A retro decade for the women in country

In the late 20th century, the women of country music were charting a path of progress toward parity with their male counterparts and then things began to go backward. 

The 2019 Country Music Awards (CMA) was a Hollywood script with the title “Gender Equality in Country Music.” Reba McEntire, Dolly Parton, and Carrie Underwood hosted the event, and women took home awards for the Best New Artist, Album, and Music Video. Jenee Fleenor made history by becoming the first woman to be named Best Musical Artist. Country’s often-tagged “bro culture” looked to be besting Hollywood as a media showcase for advancing gender equality. 

Like many scripts, this one was a fiction. While country music has gained in popularity with the increasing presence of female stars, the country music industry seems determined to marginalize and degrade the power of its female half.  

Negative progress for the women in country is not a secret. In the last decade, nominations for females at the CMA have tanked. In the first decade of the 21st century, major record labels introduced 43 new female artists; in this past decade, there were 31. Female artists listed at the top of Billboard’s Top Twenty can resemble an endangered species. Spins of female country music stars have plunged. In 2002, the ratio of spins between men and women was 3.4:1. In 2018, it was 10:1. The female artist that got the highest exposure was 11th overall, but women had 3 of the top 10 country music albums. This might not be so significant if country was like other music genres where 12% of people rather than 70% get their music by radio.

Mark Guarino of the Guardian commenting on negative trends for the women in country said, “What makes the situation frustrating is that there is no clear explanation for the imbalance.”

But there is. With the women of country demonstrating increasing innovation and marketability, perhaps more than the men of country, the powerful men running country music have been making sure that the power accruing to female country stars is limited and leaves them subordinate. 

When women are perceived as becoming too successful in male-dominated industries, backlashes have become too familiar. Country music may be a little different; instead of a normal increase in unconscious biases, discrimination against women is conscious and overt.

  • In 2013, Taylor Swift was accosted during a photoshoot.
  • In 2015, Keith Hill, who oversees 300 country music stations, said in an interview with Country Aircheck, “If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out.”
  • Pete O’Heeren, the founder of Cold River Records, using email in 2015 advised country star, Katie Armiger: “Taylor Swift hugged and kissed these guys… you choose not to, then that’s up to you and your career will be impacted. Advising you to dress edgy is not out of line either … The audience and the PDs need to find you alluring.” 

Increasing overt bias is also coming through in the lyrics. The findings of a 2019 study of country music lyrics spelled reinforcement of gender inequality rather than progress toward equality. In the late 20th century, lyrics commonly depicted men and women in the traditional roles of breadwinner husbands with wives tending to chores and children. In the 21st century, lyrics were more inclined toward men providing women with booze and having sex. Instead of portraying women as traditional and subordinate, yet honorable, country music is using a collective voice to convey women as drunken, uninhibited, shameful creatures of sex. 

Sexist comments in country are a problem and so is sexual harassment. According to one expert on getting more spins on Indie radio stations, artists need to show radio station managers that they appreciate it when their songs are played. What does appreciate mean? According to a 2018 survey by Rolling Stone Country, female artists meeting with station managers “are expected to be overly accessible and use sexuality as currency.” In fact, so much so that the byline of the article is “Scores of women looking for radio play and professional opportunities say they’ve been subjected to sexual harassment during station visits.” Country music is another industry where powerful men degrade women with sexual objectification that sends a message that their success relies on submission. It’s another industry operating like the microcosm of a patriarchal society.

Until recently, country music kept a lid on revelations of sexual harassment. In 2015-2017, Taylor Swift, Meghan Linsey and Katie Armiger broke with protocol and came forward with allegations of sexual harassment. Swift was sued, Armiger was sued, and Linsey was advised to keep the culprit’s name quiet. It’s rare in country for victims or culprits to be named because it’s common knowledge that this is a career-ending move for the victim. Andrea Swift said the reason Taylor didn’t contact the police after DJ David Mueller’s photographed butt grab is they didn’t want the incident defining Taylor. As what? A troublemaker that needs to find a new genre. It’s working. Women like Swift are heading to other music genres, like pop, where women get equal play time. They may endure sexual harassment, but at least they get more play time. In the private sector, aspiring women opt out of one industry and into another when they don’t perceive a fit. That’s doublespeak for realizing that when it comes to increasingly powerful positions, there’s only so much room at the top for women. 

Female country music stars should see themselves as sisters with other competent aspirational women in male-dominated industries. Look at the leadership hierarchy, the higher up you go, the scarcer women become. In the most powerful positions, women are virtually absent. Medical doctors are one of the highest status professional positions, and female doctors are now nearly as common as male doctors. They too, are facing greater bias and sorely under-represented in leadership. Data is mounting. As women enjoy greater success, they are facing more barriers that will prevent them from leadership positions where they could oversee much-needed changes to halt discrimination that prevents gender equality. 

The 2019 CMA show is one more illusion of progress for gender equality. Group it with other illusions – including the biggest illusion of all that women are closing in on gender equality. For several years running, the World Economic Forum, the organization that produces an annual gender gap report, has elongated the estimated time for gender equality and the United States is not an exception. As women become more successful and muster the courage to use their voice, forces for the status quo of men on top are doubling down. Subordinates are to be seen – not heard.

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