John Lennon’s Journey To Feminism And Why It Matters In The Era Of Trump

 John and Yoko in Central Park. Photo: Bob Gruen. 

John and Yoko in Central Park. Photo: Bob Gruen. 

Please forgive the sacrilege, but after the release of the video in which Donald’s Trump’s vile and hateful remarks about women surfaced and his subsequent “apology,” I find myself thinking about John Lennon.

Yes, I know it is odd to think of John Lennon and Donald Trump in the same breath. Lennon was a brilliant artist, a visionary, a passionate social activist and one of the 20th Century’s most eloquent, influential and powerful spokesmen for peace.

That said, Lennon and Trump do have at least one thing in common: a history of misogyny for which they both offered an apology. However, the nature of their apologies and how they came to them are instructive and shed light on why Trump is a poisonous force and Lennon still matters and deeply inspires us.

Trump’s history of misogyny, like Lennon’s, is well documented. But unlike Lennon, despite the fact that he has already lived 30 years longer, Trump has never come to terms with his ugly treatment of women. He was cajoled into his recent faux apology by a team of advisers who made it clear to him that his run for President was doomed unless he offered something at least resembling a mea culpa. Trump couldn’t even reach that low bar. “I apologize if anyone was offended,” he said. It was so poorly received that he was forced to shoot a second version, during which he cluelessly, if not predictably, changed the subject to Bill Clinton and attacked Hillary.

Watching Trump disgrace himself, John Lennon’s song “Woman” came to mind. The story of how Lennon came to write the song is actually the story of his individuation, the awakening of consciousness.

Some history:

In the song “Getting Better,” from the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s album, Paul McCartney sings Lennon’s mournful lament: “I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved.”

Years later, not long before he died, Lennon admitted, “That was me. I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically ― any woman. I was a hitter. I couldn’t express myself and I hit. I fought men and I hit women. That is why I am always on about peace, you see. It is the most violent people who go for love and peace. Everything’s the opposite. But I sincerely believe in love and peace. I am a violent man who has learned not to be violent and regrets his violence. I will have to be a lot older before I can face in public how I treated women as a youngster.”

At 25, Lennon wrote “Run For You Life,” a jealous, immature rant which years later he called his “least favorite Beatles song.” “Run For Your Life” was inspired by Elvis Presley’s recording of Arthur Gunter’s “Baby, Let’s Play House,” a song written from the perspective of a spurned lover who wants his former girlfriend with college aspirations to return to him to “play house.” Elvis performed it live with hips a-thrusting, leaving little doubt as to what he had in mind by “house play.” In the last verse The King delivers this dire warning: “Now listen to me, baby, try to understand, I’d rather see you dead little girl than to be with another man.”

“Run For Your Life,” written more than a decade later in 1965, picks up where “Baby, Let’s Play House” finishes, with the same threat. However, Lennon takes it further, warning his lover that he is a “wicked guy” with a “jealous mind.” (He would revisit this theme years later with piercing sorrow in “Jealous Guy”). Most disturbingly, at the end of the song Lennon emphasizes his seriousness: “Let this be a sermon, I mean everything I’ve said; baby, I’m determined and I’d rather see you dead.”

The following year Lennon met Yoko Ono and shortly afterwards wrote “All You Need Is Love.” The raucous street anthem “Give Peace A Chance” followed and then “Power To The People,” in which Lennon dared to ask his “comrades and brothers” something they had probably never even thought to consider: “How do you treat your own woman back home?” For good measure, he then reminded them, “She’s got to be herself, so she can free herself.” However, Lennon’s transformation from misogynist to feminist was just beginning.

In 1972 all hell broke loose with the release of Lennon and Ono’s controversial pro-feminist anthem, “Woman Is The Nigger Of The World.” The song was a searing indictment of a sick patriarchy. Widely banned and labelled “racist” and “anti-woman” by the very sick patriarchy it condemned, Lennon remained defiantly unapologetic.

“I had to find out about myself and my attitudes toward women,” he told talk show host Dick Cavett. Besides, Lennon pointed out, the people most likely to have a negative reaction to the song were “white and male.” He then read a statement of support from Ron Dellums, Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and told Cavett, “I really believe that women have the worst, whatever it is. However badly or how poor people are, it’s the woman who takes it when they get home from work.” And with that he took the stage and belted out the still chilling lyrics:

We make her paint her face and dance

If she won’t be slave, we say that she don’t love us;

If she’s real, we say she’s trying to be a man

While putting her down we pretend that she’s above us;

Woman is the nigger of the world...yes she is

If you don’t believe me take a look to the one you’re with

Woman is the slaves of the slaves

Ah yeah...better scream about it!

In 1972 Lennon and Ono received a “Positive Image of Women” citation from the National Organization for Women for the song’s “strong pro-feminist statement.” Even so, 44 years later there is probably not a radio station in the country that would play “Woman Is The Nigger of the World.” The lyrics cut too close to the collective bone and ring too painfully true.

As anyone who has ever been severely injured or undergone major surgery knows, the healing process does not unfold in not a straight line. There are challenges and setbacks on the road to recovery. Lennon would callously mistreat Yoko in the future and their marriage would hang in the balance while he partied with his rock and roll pals in California during his so-called “lost weekend” period. But Lennon would somehow pass through the eye of the storm and find his way back, not just to Yoko, but to himself and to his most deeply held values.

By Lennon’s 40th year, the age which Carl Jung referred to as “the old age of youth and the youth of old age,” he had matured. In the song “Woman,” from Double Fantasy, Lennon was finally able to express his sorrow, guilelessly and heartbreakingly, for the hurt that he had caused the women in his life and his own feminine nature:

Woman, I can hardly express,

My mixed emotion at my thoughtlessness,

After all I’m forever in your debt…

Woman, please let me explain,

I never meant to cause you sorrow or pain,

So let me tell you again and again and again,

I love you now and forever

“Woman” is clearly a personal apology and declaration of love to Yoko, however Lennon also seems to be singing from some archetypal vantage point on behalf of all men to all women from time immemorial. It’s a gorgeous song of wholeness, reverence and love.

There is a lot to admire and respect about John Lennon, but perhaps nothing more than his remarkable transformation from misogynist to proud househusband and outspoken feminist. His personal journey in relation to the Feminine is symbolic of the journey that American culture needs to recommit to and complete. Viewed in that context, the defeat of Donald Trump is a critical step in our collective healing. As Lennon said, “We can’t have a revolution that doesn’t involve and liberate women. It’s so subtle the way you’re taught male superiority.”