Rush Limbaugh made it clear: Women who desire power and self-determination weren’t real women at all.
Every morning when my dad left for work as a pest control technician, his truck stirred up a cloud of dust on our dirt road in rural Missouri. It was a kind of magic to watch him disappear into a plume of earth.
Mom and I would watch at the window and wave. Then she’d grab my hand and we’d run to the record player. Our first record was always “You Don’t Own Me” by Lesley Gore. We’d sing along while I cleared the breakfast dishes and she washed.
Don’t tell me what to do / Don’t tell me what to say / And please when I go out with you, don’t put me on display / You don’t own me / Don’t say I can’t go with other boys
When I listen to those lines today, decades later, on the day of Limbaugh’s death, I am reminded that the song is a subversive praise of female empowerment. Mom doesn’t call herself one, but she certainly brought me up to be a feminist. So did Rush Limbaugh.
I was raised with a regular radio feed of Limbaugh lecturing about the dangers of ‘feminazis.’ He explained, “I prefer to call the most obnoxious feminists what they really are: feminazis. Tom Hazlett, a good friend who is an esteemed and highly regarded professor of economics at the University of California at Davis, coined the term to describe any female who is intolerant of any point of view that challenges militant feminism. I often use it to describe women who are obsessed with perpetuating a modern-day holocaust: abortion.”
Limbaugh’s first book, The Way Things Ought to Be (1992), was prominent on Dad’s bookshelf. We listened to Limbaugh daily because it was Dad’s truck and he controlled the radio. Limbaugh’s hometown, Cape Girardeau, Mo., was a few hundred miles south of us, but his zeal was felt throughout the Midwest.
I was encouraged to laugh along with the sexist conservative humor because to disagree was dangerous. Going along brought me success until it didn’t, until I couldn’t hold my tongue in the back seat while Limbaugh simultaneously slut shamed, fat shamed, sexualized and misconstrued women. Dad had always told me I could achieve anything I set my mind to, and yet we listened daily to the threat of autonomy.
“A feminazi,” Limbaugh said, “is a woman to whom the most important thing in life is seeing to it that as many abortions as possible are performed. Their unspoken reasoning is quite simple. Abortion is the single greatest avenue for militant women to exercise their quest for power and advance their belief that men aren’t necessary. They don’t need men in order to be happy. They certainly don’t want males to be able to exercise any control over them.”
Limbaugh notes that not all feminists are feminazis, but the underlying message was clear: Women who desire power and self-determination weren’t real women at all. Limbaugh preached an anti-feminist message against political, economic, and social equality of the sexes. He helped conservative men believe that feminism was a weapon intended to emasculate them and by elevating the danger of a liberated woman, he paved the way for a toxic trap like Trump.
The only woman I ever heard on my dad’s radio was Dolly Parton. She could sing and went along with the jokes that reduced her talent to her cleavage. She even took the lead in making the joke about her body before a man could. But I listened to Dolly’s words in songs like “Just Because I’m a Woman”: “Yes I’ve made my mistakes, but listen and understand, my mistakes are no worse than yours just because I’m a woman.”
In She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs, Sarah Smarsh writes that rural woman have always used music as a way to communicate suppressed emotions: “That darkness in a woman’s voice, plain stories of hell on earth sung by women who have little to carry them forward but faith, is the divine feminine of American roots music.”
When Hadley Freeman interviewed Dolly Parton for The Guardian in 2019, she asked whether Parton considers herself a feminist. Freeman reported that with a wrinkled nose, Parton said, “I don’t think … I mean, I must be if being a feminist means I’m all for women, yes. But I don’t feel I have to march, hold up a sign or label myself. I think the way I have conducted my life and my business and myself speaks for itself. I don’t think of it as being feminist. It’s not a label I have to put on myself. I’m just all for gals.”
The irony is that Parton defends her ‘individual self’ vehemently—sounds a lot like a feminism to me. She resists the label because of its cultural baggage, which is especially heavy in rural communities, in some part thanks to Limbaugh, but since she values freedom and equality for ‘gals,’ she’s advocating for feminism. She has every right to shrug the label. Both can be true.
I couldn’t find my voice within this Midwestern ecosystem dominated by Limbaugh’s radio, so I left to find it on the page. The morning when I learned of his death, I said a prayer, as Mom also taught me to do. Then I grabbed my daughters’ hands and played Lesley Gore and Dolly Parton’s feminist anthems. Most of the values I learned—hard-work, guts, grit and kindness—far outweigh Limbaugh’s disturbing messaging about how to be a woman in rural America, but it was a deep sexism that fueled the birth of my feminism.
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