WNYC, a public radio station based in New York City, has a new podcast entitled “Dolly Parton’s America.” It is a deep-dive into Dolly Parton, one of the most popular celebrities in the world. Her concerts are as diverse a group as you can find anywhere, from good ol’ farm boys to drag queens (dressed as Dolly, obvi). To give you an idea of the vibe of the podcast, the subtitle is, “The story of a legend at the crossroads of America’s culture wars.”
In the first episode, “Sad Ass Songs,” the host, Jad Abumrad, interviews a few millennials and Gen-Zers that work in the WNYC offices and they say, one of the things they love about Dolly Parton is that she’s a feminist icon. She wasn’t a bra-burning, alleged man-hating feminist of the ’60s and ’70s. She’s more of a modern, third-wave feminist, which basically means that she presents herself how she wants. She doesn’t adhere to any mold that any man or woman wants to put her in. She takes ownership of herself. For instance, Jad notices when Johnny Carson, or any interviewer, would make a sexist joke, she’d take it and then one-up them with a better joke.
Growing up with Dolly, her feminism was very clear and obvious, at least to me. She’s confident in who she is and doesn’t get defensive when she’s underestimated, she just takes the under-estimators money and runs. She’s learned to work within the patriarchy while slowly over a decades-long career making positive changes for women.
This progression can be tracked through her music. She started out with heartbreakingly sad, super dark ballads (one song is told from the perspective of her aunt, who was put in a mental institution because her husband’s cheating drove her to a panic attack, and in the song she’s begging her father to come free her from the asylum… YIKES).
From those ballads she moved onto duets with Porter Waggoner, to her solo career in the late ’70s, containing the utterly brilliant “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You.” (Fun fact: She wrote both of those songs in the SAME NIGHT… what a legend.)
In the ’80s after the hilarious, feminist masterpiece of “9 to 5″ came out, Dolly does albums with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris and they are pitch-perfect, beautiful, three-part female harmonies that are explorations of romantic relationships, yes, but also the soul of these women and sisterhood.
I don’t think this feminist progression is necessarily conscious on Dolly’s part. I think she just creates whatever speaks to her at that time in her life. Most of her music now is about self-confidence and believing in yourself and being free from self-criticism and the judgment of others, basically the grandmother-ly pep talk of your dreams.
Now you might wonder how Dolly’s feminism, at all, relates to eventing. This is how: in the “Sad Ass Songs” episode of the podcast, Jad asks Dolly if she is a feminist. She emphatically says no. Jad described the moment as, “it’s like I dropped a word bomb in the room.” It disrupts the flow of the conversation and you hear a defensiveness in Dolly’s voice, which is an unusual tone for her to speak in, especially publicly.
I was shocked to hear the utter rejection of the word feminism. Dolly has always been supportive of the LGBTQIA+ community. She’s said in the past, if she’d been born a man she’d probably be a drag queen. Dolly’s also been quoted, “I’m a feminine girl, I’m a working girl. I think we all should be treated with respect and if we do a good job, we should get paid for it.” She wants people to be able to do whatever’s best for them. However, even though she subscribes to the foundational tenets of modern, third-wave feminism, she doesn’t use that word.
It got me thinking. How important is it to use a word? If all of Dolly’s actions are pointing towards the societal change that are committed to enhancing the lives of marginalized communities, do I care if she will not use the same vocabulary that I would? If someone’s doing the work, then does anything else really matter? Now, obviously, this is an oversimplification of a nuanced issue of how words are powerful and the effect of their usage. However, in terms of eventing, Dolly Parton’s feminism taught me that the important thing is without the work nothing improves.
In eventing, if you haven’t put the work in, you will not get very far. We all know this. If you haven’t done your trot-sets and fitness work, your horse will not complete cross country well. If you haven’t put the time into your flat-schooling, your dressage test is not going to be the picture of harmony that it should.
Dolly, over her decades long career, has done the work for women, day in and day out (along with her advocacy for children’s literacy. Her charity, Imagination Library, has given away 126 million books so kids can have books in their home. She was inspired by her father, who was illiterate from a lack of access to education, not lack of intelligence.)
Doing the work of bettering yourself, your horse, and your partnership doesn’t have to be big swings everyday, but it does have to be consistent, genuine effort.
Go be like Dolly, do the work, then go eventing.