Behind the Song Lyrics: Lesley Gore’s Feminist, Civil Rights Anthem “You Don’t Own Me”

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Originally written by two men, David White and John Madara, “You Don’t Own Me,” started out as another song about some boy in the 1960s then transformed into the anthem of female empowerment and racial equality.

Right from the opening lyrics, You don’t own me / I’m not just one of your many toys / You don’t own me / Don’t say I can’t go with other boys, Gore left behind the bubblegum pop of her previous hits like “It’s My Party,” into a darker marching elegy that went beyond her teenage years.

Recorded and released in 1963 when Gore was just 17, “You Don’t Own Me” was technically another song about “boys,” much like many of her previous hits like “Judy’s Turn To Cry,” but quickly transformed into a statement, not just about being a woman but being human, and powerful.

“At the time, I know I chose it because I know I liked the strength in the lyric,” said Gore in 1991. “But, for me, it was not a song about being a woman. It was about being a person, and what was involved with that. Of course, it got picked up as an anthem for women, which makes me very proud.”

And 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 ’cause

As it took on new life, “You Don’t Own Me” became a song of empowerment for women, even though it was written by men and produced by one as well—Quincy Jones.

“Let’s write a song about a woman telling a guy off,” said songwriter Madara, now 85, who also wrote the 1957 hit “At the Hop,” on how he and White, who died in 2019, were frustrated by all the songs women were singing at the time centered around men and how they’ve done them wrong. There was a deeper meaning in the lyrics of “You Don’t Own Me,” that moved beyond feminism and into the civil rights movement.

Growing up in Philadelphia during the civil rights movement, Madara says he saw how black people were being treated. “It was horrible, horrible, horrible,” he said. “My friends and I got locked up in Philadelphia and Mississippi, and they treated us like gangsters. And my black friends got hit more than I got hit. [The police] had billy clubs and hit you across the legs, but the black guys got hit across the body. Those are things you don’t forget.”

In its declarative lyrics, “You Don’t Own Me” was not only rejecting the notion of a man “owning” a woman but it was also about people fighting against rooted systems of inequality.

You don’t own me
Don’t try to change me in any way
You don’t own me
Don’t tie me down ’cause I’d never sta
yI don’t tell you what to say

I don’t tell you what to do
So just let me be myself
That’s all I ask of you

Throughout the years, the song has been covered by numerous artists, including a version by Australian singer Grace, featuring rapper G-Eazy, in 2015 with Jones producing again.

In 2005, Gore re-recorded the song one last time for her 11th and final album Ever More. That same year, Gore came out as gay and revealed her partner of more than 30 years Lois Sasson, who died in 2020 due to COVID-19.

When Gore died in 2015 from lung cancer at the age of 68, it wasn’t the end of her powerful song, which only grew stronger as the rallying cry during the women’s marches in 2018 around the MeToo movement. Prior to her death, Gore also used the song in a PSA asking women to vote in 2012.

In its whole, “You Don’t Own Me” is a song about acceptance over “toleration” and empathy for your fellow man.

“Listen to what people have to say: be kind and loving to the people you come into contact with,” said Madara. “I think ‘You Don’t Own Me’ says that. It says, ‘Treat people fairly.'”

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