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Remembering Lesley Gore, Billboard-Topping Feminist

Remembering Lesley Gore, Billboard-Topping Feminist

Yesterday we said goodbye to Lesley Gore, who passed away at age 68 of lung cancer.

Gore recorded her two most famous songs, “It’s My Party” and “You Don’t Know Me,” while still a New Jersey high-schooler. When she turned 18, she opted to attend Sarah Lawrence College instead of touring as a singer. “The record company wasn’t thrilled, my agent wasn’t thrilled — but I sensed very early just how fickle this business is,” she recalled. “It would have been very foolish of me to leave school to go into such an unpredictable field on a full-time basis.” 

Her singing career never recovered, but Gore persevered in the entertainment business as a Broadway and variety-program performer, as well as a songwriter. She and her brother, Michael Gore, were nominated for an Oscar in the Best Original Song category for “Out Here on My Own” in “Fame.” (She lost to her brother, who won for that film’s titular song.) 

Meanwhile, Gore’s earlier songs, especially “You Don’t Own Me,” took on lives of their own. She gave permission for female-empowering lyrics like You don’t own me, don’t try to change me in any way. You don’t own me, don’t tie me down ’cause I’d never stay. Oh, I don’t tell you what to say, I don’t tell you what to do, So just let me be myself…To live my life the way I want, To say and do whatever I please” to be used in get-out-the-vote ads for Al Gore and Barack Obama. 

“As I got older, feminism became more a part of my life and more a part of our whole awareness, and I could see why people would use it as a feminist anthem,” Gore said of “You Don’t Own Me.” “I don’t care what are you are — whether you’re 16 or 116 — there’s nothing more wonderful than standing on the stage and shaking your finger and singing, ‘Don’t tell me what to do.’”

Gore came out in 2005, the same year she hosted several episodes of “In the Life,” a PBS program profiling LGBT life in America. “I saw what a difference a show like ‘In the Life’ can make to [viewers’] lives in some of these small towns where, you know, there are probably two gay people in the whole damn town,” she said of the response she got to the show. “It’s made real inroads for them. They come and talk to me about this stuff, so I know how important it is.”

Gore also advocated for the legal recognition of gay relationships, stating, “I think it’s important, not so much to be married to your partner as to be given the civil rights that married couples get, so I’m on that bandwagon. I know it takes some people a little longer. They come to this with histories, apprehensions, fears because they don’t understand. The more people understand that they probably already know a gay person, and in fact adore them, then the better off we’re gonna be—and that may take awhile, but it’s happening, for sure. By the time I shut my eyes for good, I’ll have seen a real difference, I think, and I’m happy about that.”

Here’s Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton, and Bette Midler rocking out to Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” from “The First Wives’ Club.” 

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