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Personifying a Country Ideal, Loretta Lynn Tackled Sexism Through a Complicated Lens

The singer wasn't a feminist torchbearer, but her music amplified women's issues.

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Loretta Lynn, "The Pill," 1975.

Loretta Lynn wielded unique agency in crafting her country identity. Through a compelling autobiography-turned-Oscar-winning film, Coal Miner's Daughter, that gave listeners all the evidence they wanted to view her as the quintessential authentic country artist who lived the songs she wrote, to endorsements with Crisco that boosted her country cooking bona fides, she persuaded listeners no one was more country than her. Though Lynn gave the persona of a naïve, backwoods country girl, she was a savvy businesswoman who successfully convinced listeners she was the same character presented in her songs. This is not to suggest Lynn faked who she was (although this is at least partially true with discrepancies regarding her age), but that she recognized the value of channeling a backstory as an artist and candidly voicing her reality and rebelliousness through the veneer of a pure, unadulterated country identity.

But for as much as Lynn told us how she wanted to be understood, one way she is interpreted differently from her wishes is when it comes to her role as a woman in country music. After Lynn died earlier last week, reports often identified her as the template for strong, even progressive, women in the genre. Many stories have fixated on the impact of the artist's most notorious song, "The Pill," using it to define her as a feminist, albeit a reluctant one. Upon news of her death Reuters described the singer as a "leading feminist," while Vulture referenced her "feminist country songs." These assertions are being made even as Lynn made continuous strides to distance herself from the term, as she did in her 1976 book Coal Miner's Daughter, where she explained: "I'm not a big fan of Women's Liberation." The singer's long-established support for far-right politicians, from the infamous segregationist George Wallace (whom she described as a friend in one interview in 1975 and had even recorded a radio ad in support of in 1968), to the presidency of Donald Trump, further detach her from the feminist label.

By the time Lynn released "The Pill" in 1975, she had established herself as a compelling songwriter who used frank and often humorous lyrics to document brutal struggles women faced. "Don't Come Home A-Drinkin' (With Lovin' On Your Mind)" is about dealing with a drunk partner demanding sex, "Rated 'X'" describes the double standards women experience in pursuing divorce, and "One's On the Way" portrays the difficulties facing mothers left at home to do all the caretaking and household work. Though "The Pill" separates itself from Lynn's previous hits by going a bit further and celebrating the possibility of women's sexual autonomy thanks to contraception, it still fails to imagine liberation beyond the domestic confines of marriage.