25 Songs That Perfectly Capture the Female Experience

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A few months back, with what we intended to be a wink, Flavorwire brought you a playlist of misandry anthems that explored some of the stronger reactions to the patriarchy through song. Of course, not every song written from the female perspective qualifies as such, or, indeed, factors in men at all. Some aim to explore what it means to be a woman in a relation to other women, be it our friends or mothers or children. Many take society’s expectations, beauty standards, and double standards to task. Mary J. Blige even wrote a song about her period. Through these 25 songs, we explore just a few facets of what it means to be a woman navigating the world.

“#1 Must Have” — Sleater-Kinney

More than any other act in recent memory, Sleater-Kinney have always been inspired by female power. All Hands on the Bad One standout “#1 Must Have” expertly parses a few different complicated women’s issues, including the co-opting of female empowerment as a marketing tool, the beauty brainwashing of women, and frustration with third-wave feminism. More than that, the Portland trio offers up a solution: violence against women is still a very real concern so “the number one must have is that we are safe.” Amen.

“What It Feels Like For A Girl” — Madonna

Madonna’s performance of female sexuality has been a crucial component of her work since her earliest days, but it wasn’t until this 2001 single off Music that she reflected on her gender roles and double standards in an overt way. Opening with a passage from the Charlotte Gainsbourg film The Cement Garden, “What It Feels Like For A Girl” highlighted the silencing behavior expected of women starting in childhood with lines like, “When you open your mouth to speak, could you be a little weak?”

“Sheela-Na-Gig” — PJ Harvey

“Sheela-Na-Gig,” PJ Harvey’s second single ever, was a good barometer of how much she’d hold back in the course of her career. The song is built around the historical tradition of Sheela na gig statues, carvings of naked women revealing their exaggerated vulvas, which can be found on centuries-old buildings throughout Great Britain. The concept comes easily from there: the song’s narrator reveals her child-bearing hips to a man who is not interested. “Gonna wash that man right out of my hair,” Harvey declares, recalling South Pacific and an era when women were meant to be chased instead of showing their intentions.

“PMS” — Mary J. Blige

Roll your eyes at a song called “PMS,” but Blige handles it gracefully on this soulful album cut off No More Drama. Blige laments the lower-back aches, bitchy outbursts, and tiredness, surmising simply, “The worst part of being a woman is PMS.” I’d argue that the wage gap is worse, but to each her own.

“Man” — Neko Case

In her rip-roaring 2013 single, Neko Case represents for the women who resent the expectations foisted upon them simply because of their gender. Lines like, “My proxy is mine/ You’ll deal with me directly,” make clear what she’s trying to get across in what could be a hard-to-parse concept, but it’s her ending that really drives the point home: “You didn’t know what a man was until I showed you.”

“***Flawless” — Beyoncé feat. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“I woke up like this” is a myth, but boy is it a fun one. Bey encourages pride in natural beauty in light of societal pressure, but it’s Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s urging not to diminish our mental shine that’s the important takeaway here.

“They Say I’m Different” — Betty Davis

The title track of Betty Davis’ killer 1974 album They Say I’m Different is an anthem for the ones who never fit in. The funk singer doesn’t need to call specific attention to her gender, but it’s inherently part of what she’s talking about when she mentions idolizing blues legends like Big Mama Thornton and Albert King when she was 16 and how that made others perceive her as strange.

“Man! I Feel Like a Woman” — Shania Twain

Even if you’re not a fan of men’s shirts paired with short skirts, you get the gist of what Shania’s going for in this Come on Over single from 1999. Maybe you think the best thing about being a woman is the ability to be a mother, not to “have a little fun (fun fun).” But if you buy into the feminine part of identifying as a cisgender female, you probably get it: there’s something kind of inwardly powerful about dressing up and stepping out.

“Respect” — Aretha Franklin

“R-E-S-P-E-C-T” may seem timid and too dependent on male approval in light of what came after it, but Aretha Franklin’s signature song is and will always be an all-time anthem. In an era when speaking out for women’s rights wasn’t expected from pop songs, Franklin’s tweaking of Otis Redding’s original was bold but still instantly iconic, representing the changing times of the late ’60s.

“Rebel Girl” — Bikini Kill

The centerpiece of Bikini Kill’s 1993 debut, Pussy Whipped, finds Kathleen Hanna challenging the status quo by declaring her admiration for another girl in the Riot Grrrl scene, instead of tearing down the competition. “That girl, she holds her head up so high,” Hanna says, “I think I wanna be her best friend.”

“Keep Ya Head Up” — Tupac

A song by a man on a list of songs about being a woman? Tupac showed immense empathy in this 1993 single, asking a number of questions often wondered by the fairer sex: “Why do we rape our women, do we hate our women?” Pac finds multiple ways to point out that women hold the power in their ability to give birth, men have taken them for granted, and we need to make changes in our gender relations for the good of future generations. And he keeps it funky.

“Just One of the Guys” — Jenny Lewis

Both as part of Rilo Kiley and on her own, Jenny Lewis has offered countless portrayals of life with a slightly feminine touch. Rilo Kiley’s “My Slumbering Heart” lamented physical beauty while “Pictures of Success” contemplated what it means to be a modern girl with hopes and dreams, but it’s this 2014 single that examines the pressures of a ticking biological clock. “There’s only one difference between you and me,” she says, “When I look at myself, all I can see: I’m just another lady without a baby.”

