I recently had the pleasure, along with six other women, of participating in a Women Historians and Scholars panel at The Fest for Beatle Fans in New York, where eight thousand fans marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles arrival in the US. Many panel attendees commented that it was rare and long overdue to see women panelists at the Fest, founded in 1974. Indeed, it was only the fourth such session in forty years! Astounding as this may be, it sort of makes sense.
It’s not a conspiracy and there aren’t any bogeymen. It’s a legacy of the sixties that there are fewer women writing and talking about the Beatles in the public sphere—just as there are fewer female comedians, talk show hosts, congresspeople, etc.
If you look at fan images from fifty years ago, they are 99% female, but today, 99% of the “experts” are male. So there’s a disconnect. In 1964, the press was pretty dismissive of these girls, often rather insulting. The hysterical girl fan became a caricature of Beatlemania. The legacy of those images today is the perception that women can’t have anything intelligent to say about the Beatles, their music, or the phenomenon.
In addition, many fewer women than men of the boomer generation went on to be writers, journalists, academics, musicians, musicologists, etc. Even male Beatle scholars in the 80s and 90s had a hard time convincing their chairs that this was an area worthy of serious inquiry—for a woman to have fought that battle would have been impossible. So maybe the male Beatles scholars paved the way, but now it’s 2014. Our panel, which several observers thought was the high point of the weekend, demonstrated that new voices in the conversation keep Beatle fandom and Beatle scholarship fresh and interesting.
Beatle fandom has been “gendered” from the get-go, but much of the conventional wisdom about the Beatles and gender is oversimplified. For example, it’s often said that boys wanted to be them and girls wanted to be with them, but that’s not the whole story. When I was conducting interviews for my book Beatleness: How The Beatles and Their Fans Remade The World, several female fans told me they wanted to play the drums in school band, like Ringo, an early fave of many, but were teased by boys and dissuaded by teachers and parents.
The relatively few first-gen girl fans who even thought to ask for a guitar weren’t given an electric guitar—girls didn’t mess around with cables and electricity in 1964. Maybe they could be like Joan Baez, or later, Joni Mitchell, but not John or George. And while the Wrecking Crew, the studio musicians behind some of the eras biggest hits, had an awesome female bass player in Carol Kaye, fans didn’t know that. Not only were there no role models, but parents in the sixties were very uptight about gender role violations—that’s why long hair on boys became a significant battle ground.
It’s not that girls were less interested in the music than boys were, it’s just that they related to the music and the band in ways the culture allowed. Also, statistically, 10% of the population was gay, and so some number of male fans wanted to be with them too, which of course the culture also didn’t allow. Girls “picked a fave” because they wanted to focus on one Beatle—a new kind of guy who was sensitive and seemed to understand her. Boys were less likely to pick a favorite because the Beatles’ camaraderie and ‘“groupness” was very appealing to them.
As with any field of inquiry, the more perspectives we have, the more we understand. The women on our panel spanned a thirty-year age range, and though each of us studies the Beatles in her own way, we are all experts, with Beatle world bona fides. Looking ahead, I hope we see more women contributing to our understanding of the Beatles and their legacy. And maybe, soon, the women won’t be on a separate panel.