Born Lesley Sue Goldstein in 1946, Lesley Gore burst onto the music scene in the 1960s — before the Women’s Liberation Movement — when she was a junior in high school, with songs that were considered “feminist” before any of us knew what that word actually meant. Her songs especially affected me since, by age 5, I’d sworn never to marry, and, by age 6, decided that I was going to be a writer. My family mostly mocked me, but they also punished me. They continually claimed that women had only one option in life: to marry, have children, keep house, cook, do laundry, have more children.
None of the women in my family ever had jobs, and few even graduated from high school. (My own mother didn’t finish 7th grade, giving birth to me at age 12). So when I was 7 and heard Lesley Gore singing “It’s My Party,” claiming that she could cry if she wanted to, I thought she was the coolest thing on the planet. When that song was followed by “It’s Judy’s Turn to Cry” — Judy having been the vixen who’d stolen the singer’s boyfriend in the previous song — I saw it as an affirmation that things would work out the way you wanted them to — even if you were only 7 years old — but only if you listened to yourself and not to other people.
But the “anthem” that changed my young life and made Lesley my hero was “You Don’t Own Me.” I played the 45 record on my small phonograph so often, my mother threatened to throw them both out the bedroom window. I went around humming that song constantly. When my parents did bad things to me, I told them, “You don’t own me.” Sure, I got punished for it, but I kept on saying it anyway.
I planned to grow up and be just like Lesley Gore, which, at the time I was 7, meant I was going to have my own career and never be married, both of which I associated with independence and freedom. Of course, I had no idea that Lesley herself would never marry — instead being in a monogamous relationship with her partner Lois Sasson for decades. I just associated my refusal to ever marry with maintaining control over my own life — and my body — and to making my own career decisions.
I was strengthened in my own resolve to live my life as I wanted, and not as others claimed I must, because Lesley gave me permission not to do what others kept telling me I had to do when she sang “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to.” I believed things would turn out the way they were supposed to because the girl who’d originally caused Lesley to cry by stealing her boyfriend got “payback” when it was “Judy’s turn to cry,” so I believed in receiving justice — eventually. And “You Don’t Own Me” became my personal anthem because Lesley Gore let the rest of us women — and little girls — know that we could stand up to men — and parents — and say “No.”
Thank you, Lesley Gore, for turning this little girl into a “feminist” at the age of 7, and for letting me know that, even if I had no power then, one day, I would.