“Little Green” — Joni Mitchell

On her seminal Blue, 27-year-old Joni Mitchell sings from the perspective of woman who’s been through a lot of turbulence in love, specifically with Graham Nash and James Taylor. The album’s oldest and most desolate songs, “Little Green,” is a reprieve from all this inward reflection inspired by romance, instead speaking of the daughter Mitchell gave up for adoption in 1965 when she was too poor and young to properly care for the child. “You’re sad and you’re sorry but you’re not ashamed/ Little green have a happy ending,” she surmises, wanting all the best for the baby she gave up.

“Not a Pretty Girl” — Ani Difranco

In one of her signature anthems of female empowerment, Ani Difranco holds it down for the women who want to be “more than a pretty girl,” despite how society has historically figured their worth. From the damsel in distress to the bitch, Difranco demands to move beyond the stereotypes often applied to women.

“Hey Mami” — Sylvan Esso

Brooklyn electro-pop duo Sylvan Esso offered up this ode to the urban catcall as its first single in 2013. Singer Amelia Meath doesn’t need to say to point out how exhausting catcalls can become on a daily basis, instead offering up a gender neutral perspective that simply chronicles the behavior. “She don’t know the gravity she holds,” Meath surmises between cataloguing the usual slew of pick-up lines like, “I know what you want” and the song’s title.

“Girls Just Want To Have Fun” — Cyndi Lauper

If the songs on this list prove anything, it’s that girls definitely want to do more than have fun. But even Lauper herself says as much on this, her first big hit single from 1983. While “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” has become synonymous with all those “girls night out” scenes from movies, the point of the song is the celebrate female freedom, away from the expectations of what a woman should and shouldn’t do.

“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” — The Shirelles

This Carole King-Gerry Goffin hit represented a very real concern at the time of its release by The Shirelles in 1960: you’re not just saying you love me to get in my pants, right? Two waves of feminism later, things are a little different in terms of sex vs. love among the genders, but some variation of this concern still rings true, such as: will you ever text me back after we hook up?

“Cornflake Girl” — Tori Amos

Following up Little Earthquakes was no easy feat for Tori Amos, but her second album, Under the Pink, stood out with songs like “Pretty Good Year” and “Cloud on my Tongue.” The album’s highlight, however, was “Cornflake Girl,” a song that’s spawned an incorrect pseudonym for Amos herself (she says right in the song, “never was a cornflake girl”). Amos was inspired by the ongoing practice of female genitalia mutilation in Africa, where a young woman’s mother, aunt, or sister will often help with the barbaric practice. The song is an extended metaphor about the betrayal of trust among women, with cornflake girls representing those who would betray their sisters and raisin girls representing those who respect the trust. (Raisins are harder to find in a box of breakfast cereal.)

“None of Your Business” — Salt-N-Pepa

Patron saints of the feminist party rap anthem long before Nicki Minaj, Salt-N-Pepa gave the world this takedown of slut-shaming all the way back in 1993. They say some of the things Cyndi Lauper alludes to in “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” but take it one step further, defending sex workers while they’re at it: “If I wanna take a guy home with me tonight/ It’s none of your business/ And she wanna be a freak and sell it on the weekend/ It’s none of your business.”

“Transgender Dysphoria Blues” — Against Me! 

On the opening track of Against Me!’s first album following Laura Jane Grace’s transition, the singer offers up a quintessential track about the transgender experience. Lines like, “You’ve got not cunt in your strut” make a strong impression, but it’s the wallops of truth about a society that is just beginning to address its transphobia that make the biggest impact: “You want them to see you/ Like they see any other girl/ They just see a faggot/ They hold their breath not to catch the sick.”

“Doll Parts” — Hole

Hole’s Live Through This would sit at number one on a list of albums about the female experience; it chronicles motherhood, sexual abuse, insecurity over physical beauty, and more. “Doll Parts” is one part of the equation. Courtney Love wrote the song about Kurt Cobain a little while after they’d met because she felt insecure about about his feelings for her — a phase even the most confident of women could understand. Love was embarrassed of how she’d acted when they first met — they wrestled — so she’d sent him “a heart-shaped box scented with perfume and inside a porcelain doll, three dried roses, a miniature teacup and shellac-covered seashells.” The title takes on multiple meanings in light of this, referring to feminine looks as well as her personal gift to him.

“Just a Girl” — No Doubt

As the leader of a rock band comprised of men, Gwen Stefani’s mere presence was an affront to the status quo. She used the experience to point out society’s absurd notion of women as fragile beings in this Tragic Kingdom single and all-time classic about what a girl can and can’t do.

“Typical Girls” — The Slits

Ari Up wonders aloud who decided the rules for women, and why there’s an expectation to adhere to stereotypes. “Typical girls worry about spots, fat, and natural smells,” the punk icon declares before asking, “Who invented the typical girl? Who’s bringing out the new improved model?” We’d still like to know, thanks.

“Just Because I’m a Woman” — Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton’s first record for RCA (and second solo album all around) was a big move paired with a bold statement: she called it Just Because I’m a Woman. The album’s title track was an admonishment of double standards regarding the sexual behavior expected of men and women in that era (1968), as inspired by Parton’s husband asking such questions about her past.

“Bitch” — Meredith Brooks

Laugh if you want, but show me a chorus that succinctly captures the dimensions of womanhood better than: “I’m a bitch, I’m a lover, I’m a child, I’m a mother, I’m a sinner, I’m a saint, I do not feel ashamed, I’m your hell, I’m your dream, I’m nothing in between, you know you wouldn’t want it any other way.”