Remembering Leslie Gore, Pop’s Pre-Beyonce Feminist Queen

By Frank Donovan

Before feminism pervaded the work of today’s artists like Beyonce, Lorde, and Pussy Riot, there was Lesley Gore from Tenafly, New Jersey. She sang “You Don’t Own Me,” the defiant feminist anthem whose power has only grown over the decades.

The beloved singer died of lung cancer on Monday in New York City at age 68.

In 1963 when she was just 16, Gore recorded it her smash hit “It’s My Party” with producer Quincy Jones at the helm. She heard it on the radio only a week later on her drive to school, and her life was never the same. Other hits followed, including the sequel tune “Judy’s Turn to Cry,” “She’s a Fool,” and the indelible “You Don’t Own Me” in 1964. She shared billing with James Brown, The Rolling Stones, and Chuck Berry at The T.A.M.I. Show, a concert film produced that same year.

Gore chose to continue her education despite her musical success. She majored in British and American literature at Sarah Lawrence College, close enough to New York City to remain on the scene, and not just musically. She appeared as Pussycat on the TV show Batman in 1967, and volunteered for Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1968. She even worked for her mentor Bella Abzug, a lawyer, politician, and prominent leader of the Women’s Movement.

She was nominated for an Academy Award for co-writing “Out Here on My Own” a ballad from the soundtrack to 1980’s Fame. And in the 1990s, starred on Broadway in Smokey Joe’s Cafe.

In the 2000s Gore was a recurring host on In The Life, an LGBT documentary series on PBS. In a 2005 interview she described the impact the show had on young Americans, “I meet a lot of young people in the Midwest, and I saw what a difference a show like In the Life can make to their lives in some of these small towns where, you know, there are probably two gay people in the whole damn town.” Gore herself came out publicly for the first time on the show.

“You Don’t Own Me” made a comeback in a PSA urging women to vote in the 2012 midterm election. Women like Sia, Lena Dunham, Carrie Brownstein, and Tavi Gevinson lip-synced the song. Gore herself appeared in the video and added, “it’s hard for me to believe, but we’re still fighting for the same things we were [in 1964]…we’ve got to come together, get out there and vote, and protect our bodies. They’re ours.”

[Photo: Getty Images]