Yoko Ono (Credit: Vulture) On Wednesday, June 15, the National Music Publishers’ Association officially credited Japanese artist, feminist, and activist Yoko Ono with co-writing “Imagine,” the enormously popular 1971 song attributed to her late husband, Beatles frontman John Lennon. She is 84 years old and helped write the song, which challenges listeners to think of a world free of religion, property, or boundaries, a shocking 46 years ago.
Today, she devotes her time to activism through creativity: she’s a singer, songwriter, filmmaker, writer, and performance artist who sometimes tours with the Plastic Ono Band while she fights in her quiet, peaceful way against humanitarian and environmental injustices. Many may regard her as some sultry siren who lured John Lennon away from the Beatles, but Ono is now a strong leader in the anti-fracking, gun control, and anti-war movements with an artistic drive that’s completely her own.
The long-overdue song credit came as a surprise during a music industry meeting in New York, where “Imagine” also obtained a Centennial Song Award naming it the “song of the century.”
The attribution wasn’t honorary or arbitrary, but completely earned: Lennon himself said in a 1980 interview that the song “should be credited as a Lennon-Ono song, because a lot of it, the lyric and the concept, came from Yoko.” He explained that the song directly references Ono’s self-published 1964 book,
Grapefruit, which contains instructional poems in English and Japanese about art and creation. Lennon admitted that,
“Those days, I was a bit more selfish, a bit more macho, and I sort of omitted to mention her contribution.”
Ono announced the news on her Twitter feed, and her son, Sean, posted it on his Instagram page.
While it’s phenomenal to see Ono receiving the credit she deserves, the news begs the question: why did it take 46 years for a multitalented, influential female artist to be recognized for her role in creating the song of the century?
There’s no easy answer, but there is a disturbing pattern to examine: the erasure of women’s contributions isn’t a new phenomenon or exclusive to the music industry. Worse, it doesn’t seem to be fading. Here are just 11 examples.
1. Chien-Shiung Wu vs. Lee & Yang — Mathematics
Chien-Shiung Wu (Credit: History.com)
During WWII, Chinese nuclear physicist
worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the first atomic bomb alongside Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang. The two men theorized that the law of parity, an accepted idea that everything, including atomic particles, has “a fundamental symmetry,” was false. Wu, though, designed and conducted the experiments to prove their dismissal of that law. Chien-Shiung Wu
Lee and Yang won the Novel Prize for the work. Wu was ignored.
2. Rosalind Franklin vs. Watson & Crick — Science
Rosalind Franklin (Credit: Rejected Princess)
Rosalind Franklin, a confident, young female scientist, famously helped James Watson and Francis Crick discover DNA’s double-helix shape. They used her photos and interpreted her data without her permission, and their only acknowledgment of her in their published research said simply, “We have also been stimulated by a knowledge of the general nature of the unpublished results.” Later, Watson slighted her in his autobiography, calling her a “ belligerent, emotional woman unable to interpret her own data” and reducing the accomplished scientist to only her physical appearance, saying she “might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes.” Watson and Crick won the Nobel Prize in 1962, four years after Franklin’s death. 3. Big Mama Thornton vs. Elvis Presley — Music
Big Mama (Credit: Arhoolie Foundation)
Also in 1952, black R&B singer
Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton recorded “Hound Dog,” a bluesy country song that the writers, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, intended just for her. Her version hit #1 on the R&B charts a year later. Elvis Presley then immortalized the track in 1956, staining it and the rock genre as a whole as overtly sexual.
Unsurprisingly, Big Mama’s race also played a role in the erasure of her performance. At that time, it was common for white artists to “cover” songs recorded by black musicians. The song, though almost always musically inferior, would then get all the record sales.
Presley was inducted into the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame in 1986; Big Mama faded into relative obscurity.
4. Margaret Keane vs. Walter Keane — Visual Art
Margaret Keane (Credit: Robert Gumpert for the Guardian)
Artist , whose story has been detailed in the 2014 Tim Burton film “Big Eyes,” painted images of children with large, emotive eyes that became all the rage in the 1960s. Her husband, Walter, secretly sold her paintings as his own and garnered all the attention and credit for the art that sold by the millions. When Margaret found out, Walter coerced her to keep his secret with intimidation and threats of physical violence or even killing her. She kept quiet until 1970, but Walter denied the accusation. Margaret wasn’t able to prove that the works were hers until 1986 when the pair underwent a contest to see who could paint one of the works faster. Margaret, of course, won; Walter refused to participate, citing shoulder pain. Margaret Keane
5. 46 Female Scientists vs. Newsweek — Science
Credit: Newsweek In 1970,
forty-six female scientists sued Newsweek for workplace discrimination and allegations that male writers and editors plagiarized their work. More details spilled out during the case: female job applicants, the women said, were told that “women don’t write at Newsweek.” Those who still took the job spent their time editing, fact-checking, and interviewing for entry-level pay among entitled men who expected the women to sleep with them or at least be complacent to their advances.
