Generations before the Dixie Chicks became country superstars and unlikely political commentators, Sarah and Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family reigned as country music's first ladies and two of its biggest stars. As long as country music has been played, women have been playing it, but the distance that separates the Carters from Gretchen Wilson's "Redneck Woman" is more than a temporal one. In the 1940s, the difference between men and women as represented in country music was clear. Men could be good-hearted but might be given to drinking, cheating, fighting, lying, and other complicated and questionable behaviors. They were free to be full, three-dimensional people endowed with a realistic spectrum of human emotions. Women, on the other hand, were just good-hearted, or they were cruel—typically one thing or another, rarely a human combination of both. The story of gender in post-war country music is largely the story of how women, in song and on stage, came to represent themselves in full.
The Carter Family played traditional, spiritual songs that were selected or cobbled together by the Family's impresario, Sarah's husband A.P. Carter. Sarah's voice gave a stark and beautiful clarity to the emotional truths at the core of A.P.'s songs, but those truths, in hits like their recording of the Christian spiritual "Will the Circle be Unbroken," spoke of an existence that was Christian, Appalachian, or universally human perhaps, not one that was specifically female. And when the Carters' songs did concern women, they were defined by their men as lovers, wives, and widows. Such traditional ideas of gender and family were so central to the Carters' image that when A.P. and Sarah later divorced, they did their best to keep the news quiet and continue to perform as a "family." In other words, the women of the Carter Family performed their country music as country folk, not as country women and certainly not as unseemly divorcees.
When Patsy Montana's 1935 single "I Want to be a Cowboy's Sweetheart" became the first million-selling record by a female country singer, the genre's decidedly male bias received its first nudge toward admitting a female perspective. That perspective, however, still suggested a woman as defined by her relationship with a man (being the sweetheart to her cowboy). The early 1950s hit "It Wasn't God Who Made the Honky-Tonk Angels," recorded by Kitty Wells, had a more provocative lyrical spirit that resonated with female listeners but could doubtless have been a better country feminist anthem had it not been written by a man and recorded by a demure housewife.
What listeners might have imagined based on Wells's big single, they finally got in Patsy Cline. Cline, who began life as Ginny Hensley and may have adopted the "Patsy" from Patsy Montana, utterly redefined the idea in the minds of both the industry and the listening public of what a "country" woman could be. She's best remembered for her epic torch songs and ballads, but Cline was comfortable and convincing with everything from straight-ahead country to rock and roll. She was similarly in control of her persona, beginning her career in singing cowgirl outfits and ending it (when she was killed in a plane crash in 1963) as a sleek, stiletto-heeled country chanteuse. If Kitty Wells gave country fans a different kind of song, Patsy Cline gave them a different kind of singer, sexy and confident—a woman in full. Her influence on subsequent generations of female country singers is hard to overstate.
Several interesting heirs apparent picked up Patsy Cline's brassy mantle through the remainder of the 1960s and '70s. Loretta Lynn, the coal miner's daughter whose hardscrabble rural upbringing became the stuff of American legend, shared Cline's self-assuredness and candor. With songs like "Don't Come a Drinkin' (with Lovin' on Your Mind)" and "The Pill," Lynn's work suggested that country women just might be joining the sexual revolution that was being waged in other quarters of American culture. A woman of similar determination, Dolly Parton has had a career that probably has its only popular music equal in that of Madonna. Like Madonna, Parton has been reinventing herself for decades, and while she has shrewdly tailored her persona to keep herself in the fickle spotlight, her perspective, like Loretta Lynn's, has remained distinctly that of a woman in control of her career. Significantly, Parton's career traces an arc from beginning under the wing of Porter Wagoner, an established country performer who took Parton on as a duet partner after the release of her 1967 single "Dumb Blonde" (a part of her shtick), to emerging as an eclectic solo superstar through the course of the 1970s. Although her outrageous outfits and corny humor have at times strayed far into self-parody, Parton's success at manipulating her image has been key to her lasting appeal and provided a highly visible example of a woman who has utterly mastered self-definition.
By the close of the 1970s, when Tammy Wynette, then the reigning queen of country music divorced the king, legendary crooner George Jones, it was a wildly more public affair than the hushed divorce of A.P. and Sarah Carter three decades earlier. Wynette went on to remarry several times and dish on her tumultuous relationship with Jones in a bestselling memoir, none of which hurt her tremendous success as a recording artist. The country women on today's charts are, indeed, a far cry from the prim personas of the Carter Family—or even Kitty Wells. They are brash and intelligent, flawed, openly sexual and complex people, rather like their male counterparts.