NEW YORK — Aretha Franklin never saw herself as a feminist heroine. That, she quipped, was Gloria Steinem’s role. But she leaves a legacy of indelible anthems that resonated deeply with women by celebrating their strength and individuality — and demanding, well, just a little respect.
“I don’t think I was a catalyst for the women’s movement,” she told Rolling Stone in 2014. “Sorry. But if I were? So much the better!”
“‘Respect’ is THE second-wave feminist anthem, more than any other song I can think of,” says Evelyn McDonnell, editor of the anthology “Women Who Rock” and professor at Loyola Marymount University. “Aretha was intersectional before the term existed.” She notes that Franklin’s version of “Respect” was the quintessential “answer record” to Redding’s — in this case, with the very same song.
Franklin’s Message Was Deliberate
To music writer Caryn Rose, Franklin’s message in that song was deliberate. “She knew what the message was, and she intended it,” says Rose, who wrote the essay on Franklin in “Women Who Rock.” Redding himself basically conceded defeat — with good humor — when singing the song at the Monterey Pop Festival. “This next song is a song that a girl took away from me,” he said. “A good friend of mine … but I’m still gonna do it anyway.” It’s hard now to imagine a male voice singing the song.
Franklin was, of course, the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 1987, opening the door for other women. But to call her the greatest female singer is to ignore that in the view of so many she was the greatest singer, period. “There is no one who can touch her,” wrote Mary J. Blige in Rolling Stone, when the magazine chose Franklin as the top singer of all time. “She is the reason why women want to sing.”
Her Most Famous Anthem of Female Empowerment
Though “Respect” was probably her most famous anthem of female empowerment, there were other songs of great resonance to women, like “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” written by Carole King. It’s a love song, of course. But in Franklin’s rendition, somehow it became, unmistakably, about womanhood. “It’s celebrating in the gloriousness of being female,” says McDonnell. “So yes, it’s a feminist anthem, too.”
No performance of that song was more lauded than when Franklin performed it for King herself at the 38th annual Kennedy Center Honors in December 2015. As is customary, King didn’t know that Franklin would be there to honor her. She was overwhelmed from the first second. As for President Barack Obama, he was wiping away tears. When Franklin threw off her fur coat toward the end and raised her arms, the crowd erupted.
Asked later what the song meant to her, she told Vogue: “I can relate to it very easily. I’m very natural.” But she said she’d never expected it to become an anthem for women. “Women just seemed to take to it like that, and it became a mantra,” she said.
She did allow that she could see herself as an example for strong women: “You could say that,” she said. “I am a natural woman. I think women have to be strong. If you don’t, some people will run right over you.” Franklin was even an idol for Murphy Brown, the ultimate career woman, appearing in a charming 1991 cameo to sing “Natural Woman” with the starstruck news anchor played by Candice Bergen.
She Left Them Words to Live By
Among other resonant Franklin songs for women, there was the 1968 “Think”: “You better think (think) about what you’re trying to do to me,” she sang. “That line just resonates in terms of respect and how women want to be treated,” says Gail Mitchell, a senior editor at Billboard.
And of course there was Franklin’s 1985 duet with the Eurythmics, “Sisters Are Doin’ it For Themselves.” The song announced: “We’re comin’ out of the kitchen, ’cause there’s somethin’ we forgot to say to you.” It was covered by everyone from the Pointer Sisters to the Spice Girls to Lisa Simpson on “The Simpsons.” And it was the rousing finale to a 2011 Franklin tribute at the Grammys, performed by Christina Aguilera, Florence Welch, Jennifer Hudson, Martina McBride and Yolanda Adams.
In the end, however Franklin chose to describe her impact on women, she left them words to live by — in the world, and in relationships.
“They say it’s a man’s world,” she sang on her album “I Never Loved a Man The Way I Love You” in 1967, “but you can’t prove that by me. And as long as we’re together baby, show some respect for me.”