together, trying to hold hands and sneak kisses without getting caught. He would call my house, which made my parents bananas, and we would chat on my yellow "princess" phone for hours.

However, he had a dark side. Sometimes, he took the annoyances of the day out on me, and would say things to me that were not always so kind. He always apologized, but he hurt my feelings and brought every one of my insecurities to the forefront of my brain. At 13, I didn't need to be reminded of my insecurities! The only real male in my life until that point was my loving father, so this behavior wasn't one I understood or liked. But, he was my first boyfriend, and I didn't have much to compare to. For the most part, it seemed like the positives of actually having a boy like me were better than the negatives.[divider type="short" spacing="10"]

[dropcap background="no" color="#333333"]T[/dropcap]he year before, Aretha Franklin had made it big with the song Respect. That Motown song broke barriers. It's loved by many and sends a powerful message we still hear today. I use it for a September lesson in my classroom. It's in the soundtrack of countless movies. Needless to say, it's timeless.

At some point, I was sitting in my yellow bedroom (a recent radical switch from pink), listening to the "45" of the classic song on my record player and  a realization came over me. This young man didn't respect me in the way my other friends did. He made me feel inferior. It wasn't right; it wasn't me, and it wasn't a feeling I had ever felt before.

In one very thoughtful moment, when I really focused on the concept of respect, my view of dating changed forever. An hour later, on the phone, I broke up with my first boyfriend, and I was brazen enough to tell him why. I never again allowed myself to be in a relationship where I wasn't appreciated or valued. I can't say my infatuation for the bad boys dissipated, but I can assure you, they were good boys when they were with me.

Years later, during a research assignment in a college class, I realized what a powerful woman Aretha Franklin really was. Not only did the “Queen of Soul" have an amazing, expressive voice, which gave us music to dance to, but the woman knew her craft and was respected by others in her industry. Her impact on society wasn't only spiritual and musical, but it was political.

Although not exactly known as a feminist of the 1960s, she was a symbol of empowerment for many. Aretha Franklin was a powerhouse.

Now, I'm sure some would argue that her lyrics were often about a powerless women, but for Franklin, her songs were her voice, and in expressing her views, she gave off a confidence rarely seen in women at that time, especially a black woman. She learned to stand tall through her music. She commanded respect – and earned it.

Today, some 40-plus years later, probably one of the most lasting qualities of my 32-year marriage to a man who is just enough "bad boy" to keep it interesting, is our level of respect for each other. There are times in life when the light bulb clicks on, and for me, it was with Aretha Franklin leading the way and a simple but influential word – respect.