In 1971, when Representative Bella Abzug introduced a joint resolution to Congress creating Women’s Equality Day, she wasn’t likely thinking about women in popular music. After all, the subject is seemingly silly compared to what Women’s Equality Day commemorates—the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, which guaranteed women the right to vote.
Though it was likely far from Abzug’s mind, 1971 was in fact an ideal time to think about women in popular music and how their representation in pop culture had shifted over the previous decade or so. In terms of significant releases, it was a banner year for women—in good ways and bad. Although Australian Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” wasn’t released as a single until 1972, it appeared as a track on her 1971 debut album I Don’t Know How to Love Him. The song went on to become an anthem of the women’s liberation movement.
Less politically oriented but more artistically significant, Janis Joplin’s posthumously released Pearl showed the singer’s expanded range, bringing home the tragedy of a life cut short.
But perhaps the most significant release for divining the progress of women in the United States was Carole King’s Tapestry. The album, King’s second as a solo artist, was a surprise megahit, selling 25 million copies worldwide, winning four Grammy awards, and staying at the top of the Billboard chart for 15 weeks; it remained on the charts for six years. To this day, it’s one of the best-selling albums of all time.
All of these numbers are impressive. Tapestry, though, is more than an album which sold so many copies that used record stores have an overabundance of them to this day. It’s an album that represents a woman, who already had a decade-long career as a songwriter for teen acts, stepping out from behind the scenes as a mature singer-songwriter with a voice of her own.
Carole King’s career began as a songwriter over ten years earlier, when she began writing songs with her then-husband Gerry Goffin. Their relationship—both romantically and professionally—was a sign of the times. While the 1950s promised teen boys rebellion through rock ‘n’ roll, girls faced intense pressure to conform. A much-cited survey conducted by the Saturday Evening Post in 1962 found that 90% of women between the age of 16 and 21 wanted to be married by the age of 22. In the 1950s, the median marriage age for women dropped to just 20, and women were supposed to go straight from their father’s house to their husband’s. If they went to college, they were expected to find a husband by junior year. Though the birth control pill was approved for contraceptive use in 1960, it was almost impossible for unmarried women to obtain.
Certainly, King’s life reflected this reality. She met Gerry while the two of them were students at Queens College, and they married quickly after she became pregnant when she was just 17. Had it not been for a shared ambition to become songwriters, King might have become like one of the songs by groups such as The Chordettes, whose “A Girl’s Work Is Never Done” (1959) shows a teen girl doing endless housework, presumably in preparation for an adult life of more of the same. While King watched her daughter during the day, she also spent hours at the piano, writing songs to which Gerry would add lyrics in the evening.
In 1960, King and Goffin made a breakthrough in their songwriting career with “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” written for The Shirelles, a group of four African-American teen girls. The song outlines the sexual dilemma that teen girls of the time faced: Would a boy love her tomorrow, after they had gone “all the way”? It’s not clear if the song takes place before, or after, the big event, and its ambiguous temporal standpoint probably added to its appeal among teenagers at the time. It also stands out from pop tunes of the time, with a yearning major III chord corresponding with the third line of text, evidence of King’s growing skills as a songwriter.
The success of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” ushered in an era in which King and Goffin became some of the most in-demand songwriters in the pop charts, writing songs for artists such as Aretha Franklin, Bobby Vee, The Drifters, Little Eva, and The Chiffons. During this time, King remained behind the scenes as a songwriter. (Fittingly, her only hit under her name, “It Might as Well Rain Until September” was a demo released as a single.) Like “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” many of King’s songs at this time dealt with the issues of teen life, from which she wasn’t so far removed. But around her, the musical landscape began to change, and her marriage fell apart.
Though she had already released one solo album, Writer, in 1970, Tapestry marked a departure from her earlier work. Rather than relying on her ex-husband as her lyrical partner, most of the songs were written by King (at the encouragement of her pal James Taylor, who would cover King’s “You’ve Got a Friend”). Even the Goffin/King songs that she “covered” feature a new level of maturity: “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” takes on a slow, mournful quality that makes its timeframe no longer so ambiguous.
The album represents something not quite visible in popular music before 1971—and, for that matter, rarely seen since. It marks the presence of a mature, adult woman singing about mature, adult topics in a way that resonated with a very large audience of both men and women who had grown up with rock ‘n’ roll. In many ways, it’s a perfect soundtrack for Women’s Equality Day, not because it proclaims equality in any political way, but because it marks a moment in which a woman received critical acclaim for writing as herself.