This past week saw the death of country music legend Loretta Lynn at the age of 90. One need not have been a country music fan (as I am) to find this woman’s life important. Her story is especially significant at a time when, five years into the mainstreamed #MeToo movement, we still face serious questions about the treatment of women in both the church and the world.
When I think of Loretta Lynn, my thoughts don’t go first to her music—although I love it and could recite lyrics all day. I think of the self-described “Honky Tonk Girl” and her meeting with Richard Nixon.
Invited to perform at the White House at the height of the Vietnam War, Lynn took advantage of an audience with first lady Pat Nixon to raise the matter of someone she thought was unjustly imprisoned.
“Pat,” she said, “I’ve been wanting to write a letter to … Richard.”
Of course, one does not refer to the president of the United States by his first name—and especially not in the White House. Lynn chalked up her faux pas to her background as a coal miner’s daughter and the fact that she hadn’t spent a lot of time in places of power. When a television announcer in Chicago asked her why she had referred to the president as “Richard,” she said, “They called Jesus ‘Jesus,’ didn’t they?”
In some ways, that one anecdote sums up much of why Loretta Lynn caught the imagination of so many people. With one sentence, she gently poked at an institution that needed more authenticity. And she did it with a mischievous wink, letting her listeners know that she was not nearly as unsophisticated as she let on and that she knew exactly what she was doing.
Almost every analysis of Lynn’s career focuses on her role as a kind of protofeminist. For instance, her song “Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’ (with Lovin’ on Your Mind)” took on the abusive behavior of men caught in alcoholism and adultery, both of which Lynn had tragically seen up close.
Her song “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)” broke the standard trope of the heartbroken woman watching her man drift away with another. Think of Dolly Parton’s plaintive “Jolene,” in which she almost begs the other woman, “Please don’t take him just because you can.” Loretta, on the other hand, promised “Fist City” to anyone who threatened her or her family.
Her song “One’s on the Way” expresses the burdens of a woman raising children without adequate support or help from the father. She speaks from a very different class perspective than Betty Friedan or other elite feminist figures. The song references prominent women such as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Elizabeth Taylor and calls their jet-setting lifestyles out of touch with working-class women:
The girls in New York City, they all march for women’s lib,
And Better Homes and Gardens shows the modern way to live.
And the pill may change the world tomorrow, but meanwhile, today
Here in Topeka, the flies are a buzzin’
The dog is a barkin’ and the floor needs a-scrubbin’
One needs a spankin’ and one need a huggin’
Lord, one’s on the way
Her class critique cleverly took on both the elite feminist establishment and those who embraced the status-quo idea of domesticity (Better Homes and Gardens). Neither one could understand what it means to be in Topeka, Kansas, hoping “it ain’t twins again.”
Once again, Lynn took on an institution she loved (family) and stripped away as much pretension as she could to ask, Is this really the way things should work?
She took on a task that wasn’t easy in postwar 20th-century America, but it was especially difficult in postwar 20th-century country music America. Lynn claimed that many radio stations refused to air her songs because they were “controversial,” which she defined as “just a four-dollar word for what I’d call honesty.”
In a book describing her life on the road with fellow country legend Patsy Cline, she reflected on bluegrass icon Bill Monroe allegedly pinching her backside while backstage at a show. Lynn took the reader through her thought process: “Was it because I hugged him?” she asked. Did he misinterpret her actions as flirting? “It seemed like it had to be my fault,” she wrote. “Otherwise, how could a respectable man like Bill Monroe do such a thing?”
Then she told the reader that she was too naive to see that he was to blame, not her. “Now I know better,” she wrote. “Bill was a dirty ole man, plain and simple. Being talented didn’t make him trustworthy or a gentleman. I don’t like it, but I know now. You can’t trust somebody just ’cause you wish you could.”
Over the past five years, we have seen revelation after revelation about men using the power of their positions to harm others, especially women and girls. When these revelations are about the church, many default to protecting the institution.
Sometimes they minimize the problem by saying, Look at all the good things the church does! Sometimes they do it with a “whataboutism” that points to abusive figures in the secular world: What about Harvey Weinstein? What about Jeffrey Epstein?
Sometimes the woman-blaming happens when people suggest the conversation itself is a “secular #MeToo movement” and a “liberal Trojan horse” attempting to supplant the sufficiency of Scripture.
But—most disturbing at all—people within the church will often blame the women who endure the harassment or abuse rather than the people who did the harassing and abusing. Women might be expected to reflect on what they might have done to “lead on” the men who abused them. More women than I can count have had their lives wrecked—through defamation and worse—simply for coming forward.
Underneath all this is the same old set of lies—that men cannot control their passions and that women must be responsible for not setting off those passions (or must “just endure” what happens when men don’t restrain themselves).
Many times, the church’s response to the abuse of women can sound just like that of the 1960s-era country music industry: “Well, he’s Bill Monroe; how could someone that talented do something like that?”
Loretta Lynn could see through that, and so should we.
That’s especially true when the way of Christ is strikingly different from the way of the world. The biblical story starts and ends with a mission that includes both men and women as joint heirs with Christ—inheritors together of the mandate to conserve and govern creation, along with the kingdom that is breaking through now in Christ Jesus.
If accountability for this vision will come, it will come through honesty. And honesty—at least in an institution committed to its own self-perpetuation—often comes with controversy.
“Fighting for my freedom made me the Loretta Lynn I am today,” the singer said. “Even though it hurt, I can’t regret that. I won’t.”
That’s the Loretta Lynn the institution of country music needed to be confronted with. The institution of the church, too, need to be reminded that women and girls are not “Honky Tonk Angels” expected to endure what no one should be asked to endure.
Lynn endured more than anyone should have to bear. Her songs tell that story, as does her autobiography. And yet, she is remembered not just because she went from the poverty of a coal miner’s daughter to the celebrity of a Grand Ole Opry legend. She will be remembered for seeing the pain around her and within her and challenging people to stop seeing all that pain as “just the way things are.”
When institutions or people claimed they were too big or too rich or too powerful to do anything other than the status quo, she was willing to say, “Enough.” She saw where the real priorities needed to be and refused to bow before the pretense of power.
In other words, she called Jesus “Jesus.” And that’s woman enough to shake the world.
Russell Moore is the editor-in-chief at Christianity Today.