Singing Out Between Tradition and Rebellion: Folk Music, Folk Womanhood and American Feminism in an Era of Social Change, 1954 - 1985

Christine A Kelly, Fordham University


This dissertation argues that folk singer-songwriters Odetta, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Mary Travers and Buffy Sainte-Marie modeled new possibilities for women’s public engagement and political activism in the American postwar era. From 1958 to 1965, they drew from the subculture of the urban, postwar folk revival to resist 1950s gender norms and pathways for adolescent and college age women – especially consumerist-driven fashion trends and preparation for marriage and domesticity – embracing “folk womanhood” instead. Folk womanhood is a mode of public presentation that displays technical mastery over one’s vocals and instrumentation, an austere visual aesthetic, and an outspoken commitment to oppositional politics. A generation of women fans admired and emulated the anti-materialist tastes and dissenting politics of these popular artists, including their immersion in civil rights and antiwar initiatives. From 1968 to 1970, they began or enhanced political activism for women’s issues and related social justice causes. From 1970 to 1985, these singer-songwriters continued to rely on the arts to advocate for more women-specific and explicitly feminist causes. They sang, fundraised, marched, made television appearances, and produced films to raise awareness about and resolve women’s issues. Even as they modeled lives marked by feminist-inspired cultural change and advocated for women’s needs and concerns, they harbored ambivalent, contradictory and evolving views on second wave feminist political activism. These views illuminate their role as members of a pioneering generation that navigated uncharted and uncertain terrain as they pushed women into areas of political, artistic and intellectual dialogue historically defined by their exclusion. The chapters of this dissertation are organized into a collective biography that examines the lives, professional development, and artistic and political influence of each singer-songwriter under consideration. As an approach to feminist history, collective biography provides for an up-close examination of major cultural changes that unfolded in the lives of these artists and that they in turn shaped. It also blurs false distinctions between events marked as personal versus professional. This dissertation demonstrates the significance of these performers as role models for women who, following their example, joined a gender rebellion that culminated in feminism’s second wave.

Subject Area

Music history|American history|Womens studies

Recommended Citation

Kelly, Christine A, "Singing Out Between Tradition and Rebellion: Folk Music, Folk Womanhood and American Feminism in an Era of Social Change, 1954 - 1985" (2019). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI13881442.