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From Queen Latifah to Spice Girls: How 90s Pop Music Talked Feminism

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Editor’s Note: Before the 90s, women in music were either singing mostly about their heartbreak or longing surrounding men (like Whitney Houston or Joni Mitchell), or, became ‘sex symbols’ and essentially had to objectify themselves to sell their music. While the 90s did have its fair share of women-singing-only-about-men (case in point, Celine Dion) as well as ‘sex symbols’ (case in point, Britney Spears); it was still a time when gender norms were being shaken up in the music industry by a number of female artistes. While the Riot Grrrl movement led to an upsurge of subversive feminist music in the rock genre, mainstream pop and hiphop music weren’t far behind, producing some really progressive and empowering lyrics.

During the 90s, ‘Girl Power’ was the buzzword in the music industry, and female artistes and songwriters were embracing this concept like never before. From popular artistes like Gwen Stefani to girl bands like The Spice Girls, to kickass female rappers like Queen Latifah and Salt-N-Pepa—a diverse range of gender-sensitive music was being created.

Why The 90s Music Scene Was Revolutionary

The 90s was the time when Third Wave Feminism began penetrating public and private discourse in major ways—and feminist theorists like Audre Lorde and bell hooks gathered mainstream attention while discussing and promoting it. Naturally, this discourse seeped into popular culture, and especially music—which saw an outburst of feminist activity. Not only did lyrics focus on ‘girl power’, sexual agency, bodypositivity, and personal female autonomy, the music industry was also creating exclusive female spaces to encourage feminist discussions and offer mutual support to women from different backgrounds, like The Lilith Fair. The Lilith Fair was a concert tour and travelling music festival which was specifically for women, had majority female performers, and was a rage in the 90s. Started by Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan—due to her frustratration surrounding the lack of female representation in mainstream music festivals—this was a space for unrestricted female expression and female bonding. Featuring some of the most popular artistes of the era from Queen Latifah to Sheryl Crow to Sandra Bernhard, this became not just a space for female musicians of the time to express themselves, but also a safe space for female spectators to come together and see their voices being represented. Sadly, the fair today, is slowly getting upstaged by popular festivals like Coachella, but that doesn’t diminish how revolutionary it was, and still continues to be.

Pop Music—From ‘I’m Just A Girl’ to ‘Man, I Feel Like A Woman!’

Earlier, we were used to women being presented as one-dimensional, hypersexualized objects in the realm of pop music—but the 90s threw those stereotypes out the window. Themes of agency, bodily autonomy, celebration of female sexuality (rather than demonizing it), and most importantly, sexism and patriarchy were dominant in mainstream pop music. Gwen Stefani, and her band No Doubt, was not only taking conventions of desirability for a spin by rocking belly button rings and nonconforming clothes, but was also questioning internalized misogyny through her music. Her most notable work, ‘Just A Girl’ is a thorough investigation of the gender roles within society which repressed women’s freedoms and had some really iconic lines such as:

“’Cause I’m just a girl
I’d rather not be
‘Cause they won’t let me drive
Late at night
Oh I’m just a girl
Guess I’m some kind of freak
‘Cause they all sit and stare
With their eyes
Oh I’m just a girl
Take a good look at me
Just your typical prototype”

Shania Twain, another 90s sensation, was known for celebrating womanhood free from the reins of patriarchy. Her second studio album was titled ‘The Woman In Me’ and featured songs which encompassed various female experiences. Her most popular, and pretty much one of the most powerful feminist anthems of the time was ‘Man, I Feel Like A Woman’ which was all about female autonomy.

But these weren’t the only feminist pop anthems of the time—Ani DiFranco’s “Not A Pretty Girl” (“I am not an angry girl but it seems like I’ve got everyone fooled / every time I say something they find hard to hear / they chalk it up to my anger / and never to their own fear.”), Madonna’s “Human Nature” (“You tried to shove me back inside your narrow room/ And silence me with bitterness and lies/You punished me for telling you my fantasies/I’m breakin’ all the rules I didn’t make/Would it sound better if I were a man?”), Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch” (“I’m a bitch, I’m a lover/I’m a child, I’m a mother/I’m a sinner and a saint/And I do not feel ashamed”) and many others.

