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Women Declaring (and Singing About) Their Independence in the 80’s

By Julie Anderson

In the 80's, American women were enjoying some hard-won equality battles. Many women were feeling strong, independent, and bold. They were ready to bring home the bacon and fry it up in the pan (after misting themselves with some Enjoli.)

Women in the 1980's were feeling empowered.

Of course, women wanted to sing about it, too. We related to songs about how we worked just as hard as men, about how we had personal goals that didn't involve men, and about how maybe we didn't even need men at all to be happy.


1980 brought us both the movie and the hit song 9 to 5. Dolly Parton sang the bouncy, catchy title song and starred in the film with Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda. It’s a comedy about women in the workplace, but it summed up the frustrations women felt about working in a man’s world. It's a work-commiseration song, but, more specifically, it's a women at work-commiseration song. Women coming home after a draining day at the office could sing right along with Dolly:

Workin' 9 to 5
What a way to make a livin'
Barely getting by
It’s all takin'
And no givin'

In 1983, Donna Summer released her single She Works Hard for the Money. The video, for me, was a big old bummer. Did the poor woman work ALL THE TIME? And why weren't her kids nicer to her? Why did it all have to be so HARD? I just watched the video again, and saw this bedraggled woman totally fall apart when she comes home to find her house trashed. Give me a break. This song and video troubled me back in the 80’s when it was popular because I had a mom who worked, albeit not as a floor-scrubbing maid, waitress, or sweatshop seamstress. And now it kind of still sounds like a Pity Party. But what do I know? It was number one on the R&B chart for three weeks.

Let's move on to some happy hard-working woman songs. It wasn't always a bummer to work for a living, right? Just ask Irene Cara. She sings two of the most inspiring songs ever: the theme songs from Fame and Flashdance. Granted, 1980's Fame has some lyrical nods to wanting a man around (Baby hold me tight / Cause you can make it right) but we all know what Fame is really about. It’s the battle cry of a woman who's GOING FOR IT:

I’m gonna live forever
I’m gonna learn how to fly

And then there's the 1983's Flashdance, with Cara’s fabulously soaring theme song, Flashdance... What a Feeling. How is it possible to not love that song, I ask you? Also, how is it possible to listen to it and not picture a lithe Jennifer Beals (well, Jennifer Beals’s body double, Marine Jahan) soaring through the air in that gasp-worthy leap, tuck, and roll she does for her audition. Cara convinces us that our most impossible dream can come true. More to the point: she convinces us that we can MAKE our most impossible dream come true.

(Mental note: add Flashdance to Netflix queue.)

On a slightly different note, Cyndi Lauper made it okay for smart, modern women to sing about having fun with 1983’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. No boys, no drama, no jealousy, just innocent good times with your gal pals. It's empowerment of a different sort: girls can be girls and enjoy themselves, independent of romantic entanglements. Lauper gave a nod to career women ("when the working day is done") and shooed away those pesky boys trying to bring us down:

Some boys take a beautiful girl
And hide her away from the rest of the world
I want to be the one to walk in the sun
Oh girls they wanna have fun.

In 1985, Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin released a single that, for me, sums up the 80’s power to the woman vibe: Sisters are Doin' it for Themselves. It spelled it right on out for us:

Now there was a time when we used to say that behind every great man there had to be a woman
But in these times of change you know that it's no longer true
So we’re comin' out of the kitchen ‘cause there’s something we forgot to say to you
We say, "Sisters are doin' it for themselves."

I challenge the ladies out there to listen to it and not want to high five the first woman you see. It’s not an angry song, or a man-hating song; it’s just a straight-up female empowerment anthem.

Women of the 80’s were proudly taking on new roles as they fought for equal footing with men. It was often exhausting work, but it was totally worth it. Even in the fast-paced modern world of the 1980’s, we felt part of a sisterhood that could work, play, and dream together.

High five, sister!

Read Jules' Other Listening To Mix Tapes & Thinking About . . . Stories


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