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February 18, 2015 by

Lesley Gore (1946-2015), Who Created a Feminist Anthem

Cover art for Gore's I'll Cry If I Want To. The copyright is believed to belong to the label, Mercury Records.

Cover art for Gore’s I’ll Cry If I Want To. The copyright is believed to belong to the label, Mercury Records.

On a sultry evening in July of 2011, music fans young and old took over a plaza at Lincoln Center for a concert called “She’s Got the Power.” On the bill were stars from many classic “girl group” bands—singers from The Toys, The Cookies, The Crystals, and others. Even The Ronettes’ legendary Ronnie Spector was set to perform. In this powerhouse lineup, no one generated more excitement than Lesley Gore.

And who wouldn’t love her? Gore had intelligence and humor, power and grace, and a voice that could belt with the best. On that night and many others over a decades-long career, she held the crowd in her hand. 

Born Lesley Sue Goldstein in Brooklyn, to parents Ronny and Leo (the Goldstein family changed its name to Gore soon after her birth), Lesley grew up in Tenafly, New Jersey. Her love of singing led to vocal lessons, and in 1963 a demo tape that she had made managed to reach up-and-coming producer Quincy Jones. He embraced her sound—a compelling mix of innocence and sophistication—and quickly produced Gore’s first single, “It’s My Party.” It reached No. 1 in the United States in May of 1963, when she was just 17. The sudden fame could be a shock: When DJs called Gore “the sweetie pie from Tenafly,” fans located her family’s home in the suburban town and camped out on their lawn. 

Also in 1963, she recorded what is to many her most enduring song, “You Don’t Own Me,” which reached No. 2 on the charts in early 1964 (blocked from the top spot by the Beatles with “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”). Though written by two men, Dave White and John Madara, and also produced by Jones, “You Don’t Own Me” became a feminist anthem and was later covered by Dusty Springfield, Joan Jett, and Amy Winehouse. 

This song was also used in a campaign to get women voters to the polls for the 2012 U.S. presidential election. Gore felt astonished that women’s rights and issues of birth control were such an issue in the campaign. “It’s hard for me to believe,” she posted on Facebook at the time, “but we’re still fighting for the same things we were then. Yes, ladies, we’ve got to come together and get out there and vote and protect our bodies. They’re ours.”

Despite her huge successes and the demands of her work in music, Gore graduated from high school with her class in 1964 and entered college that fall at Sarah Lawrence College, taking no time off. The traditional Jewish emphasis on formal education was evident in her explanation to the press at the time: “It would be very foolish of me to leave school to go into such an unpredictable field on a full-time basis.” 

She continued with her musical career during college, but, ultimately, her position did indeed change within this “unpredictable field.” Her later singles faltered on the charts, and in the late ’60s, Gore was dropped by her label, Mercury Records. She used her newfound flexibility as an opportunity to pursue political activism and community involvement, volunteering for Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign and later working for politician Bella Abzug in New York. She also began focusing on songwriting along with her singing; her next big hit as a writer was “Out Here on My Own,” a ballad she co-composed with her brother Michael for the 1980 movie Fame. The song was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song. 

In 2004, Gore hosted the LGBT news show “In the Life.” The experience made her consider how important gay role models could be within the community. Though her sexuality and long-term relationship were in no way secrets to those who knew her, in 2005 she made a point of stating to the public at large that she was a lesbian and had been living for over two decades with her partner, jewelry designer Lois Sasson.

It was also in 2005 that she released Ever Since, her first album in over 30 years. Speaking that year to the New York Times about the album and her career overall, she admitted that, though the business of music had seemed trivial to her, the emotional rewards of a musician’s life never would. “I have found over 43 years that I really rather love what I do…And it really does keep me in touch with people, in a way that a lot of people don’t get a chance to be in touch with people. So I have a newfound love and respect for my career.” This love and respect came back to her many times over from all her fans, and her death from lung cancer on February 16th, at age 68, will do nothing to stem that tide. Lesley Gore: beloved musician, committed feminist, powerful mensch.