Misogyny, sexism and the blues. How do women fare in the blues and in the church?
You don’t have to listen to the blues for very long to be struck by some of the sexist, indeed misogynist lyrics. Robert Johnson, for example, sings about his Kind-hearted Woman, who will do anything for him – all very nice until the last verse when he says that she studies evil all the time and wants to kills him. “Terraplane Blues,” uses the sexual metaphor of a car for a woman’s body. Johnson asks the woman, “Who been drivin’ my Terraplane for you?” while he’s been away, seemingly considering this woman to be his property. It does get worse, of course, with Johnson’s “32-20 Blues”, where the singer says “Little girl, little girl, I got mean things on my mind” – the sort of mean things, perhaps that surface in “Me and the Devil Blues”, where Johnson is “goin’ to beat my woman until I get satisfied”.
Johnson is only the tip of the iceberg, though. Piedmont finger-picker, Peg Leg Howell from Georgia, wrote a song called “New Prison Blues” which starts by saying “I’ll cut your throat, Mama, and drink your blood like wine”. Or what about Big Bill Broonzy’s “When I Been Drinkin’”, with “I’m lookin’ for a woman that ain’t never been kissed, Maybe we can get along and I won’t have to use my fist”. Or Willie McTell’s “A to Z Blues”, where he tells his woman, “I’m gonna cut your nappy head four dif’rent ways…I’m gonna cut A B C D in the top of your head”. And that’s just the start, because the singer intends to cut his woman’s face, arms, breasts as well.
Sonny Boy Williamson’s “All My Love in Vain” talks about whipping your woman when she needs it, while Lightnin’ Hopkins says he’s going to “shoot my woman, ‘cause she’s foolin’ around with too many men” in “Bring Me My Shotgun”.
Should we see this as harmless black humour? Or, as Anne Lennon suggests, should we see lyrics such as Robert Johnson’s for what they are – “powerful, graphic, and terribly destructive, dehumanizing statement(s) about women”?
Not only have the blues given us some pretty negative lyrics about women, histories of the blues often give us the idea that the blues were the domain of male artists. We look back today – and thanks to the “discovery” of the blues by researchers, enthusiasts and artists like the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton in the 1960s – when we think of the blues, we think of the great guitar-playing bluesmen, people like Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, Skip James and so on – but the reality was that these performers were relatively unknown intheir day compared with the women. The biggest blues stars by far, were the women artists like Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith, MaRainey,Victoria Spivey and her cousin Sippie Wallace. Ma Rainey was one of the first to record the blues in 1920 and she and the others went on to be big recording stars. Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues, recorded over 160 songs and with her big voice, big personality and sensational outfits, she filled venues wherever she performed, including theatres in New York’s Harlem. It was they that popularised the 12-bar blues format and who were much better known than the men for several decades.
And of course the history of women in the blues continues to this day with great artists like Etta James, Irma Thomas, Bonnie Raitt, Susan Tedeschi, Mavis Staples, Carolyn Wonderland, Grace Potter, Shemekia Copeland – and we could go on.
Blues music, like much else in popular culture over the past 100 years, has at times, ignored women, objectified them or vilified them. And in case you think that this is all so much ancient history, and that the feminist movement of the last 50 years has won the day – sexism and misogyny is rife in all sorts of expressions of popular culture, from national tabloid newspapers to rap and hip-hop lyrics and videos and heavy metal music, to the film, fashion and beauty industries. Oxfam recently said “From London to Lahore, inequality between men and women persists.” This is not just true in war-torn African countries where women suffer rape and violence, or in Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia where women are not allowed to drive, vote or participate in sport and suffer partriarchy in virtually every aspect of their lives, or in India where female abortion is still rife – it’s true in advanced Western societies in Europe and in the US. In the UK, official figures still show that women working full-time typically earn about 25% less than men. The US is little better, with women typically earning 23% less than men. In politics, less than 5 percent of the members of Congress are women and in an international ranking of the equality of men and women in parliaments, the UK comes in at 45th place, behind Pakistan and United Arab Emirates.
So what about the church, then – the off-spring of the Jesus-movement championed by St.Paul who said that in Christ, there was no Jew or Gentile, no slave or free and no male or female? Sadly the history of the church has been, once again, a history of inequality for women – the church through the centuries has been blatently andro-centric and at times, misogynist. This despite the way the New Testament portrays women so positively in the ministry of Jesus and within the context of the early Christian communities. In Paul’s letter to the Christians at Rome, he sends his greetings to the Roman house church leaders, a number of whom are clearly women, and one, Junia, whom he recognises as an apostle – a senior Christian leader – and who he says was “outstanding” amongst the apostles. Despite various recent attempts to make Junia into a man(!) or to explain away her apostleship, the weight of evidence indicates we must side with the 4th century theologian, Chrystostom, who said, “Even to be an apostle is great, but also to be prominent among them – consider how wonderful a song of honour that is. Glory be! How great the wisdom of this woman that she was even deemed worthy of the apostle’s title.”
For a great summary of the technical details around the translation of Romans 16.7, download Scot McKnight’s great little Kindle Book, Junia Is Not Alone, where, having demonstrated decisively that women like Junia fully participated in the leadership of the early churches, he goes on to show that this pattern of erasing Junia’s contribution to the church has been repeated time and time again throughout history. The silencing of women’s contribution to the church, the exclusion from leadership and ministry, the dominance of male-gendered language in Bible translations, hymns and worship songs, the tolerance of condescension and patriarchal attitudes are all still, sadly, part of the fabric of Christian communities the world over. The Roman Catholic church’s refusal to contemplate women in ministry clearly relegates women to a second tier behind men, but so to does the recent “masculine Christianity” posturing by people like John Piper and Mark Driscoll.
Part of the problem too, is that half the time, we men don’t even realize how excluding our behaviour and speech is to women. When we insist on refering to God as “he” all the time, even though we know that God is beyond human gender; when we blithely preach on Old Testament texts that effectively denigrate women without any recognition that this might, actually, be offensive to half our congregations, and could, with a little extra effort, be preached on from a different angle; when we tolerate jokes and remarks about women being in a subservient role.
Despite the sexism of many of the male blues artists and their songs, women continue to thrive as blues artists – women like Bonnie Raitt, Grace Potter, Shemekia Copeland, Carolyn Wonderland and many others are great song-writers, guitarists and blues-people. They are recognised and valued for their skill, performances and heart. It’s time that every group of Jesus-followers recognised the value and contribution of women properly and took a lead in demonstrating the equal value of men and women together, in a way that properly reflects the God we’re supposed to be serving.
Bonnie Raitt with “Love me like a man. “Don’t put yourself above me baby, love me like a man”