What's Behind Dolly Parton's Rejection of Feminism?

Dolly Parton is — in her own words — not a feminist.

Parton’s rejection of the word is a focal point of the first episode of the podcast Dolly Parton’s America, a podcast hosted by Jad Abumrad of Radiolab and More Perfect fame. When Abumrad asks her if she identifies as a feminist towards the end of “Sad Ass Songs,” Parton replies with, “No, I do not… I love men.” She later follows this comment up with, “Just the word ‘feminist’ is like, ‘I hate all men.’”

Part of Parton's reaction is evidence of the rigid stereotypes that in some ways have always been associated with feminism. Too often feminist concerns for equality are mistaken as "man-hating" or "reverse discrimination." BBC notes that these stereotypes have shadowed the feminist movement since the 1920s. However, Parton's rejection of the word "feminist" is indicative of a larger problem within the fight for women's rights. 

Dolly Parton, middle, starred alongside Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda in the feminist classic "9 to 5"

Feminism is an especially polarizing topic for rural women such as Dolly Parton. Rural women may view feminists as being hostile towards men. Parton touches on this concept in her interview when she links being a feminist to hating men, arguing that she “[doesn’t] believe in crucifying a whole group just because a few people have made mistakes.” Rural women may also believe that feminism vilifies the nuclear family and threatens the social relationships that are valued in rural life.

And the struggle with feminism is not just a rural problem. Feminism, despite activists’ work to make the movement intersectional, is still not for everyone, and rural women are not the only group that feel excluded by the movement. Author Barbara Ehrenreich argues that the feminist movement “had the unforeseen consequence of heightening the class differences between women.” Ehrenreich uses welfare as an example of just one issue which illuminated the class differences between women that grew out of the feminist movement. During the second wave feminist movement of the seventies, “every woman is just one man away from welfare” was a popular slogan which united women of all backgrounds. Whether women were working for low wages or living off their husband’s salary, welfare was a salient concern. However, though the women's liberation movement of the 1970s paved the way for women working in white-collar professions, the movement has achieved few gains for women in low-pay positions. By the 1990s, in the wake of the 1996 welfare reform, the popular sentiment became, “I work to care for my kids. Why shouldn’t she?” Middle- and upper-class women who earned the right to work during the 1970s could no longer understand why the state had to subsidize lower income, working class women to raise their children.

The 2016 Washington, D.C., women's march was been criticized for stifling the voices of black women

Black women face similar exclusion in feminist spaces. One study found that 21% of millennial African American women identified as feminist, compared to 26% of white women. And though 75% of all women surveyed felt like feminism had done a lot for white women, only 46% of African American women felt like the movement had done a lot for women of other ethnicities. In a 2018 blog published by the National Organization for Women (NOW), a black intern writing as Rebecca A. notes that it was white feminists who dismissed her as “aggressive, rude, and ignorant,” demanding that she choose between her race and her gender. “The old white man in Congress works hard to silence me politically,” Rebecca argues, “[but] the faux-ally white feminist works harder to silence me socially.”

In 2020, it is critical that feminists fighting for equality around the world realize the blindspots within their own movement. Dolly Parton's rejection of the word "feminist" is just the tip of the iceberg. Those fighting for women's rights today can make the movement more inclusive by understanding the role race, sexual identity, ability, and class play in defining privilege. Such change is crucial to the modern struggle for women's rights. 

Sources: 1, 2