Defining what makes a good song a feminist anthem is impossible – and there are countless life-saving candidates to choose from. Here’s a list of songs that have made it their business to joyfully and defiantly amplify certain aspects of women’s experiences.
Regardless of the artist’s intention, thousands, perhaps millions, of women have found something to identify with in these lyrics – and in turn an outlet for their own experiences. Remarkably too, hearing these lyrics might have been the first time that others, regardless of gender, could walk for a few minutes in other women’s shoes.
UN VIOLADOR EN TU CAMINO (A Rapist in Your Path) – Las Tesis Collective
One of the most widespread of feminist anthems in modern history took root this year. When Las Tesis, a small, little-known feminist collective from Chile, set out to capture the unseen violence of their government’s inaction against widespread rape, little did they know how well they had captured a sentiment that was to resonate globally.
As videos of the group’s performance started going viral at the end of 2019, thousands of women gathered in cities across the globe to sing and dance, denouncing the same set of circumstances in their home countries; some were met with police force while performing the song. The song’s title is a play on an old Chilean slogan portraying the police as “the friend in your path”, but instead, the song describes police officers as themselves being violent, and even enabling sexual violence by failing to act against it.
Lyrics highlight: “And the fault wasn’t mine, or where I was or what I wore – the rapist is you.”
I AM WOMAN – Helen Reddy
This year, Melbourne-born singer Helen Reddy passed away, leaving us her chart-topping hit ‘I Am Woman’. When it was released in 1971, the uplifting tune gave the women’s liberation movement a message of empowerment that would last through the decade. And as a cherry on top, when accepting her award on US national television she reminded us how uptight we are about gender. “I would like to thank God because she makes everything possible,” she said, before walking off stage.
Lyrics highlight: “I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman.”
DON’T TOUCH MY HAIR – Solange Knowles
Never before has such a straightforward command brought so much awareness to one of the many microaggressions that Black women experience on a daily basis throughout their lives. As funky as it is educational, Solange Knowles’s 2016 song introduced previously overlooked issues of consent right into the mainstream – and certainly made people think twice before touching someone else’s hair.
Lyrics highlight: “Don’t touch my hair / When it’s the feelings I wear / Don’t touch my soul / When it’s the rhythm I know.”
DEBOUT LES FEMMES (Stand Up Women) – Monique Wittig
Last year, during the FIFA Women’s World Cup football match between Sweden and Chile, a choir erupted into a beautiful rendition of a French feminist anthem hailing from 1971. With sombre lyrics borne out of joy, ‘Debout Les Femmes’ was written by author and theorist Monique Wittig, one of the founders of the French women's liberation movement.
Lyrics highlight: “Nous qui sommes sans passé, les femmes / Nous qui n’avons pas d’histoire / Depuis la nuit des temps, les femmes / Nous sommes le continent noir.”
(We who are without a past, us women / We who have no history / From the night of times, us women / We are the dark continent)
YO PERREO SOLA (I Twerk Alone) – Bad Bunny
“There have been 108 cases of gender-based violence in Puerto Rico since the beginning of the pandemic,” explained Puerto Rican rapper, singer and songwriter Bad Bunny when he released ‘Yo Perreo Sola’ earlier this year.
Taking a strong stance against sexual predators, the song is a vindication of the exquisite fun a woman can have on the dance floor – or elsewhere – without a male partner. The song’s lyrics even appeared on banners at protests against economic inequality in Chile.
Lyrics highlight: “She’s been single since before it was fashionable / Doesn’t believe in love since Amorfoda.”
LA FEMME FETAL – Digable Planets
Another example of male support is proposed by the Brooklyn hip hop trio, Digable Planets, smooth players in a genre that has too often ignored women’s experience.
Playing with the old-as-time stereotype of the femme fatale – the personification of the dangers of unbridled female sexuality – the song spares no punches in nailing the hypocrisy of men wanting to control women’s right to choose what to do with their bodies.
Lyrics highlight: “The fascists are some heavy dudes / They don't really give a damn about life
They just don't want a woman to control her body / Or have the right to choose.”
GYPSY WOMAN – Crystal Waters
At the heart of intersectionality – our capacity to consider how different identities create different modes of discrimination and privilege – is empathy with other women’s stories. This is why this song, which makes a point of dignifying another woman’s experience, is perhaps the perfect feminist anthem.
Behind the 1991 dance hit ‘Gypsy Woman’ is the story of a struggling homeless woman singing gospel songs on the streets, who Crystal Waters used to encounter every week. The American musician was inspired to write about her after seeing her story on the paper. “She’d just lost her job in retail, and she said that she thought if she was going to ask people for money, then she should at least look presentable,” Waters said.
Lyrics: “She wakes up early every morning just to do her hair, now / Because she cares, ya'll / Her day, oh wouldn't be right without her make-up / She's never out of make-up / She's just like you and me, but she's homeless.”
VOGUE – Madonna
When Madonna popularised voguing with her 1990 hit single, she amplified the stories of trans-women who belonged to the drag ball culture scene in New York City. The song sold more than six million copies and topped the charts in more than 30 countries, but it was the black and white music video (directed by David Fincher) that really brought vogue’s moves into the mainstream.
Lyrics highlight: “It makes no difference if you're black or white / If you're a boy or a girl
If the music's pumping it will give you new life / You're a superstar.”
WAP – Cardi B
American rapper Cardi B has done much to give visibility to female sexuality and has spoken with pride about her past as an exotic dancer. With her latest song, WAP, she raps to sexually explicit lyrics about female arousal.
The song’s release (in August 2020) was followed by pushback, even from the ever sexually explicit Snoop Dogg, who told her to “slow down”. In addition, the post where she announced the song was censored by Instagram, a platform which has been criticised for making it more difficult for sex workers to safely work.
Cardi – do not, under any circumstances, slow down.
Lyrics highlight: Honestly all of it, but “I want you to touch that little dangly dang / That swang in the back of my throat” is hard to beat.
RESPECT – Aretha Franklin
And last but not least, that one song (from 1967) that makes it into every compilation of feminist anthems – but also those of the civil rights movement.
Because it really just comes down to this simple word. It’s now time to turn up the volume.
Lyrics highlight: “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me.”