6. M.I.A. vs. Male Reporters — Music
M.I.A. (Credit: NME.com) Unfortunately, this type of gender discrimination isn’t an archaic, pre- Roe injustice. Pop artist M.I.A. spoke out in 2007 about male reporters considering her ex, Diplo, the “mastermind” behind her debut album. She told Pitchfork that she had essentially finished the album before meeting the American DJ. He only contributed to one track, sending her a loop that she eventually turned into “Bucky Done Gun.” M.I.A. vented, referencing not only her gender as a source of her discrimination but her Sri Lankan-Tamil heritage:
“I just find it kind of insulting that I can’t have any ideas on my own because I’m a female, or that people from undeveloped countries can’t have ideas of their own unless it’s backed up by someone who’s blond-haired and blue-eyed.”
7. Lady Gaga vs. Donald Trump — Music/Fame
Lady Gaga (Credit: Inez & Vinoodh) In 2011, the notoriously sexist Donald
Trump claimed in one of his books that singer Lady Gaga only achieved her fame because “I put her on the Miss Universe pageant.” He added, “It’s very possible, who knows what would have happened without it, because she caused a sensation.”
The pop artist
needed no help from Trump: she could play piano by the age of 4 and was accepted to the Juilliard School in Manhattan at age 11, though she didn’t attend. She composed her first piano ballad at 13 and performed for the first time at a New York nightclub a year later. After a few short years, she was one of only 20 students to be granted early admission to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts; she worked three jobs to support herself through college. Her albums have been hits from the beginning, and she’s proven very talented in several other creative and dramatic endeavors.
8. Whitney Wolfe vs. Male Tinder Executives — Business Management
Whitney Wolfe (Credit: ELLE) Women everywhere are well-versed and justifiably wary of the sexist, abusive behavior of many men on the dating app Tinder, but these chauvinist attitudes carry into the company’s executive board meetings as well. In 2014, co-founder Whitney Wolfe lost her title when Chief Marketing Officer Justin Mateen repeatedly called her a “whore” and told her that “having a young female co-founder makes the company seem like a joke” while CEO Sean Rad watched complacently. Rad frequently called Wolfe “annoying” and “dramatic” when she spoke to him about Mateen or other issues, even though Wolfe was essential in marketing Tinder to young women and served as the face of the company in the press. When she tried to resign, Rad fired her instead. Wolfe then sued the company for sexual harassment and sex discrimination against her, and she brought to light other instances in which the two men referred to others with offensive epithets like “liberal lying desperate slut” and “middle age Muslim pigs.”
9. Ke$ha vs. Dr. Luke — Creative Expression & Bodily Autonomy
Kesha (Credit: David McNew/Reuters)
Also in 2014, pop artist
Kesha Rose Sebert, who performs as Ke$ha, sued her producer, “Dr. Luke,” (Lukasz Sebastian Gottwald) for rape and gender discrimination. She said that he “sexually, physically, verbally, and emotionally abused [her] to the point where [she] nearly lost her life.” Since 2014, Gottwald has fought relentlessly against Sebert’s allegations that he drugged her and forced her to sleep with him multiple times. Her further details of his “despicable conduct” include his pridefully forcing drunk women to have sex with him and coercing his pregnant wife into getting an unwanted abortion. He also allegedly made so many comments about Sebert’s appearance and pressured the star to lose weight with such intensity that she developed an eating disorder for which she underwent extensive rehabilitation. Sebert reports that Gottwald has been able to “maintain complete control over her life and career” due to the legal contract and restricted her creative abilities; while he didn’t necessarily take credit for her work, he controlled it and did not allow her artistic liberty.
10. Katinka Hosszu vs. Male Reporters — Sports
Katinka Hosszu (Credit: Earn The Necklace)
In 2016, Olympic swimmer
Katinka Hosszu of Hungary broke a world record in Rio. The camera panned to her husband and coach, Shane, and a male reporter announced: “There’s the man responsible” for Hosszu’s accomplishment.
Hosszu, of course, doesn’t owe her success to anyone but herself: she emerged as one of the most dominant female swimmers and has earned the nickname “Iron Lady” for her skills. She started training at a very young age and enrolled in a sports high school at 13. Later, she moved to the U.S. to attend the University of Southern California —
before learning English. She became the first swimmer to win more than $1 million in prizes and was 2014’s World Swimmer of the Year and her performance in Rio in 2016 was her best yet. Her husband may have helped her curate her skill, but the ability is no one’s but her own.
11. Taylor Swift vs. Kanye West — Music/Fame
Taylor Swift (Credit: Getty Images) That same year, Kanye West
rapped in his song “Famous,”
“I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex. Why? I made that bitch famous. (God damn) I made that bitch famous.”
The lyric refers to the 2009 scandal at the VMAs when West rushed onstage as
Taylor Swift won the Best Female Artist of the Year award, belligerently asserting that Beyonce deserved it instead. West appears to believe that his outburst “made [Swift] famous” and, as such, he is entitled to sex with her. After releasing the track, West lied to the public to quell backlash, claiming that Swift “thought it was funny and gave her blessings,” though she never knew the lyrics in their entirety until the song aired. West then said that the word “bitch is an endearing term in hip hop.”
Clearly, both gender discrimination and men taking credit for women’s successes are very real problems across all fields and have slowed little with time. Hopefully, Yoko Ono finally receiving recognition for her role in creating “Imagine” will establish a precedent and send a message to the world about equality and women’s abilities.