“You Don’t Own Me”: The Rebellious Freedom Cry At The Heart Of The First Wives Club

Photo: Paramount/Kobal/Shutterstock.

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Any conversation about The First Wives Club begins and ends with its most indelible scene, in which Anne (Diane Keaton), Elise (Goldie Hawn), and Brenda (Bette Midler), clad in fabulous all-white ensembles, take the stage to sing Lesley Gore’s 1964 hit, “You Don’t Own Me.” It’s one of those rare movie moments that transcends its medium to become a standalone contribution to pop culture, a triumphant finale for a film that might otherwise have fallen through the cracks, forgotten as a fun, harmless romp. 

Directed by Hugh Wilson based on the best-selling book by Olivia Goldsmith, the movie opens in the late 1960s — a few years after Gore recorded the song. Annie, Brenda, Elise, and Cynthia (Stockard Channing) are graduating from college, and exchange promises (and pearl necklaces) to be friends forever. Of course, it doesn’t happen quite that smoothly. Thirty years later, a devastated Cynthia dies by suicide after her husband leaves her for a younger woman. Reuniting at her funeral, Annie, Brenda, and Elise, who have since grown apart, realize that they once again all have something in common: a desire for revenge on their dirtbag exes.

Annie, a homemaker, can’t seem to quit Aaron (Stephen Collins) — even after their separation. That is, until she finds out he’s been sleeping with their shared therapist (Marcia Gay Harden) on the side. Elise, a movie star, is going through a vicious divorce with former collaborator and director Bill Atchison (Victor Garber), and struggling to retain her sense of self-worth in an industry that values women mostly for their physical attributes and sex appeal. Brenda, who helped her husband Morty (Dan Hedaya) build his business from the ground up, is stunned when his sudden success and mid-life crisis prompts him to leave her for Sherry (Sarah Jessica Parker), a young, vapid social climber.

Gore was just 17 years old when she recorded the throaty song written by John Madara and David White, and produced by Quincy Jones (yes, that Quincy Jones). Until then, her fame had been built on bubblegum hits like "It's My Party" and "Judy's Turn To Cry,” which positioned her as the poster girl for teen heartbreak and frothy, wholesome fun — the kind of girl Rizzo (played by Channing in 1978) would have razzed in Grease. “You Don’t Own Me” was different. 

In an interview with NPR’s Neda Ulaby in 2019, Madara said the song was written as a form of explicit rebellion against the glut of songs for young women pining about the boy who wouldn’t call them back. "Let's write a song about a woman telling a guy off,” he recalled saying.

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The song was assertive and bold, an overt challenge to a music industry that demanded that young women only care about boys, dresses, and dates, leaving the thinking to their male counterparts. (This is even more striking in hindsight, given Gore’s coming out as a lesbian later in life. In 2005, she told Ellen DeGeneres that she only came to terms with her sexuality in her twenties, just a few years after the song’s release.)

But it was even more than that. In 1963, the year Gore recorded the song, Congress passed the Equal Pay Act, but it would take nearly a decade for it to be expanded to cover a significant array of positions. Until 1974, single, widowed, or divorced women couldn’t apply for a credit card without a man to co-sign. It was entirely legal to fire a woman because she got pregnant until 1978. Sexual harassment wasn’t even a known term until the 1980s, much less something to be taken seriously. In effect, men really did own their wives, who had little to no agency outside of the home. For women of color, those restrictions were even more sharply defined. “You Don’t Own Me” wasn’t just a figurative declaration. It was an aspiration. 

The three First Wives, who likely married towards the early 1970s, belong to a generation on the cusp: More independent and ambitious than their mothers, but also socially conditioned to believe that their worth — and financial comfort — was entirely tied to the man in their life. It’s only post-divorce that they learn there might be a different path. And even then, it’s a luxury afforded to them because they are affluent and white, with the right social connections to pull themselves back up. 

“You Don’t Own Me” has since morphed into one of our most well-known emancipation anthems, covered by other women artists like Dusty Springfield, Joan Jett, and Grace, whose hip-hop version with G-Eazy hit the charts in 2015, the same year Gore died at the age of 68. In 2012, Gore herself used it as part of PSA to get women to vote, and in 2018, Jessica Chastain led the women members of the Saturday Night Live cast in a rendition to celebrate the second Women’s March, giving the song new life in the #MeToo era. 

But while the “You Don’t Own Me”’s rousing chorus can be heard in countless movies and TV shows, including Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, FX’s Feud: Betty and Joan, American Horror Story, and Suicide Squad among others, none of them matched its rebellious but joyfully exuberant tone as well as 1996’s The First Wives Club.  

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All three women feel as though they’ve had their lives stolen by the men they loved. After years of support and handholding, they’re suddenly being told that it isn’t enough — they aren’t enough. The First Wives Club is about getting even financially (the tagline is famously: “Don’t get mad. Get everything”), but also about regaining one’s dignity and sense of self independently from a partner. That’s at the core of Gore’s lyrics, which shy Annie finally finds the confidence to belt at the end of the film: ”Don't tell me what to do, and don't tell me what to say, and please, when I go out with you, don't put me on display.”

The scene, which comes on the heels of the grand opening of a facility to help women in need financed by the money recouped by the First Wives Club’s revenge scheme, turns what started as a young woman’s cry for independence into a song that reflects the challenges that women face throughout their lives as their identities shift and reform. Dressed in white — a color worn by early suffragettes that has taken on its own protest meaning in the Trump era — these women are proudly declaring their humanity. 

It’s only fitting that Gore’s own relationship with the song, which she re-recorded in 2005, mirrors that journey. “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 told The Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2010. “I don’t care what age 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.’”

Now, tell me that doesn’t make you want to jump up on a chair and sing. 

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