Lennon Becomes a Feminist
Encouraged and influenced by Ono, Lennon also began to show a growing commitment to the cause of feminism. In 1972, Lennon released the provocative and controversially-entitled “Woman is the Nigger of the World”. The song was co-written with Ono and the words of the title, it must be noted, were originally stated in 1968 interview she had with the contemporary British women’s magazine, Nova.
Lennon passionately defended the song’s title and polemics when he performed the song on The Dick Cavett Show in May 1972. He insisted that it was mostly white males who ‘reacted strongly’ to the song–it was banned by most radio stations–and claimed that his black friends supported his artistic and political use of the hateful and hurtful racist term.
He claimed the support of Ron Dellums of the Black Caucus and cited the Democratic Congressman’s following observation: “If you define ‘nigger’ as someone whose lifestyle is defined by others, whose opportunities are defined by others, whose role in society is defined by others, the good news is that you don’t have to be black to be a nigger in this society. Most of the people in America are niggers.”
It is also worth noting that the African-American comedian, social satirist and civil rights activist Dick Gregory also supported Lennon and Ono. Lennon and Ono had appeared together on the front cover of Jet with Gregory the previous year (“Ex-Beatle Tells How Black Stars Changed His Life”, Jet, 1971). The title implies recognition of the historical and contemporary oppression of black people.
Although Lennon contended on The Dick Cavett Show that usage had ‘changed’, the song actually returns the word to its awful origins: a viciously racist term intended to denigrate and dehumanize. Used politically to express identification and alignment with oppressed people of color, it is then universalized to underscore the condition of all women everywhere.
Of course, the moral and artistic right of non-black men and women–particularly those gifted with power and privilege–to use such a word and to further imply that white women have been as equally victimized as black people throughout history may be questioned, if not damned. The word is socially and historically specific as it is painfully redolent of African-American suffering, what James Baldwin memorably defined as “the specific and peculiar complex of risks we had to run”. (The Fire Next Time, 1963) Accusations of inauthenticity, superficial radical chic, and even racism are not without basis.
Ono was, however, surely aware of the potency of her words. The direct, loaded rhetoric of the song’s title angrily aims to underscore the transnational and ahistorical oppression of women. Women of all colors, creeds, and economic backgrounds are specifically denigrated and dehumanized because of their gender. The song should also, of course, be seen in historical context. Despite the sexual revolution of the ’60s, women in the West were still subject to a sexual double standard and sexual objectification. Women were still paid less than men and suffered sexism as well as lack of professional opportunity in the workplace.
Vietnamese women were being particularly dehumanized in the Vietnam War because of their race and gender. American servicemen had themselves testified to the rape, torture, and murder of Vietnamese women.
The statement may also have carried a deep, personal import for Ono. Although she had enjoyed a privileged upbringing, the artist came from a deeply patriarchal society. She had experienced professional disparagement in the art world and racism from the both the media and the public in the West.
The song also, of course, refers to the daughters, mothers, and wives of oppressed men. Encompassing the experiences of black women and working-class women, it evokes the observation of Lucy Parsons, a feminist labor activist of African, Native, and Mexican American blood in a 1905 speech: “We (the women) are the slaves of slaves. We are exploited more ruthlessly than men. Whenever wages are to be reduced the capitalist system use women to reduce them.” (Manning Marable, How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America, 2000).