Some of my most memorable moments have been spent around “You Don’t Own Me,” Lesley Gore’s signature song, an anthem of feminism, defiance and pride for generations. I’ve danced, drank beer, made love and quarreled with lovers with Gore’s lyrics in my ears: “You don’t own me, I’m not just one of your many toys/ and don’t tell me what to do/So just let me be myself/To live my life the way I want.”
Gore, the singer, songwriter, actress, feminist and activist, who recorded “You Don’t Own Me” and other hit songs before she was 18, died on Feb. 16 from lung cancer at age 68 in New York. She is survived by Lois Sasson, her partner of 33 years, her brother Michael Gore and her mother Ronny Gore. Gore came out publicly as a lesbian in 2005. In that year, she hosted several episodes of “In the Life,” an LGBT news magazine that aired on PBS.
Born in Brooklyn, Gore, who grew up in Tenafly, N.J., wanted early on to become a singer. At 16, she got her big break when Quincy Jones, then with Mercury Records, became her producer, after hearing her piano-and-voice recordings.
“It’s My Party,” her first song, a tale of teen angst, became a No. 1 hit in 1963. Soon after, Gore recorded a succession of top hits, including “Judy’s Turn To Cry,” “She’s a Fool,” “That’s the Way Boys Are,” “Maybe I Know” and “You Don’t Own Me.”
Knowing that fame is often fleeting, Gore graduated from Sarah Lawrence College with a degree in English and American literature in 1968. “I had a good brain in my head,” she told the Sacramento Bee.
Her songs dropped off the top of the Billboard charts as the popularity of girl groups faded. But Gore didn’t bask in oldies nostalgia. Over the years, she appeared in TV shows from the campy 1960s “Batman” (as the Pink Pussycat, a sidekick of Catwoman) to “Murphy Brown” (as herself), and on Broadway in “Smokey Joe’s Café.” A talented musician, Gore became a songwriter. With her brother, she co-wrote “Out Here on My Own” for the soundtrack of the movie “Fame.” The song was nominated for an Oscar. “Words We Don’t Say,” a song Gore recorded for her 2005 album, was played on “The L Word.”
Gore came of age when most women, including herself, weren’t aware of feminism. Yet, even then, she showed signs of being a feminist, uppity woman. “She was a serious artist that was way ahead of her time,” Ronnie Spector, leader of the Ronettes, said in a statement.
“You Don’t Own Me,” written by John Madara and David White, has been performed by everyone from Dusty Springfield to Joan Jett to Diane Keaton, Bette Midler and Goldie Hawn in the movie “The First Wives Club.” When Gore first recorded the tune in 1964, she saw it as a “humanist” song. Then she told the Minneapolis Tribune in 2010, “As I got older, I could see why people would use it as a feminist anthem.”
“I don’t care what age you are –-whether you’re 16 or 116,” she added, “there’s nothing more wonderful than standing on the stage and shaking your finger and singing, ‘Don’t tell me what to do.’”
Gore, who grew up at a time when it was difficult, if not impossible, to be openly queer told “After Ellen,” “I just tried to live as normally as humanly possible. But as truthfully as humanly possible.”
She knew what a difference seeing queer people on TV could make to LGBT youth. Gore hosted some “In the Life” episodes, “as a result of meeting young gay people in the Midwest who really had nothing to relate to,” Gore told the New York Times.
Too often, artists believe they shouldn’t be activists or that their art isn’t political enough to contribute to the struggle for social change. That wasn’t the case for Gore, who worked throughout her life for progressive causes. During the 2012 presidential campaign and the 2014 mid-term election, she permitted “Don’t Own Me” to be used in PSAs advocating for women’s reproductive rights. “Ladies, we’ve got to come together, get out there and vote, and protect our bodies! They’re ours!” Gore says in the 2014 PSA.
Thank you, Leslie, for helping us to have the guts to be ourselves. It’ll always be your party. R.I.P.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.