When Kickass Ladies Took Over Hip Hop And Talked Feminism

Before the 90s, hip hop was, sadly, a totally male-dominated genre, very often with brutally misogynist lyrics (something that sadly is a reality even today). But, in the 90s, female rappers and hip hop artistes burst into the scene, and integrated social messages about empowerment, bodypositivity, sexual freedom and so on into their catchy tunes. The kickass pioneers of this shift in the hip hop scene included sensations like Queen Latifah, Lil Kim, Missy Elliott, Erikah Badu, and the all-female hip hop group Salt-N-Pepa to name a few. They were unapologetic in addressing the issues which needed addressing, and created major tidal shifts in the music industry.

Queen Latifah’s ‘U.N.I.T.Y’ dealt with the theme of sexual violence like never before, and was probably the first mainstream song to empower and give agency to assault survivors. The lyrics went:

“And I was scared to let you go, even though you treated me bad

But I don’t want my kids to see me getting beat down

By daddy smacking mommy all around

You say I’m nothing without ya, but I’m nothing with ya

A man don’t really love you if he hits ya

This is my notice to the door, I’m not taking it no more”

Salt-N-Pepa’s “None of Your Business” was the anti-slutshaming anthem not just for its time, but for ages to come, with lyrics that are relevant even today, such as—“If I wanna take a guy home with me tonight/It’s none of your business/And she wanna be a freak and sell it on the weekend/It’s none of your business/Now you shouldn’t even get into who I’m givin’ skins to/It’s none of your business/So don’t try to change my mind, I’ll tell you one more time/It’s none of your business”.

Missy Elliott is another artiste who has rapped at length about bodypostivity (glorifying her curves and butt in “I’m (Really) Hot”) , female bonding  (“1,2 Step”—which is a collaboration with R&B artiste Ciara), women in positions of power (She sang “We Run This” way before Beyonce sang “Who Run The World”), sexual agency (like the song “Work It”, which is about sex work), and has constantly tried to reclaim sexist slurs such as ‘slut’ and ‘bitch’ which appear across her various songs as terms of empowerment.

They weren’t the only ones, though. Many female hiphop and rap artistes made the 90s a really great time for women in music.

All-Girl Bands, And How They Redefined Close Female Relationships

When you think of bands—even today—you imagine an all-male group, because that’s what majority of bands consisted of. The 90s, though home to some iconic boy bands like Backstreet Boys and Blue, was also shaking up the male dominance within bands by introducing girl bands. Bands like The Spice Girls, Destiny’s Child, TLC, Dixie Chicks, En Vogue, Girls Aloud, t.A.T.u among many others broke out into the scene with their progressive, empowering songs which, many a times emphasized positive relationships between women. Some of these bands—like t.A.T.u (in the song “All The Things She Said”)—even talked openly about lesbian relationships while other bands like The Spice Girls showed off the homoerotically coded bond between bandmates. Even besides that, they addressed the patriarchy head on and tackled some really powerful feminist themes in their songs.

The Spice Girls were all about ‘girl power’ and the feminist movement—while each had a specific niche and “type” of female they portrayed, they always made sure to portray that together, women could do anything.  Their song ‘If You Wanna Be My Lover’ has gone on to become one of the most iconic celebrations of close female friendships.

Before Beyonce made it big on her own, she was headlining Destiny’s Child, an R&B band which had a lot to say about women’s independence and emancipation from male control. While their song ‘Bills, Bills, Bills’ pushed for economic and social freedom from oppressive male control, ‘Independent Woman’ was an all-out encouragement for women from all walks of life to pursue their desires and not pay heed to sexist backlash. ‘Say My Name’, however, remains their most iconic song, which is a thinly-veiled allegory about emotionally abusive relationships, and is another in a series of 90s songs which empower the survivor of abuse rather than victimize them.

These lists aren’t exhaustive and can go on and on, because the 90s were testament to a lot of female singers who were challenging patriarchal norms and celebrating a femininity which was free from these norms. It is them that paved the way for the pop-feminism the music industry sees today—and in fact, Beyonce still continues to spread positive feminist messages through her music. All of these artistes normalized feminist conversations and inspired many young girls across the globe growing up with their music to embrace their identity as a woman and celebrate it. These were the women who were defying conventions and choosing to take their narrative into their own hands, and even after two decades, their legacy continues to inspire us in the music industry.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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