Behind the Song Lyrics: Lesley Gore’s Feminist and Civil Rights Anthem “You Don’t Own Me”


Originally written by two men, David White and John Madara, “You Don’t Own Me” started out as another song about a boy in the 1960s, then morphed into an anthem of youth empowerment. women and racial equality.

From the first words, I don’t belong to you / I’m not just one of your many toys / I don’t belong to you / Don’t say I can’t go with other boys, Gore left behind the bubblegum pop of her previous hits like “It’s My Party,” in a darker marching elegy that moved past her teenage years.

Recorded and released in 1963 when Gore was just 17 years old, “You Don’t Own Me” was technically another song about “boys”, much like many of his previous hits like “Judy’s Turn To Cry”, but quickly turned into a statement, not just to be a woman, but to be human and powerful.

“At the time, I know I chose it because I liked the strength of the lyrics,” Gore said in 1991. “But, to me, it wasn’t a song about being a woman. It was about being a person and what that entailed. Of course, it was picked up as a women’s anthem, which makes me very proud.

And don’t tell me what to do
don’t tell me what to say
And please when I go out with you
Don’t show me cause

As it took on new life, “You Don’t Own Me” became an empowering song for women, even though it was written by men and produced by one of them. them too, Quincy Jones.

“Let’s write a song about a woman yelling at a guy,” said songwriter Madara, now 85, who also wrote the 1957 hit “At the Hop,” about how he and White, who died in 2019, were frustrated with all the songs. women were singing at the time focused on men and how they had hurt them. There was a deeper meaning in the lyrics of “You Don’t Own Me”, which went beyond feminism and into the civil rights movement.

Growing up in Philadelphia during the civil rights movement, Madara says she saw how black people were treated. “It was awful, awful, awful,” he said. “My friends and I were locked up in Philadelphia and Mississippi, and they treated us like gangsters. And my black friends were more affected than me. [The police] had clubs and hit you on the legs, but the blacks were hit on the body. These are things you don’t forget.

In its declarative lyrics, “You Don’t Own Me” not only rejected the notion of a man “owning” a woman, but it was also about people struggling against entrenched systems of inequality.

You don’t own me
Don’t try to change me in any way
You don’t own me
Don’t tie me up ’cause I’ll never stay
yI don’t tell you what to say

I don’t tell you what to do
So just let me be myself
That’s all I ask of you

The song has been covered by many artists over the years, including a version by Australian singer Grace, featuring rapper G-Eazy, in 2015 with Jones again producing.

In 2005, Gore re-recorded the song one last time for his 11th and final album. Always more. That same year, Gore came out as gay and revealed her partner of over 30 years, Lois Sasson, who died in 2020 from COVID-19.

When Gore died in 2015 of lung cancer aged 68, that was not the end of her powerful song, which only grew stronger as a rallying cry during women’s marches in 2018 around the MeToo movement. Prior to her death, Gore also used the song in a public service announcement asking women to vote in 2012.

Overall, “You Don’t Own Me” is a song about acceptance rather than “tolerance” and empathy for your fellow man.

“Listen to what people have to say: be kind and loving to the people you come into contact with,” Madara said. “I think ‘You don’t belong to me’ says that. He says, ‘Treat people fairly’.


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