On Wednesday, the National Music Publishers Association officially credited Japanese artist, singer, songwriter, filmmaker, writer, 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: performance art, writing, and playing her own music, sometimes touring with the Plastic Ono Band, while she fights in her quiet, peaceful way against humanitarian and environmental injustices. While many may regard her as some sultry siren who lured John Lennon away from the Beatles, 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 song credit came as a surprise during a music-industry meeting in New York, where “Imagine” also obtained a Centennial Song award honoring the “song of the century.”
It wasn’t an honorary or arbitrary attribution, but a long-overdue expectation. 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, and added,
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 page, and her son, Sean, posted it on his Instagram page.
— Yoko Ono (@yokoono) June 15, 2017
Proudest day of my life: The National Music Publishers Association just gave the centennial (song of the century) award to Imagine, but WAIT! Surprise! They played an audio interview of my father saying (approximately) 'Imagine should've been credited as a Lennon/Ono song, if it had been anyone other than my wife I would've given them credit.' Cut to: my mother welling up in tears, and then Patti and Jesse Smith @michiganmanhattan Imagine! Patience is a virtue! ✌️❤✌️❤✌️❤✌️ (PS they officially declared Imagine to be a Lennon/Ono song and gave my mother a second award! 🙏)
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 one of the most popular songs of its time?
There’s no easy answer, but there is a pattern we need 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. During WWII, Chinese nuclear physicist Chien-Shiung Wu 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 that theory. Lee and Yang won the Novel Prize for the work, and Wu was ignored.
In 1952, Rosalind Franklin, an outspoken, 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.
It seems no field is safe from sexism: 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 only for her. Her version hit #1 on the R&B charts a year later. Elvis Presley then immortalized the track after he heard Freddie Bell and The Bellboys perform it in 1956, staining it (and the rock genre as a whole) as overtly sexual. Presley was inducted into the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame in 1986; Big Mama faded into relative obscurity.
Artist Margaret Keane, 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 pieces, which sold by the millions. When Margaret found out, Walter coerced her to keep his secret with intimidation and threats of violence or even killing her. She kept quiet until 1970, fifteen years after the couple’s divorce, but Walter denied the accusation. Margaret wasn’t able to prove that the works were hers until 1986.
In 1970, forty-six female scientists sued Newsweek for workplace discrimination and allegations that male writers and editors stole their work and took the credit. Female job applicants were told that “Women don’t write at Newsweek,” and those who stayed to take 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.
Popular artist M.I.A. spoke in 2007 about male reporters considering her ex, Diplo, as the “mastermind” behind her debut album when in reality, he only contributed to one track. She told Pitchfork that Diplo sent her a loop for “Bucky Done Gun,” which she turned into a song, but Diplo claimed he has much more to do with the record. “I just find it kind of insulting that I can’t have any ideas on my own because I’m a female,” M.I.A. vented.
In 2011, the notoriously sexist Donald Trump claimed that singer Lady Gaga only achieved her fame because “I put her on the Miss Universe pageant.”
Popular dating app Tinder, known for sexism and abuse from male users, seems to carry the issue into its executive board. In 2014, co-founder Whitney Wolfe lost the title when Chief Marketing Officer Justin Mateen repeatedly called her a “whore” and said to her that “having a young female co-founder makes the company seem like a joke,” all 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 Whitney was essential in marketing Tinder to young women and was the face of the company in the press. When she tried to resign, Rad fired her instead. She 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.”
Also in 2014, pop artist Kesha sued her producer, Dr. Luke, for rape and gender discrimination. Since 2014, Dr. Luke has fought relentlessly against Kesha’s allegations that he drugged her and forced her to sleep with him multiple times as well as limited her creative freedom as an artist and verbally harassed her to break down her self-esteem. She also explained his “despicable conduct,” including pridefully forcing drunk women to have sex with him and coercing his pregnant wife into getting an unwanted abortion by refusing to speak with her for six months and threatening to leave her if she didn’t.
Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt, a British biochemist who called himself a “chauvinist,” resigned from University College London in 2015 after calling for single-sex laboratories on campus and saying: “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.”
In 2016, Olympic swimmer Katinka Hosszu broke a world record in Rio. The camera panned to her husband and coach, David, and a male reporter said: “There’s the man responsible!” for Hosszu’s success. Later that year, Kanye West rapped in his song “Famous,”
I feel like me and Taylor [Swift] 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 when Swift won the Best Female Artist of the Year award, belligerently asserting that Beyonce deserved it instead. After releasing “Famous,” West lied to the public and claimed that Swift “thought it was funny and gave her blessings,” though she never knew the lyrics in their entirety. He even said that the word “bitch is an endearing term in hip hop.”
Clearly, gender discrimination and men taking credit for women’s successes have been problems from the start and span all fields. 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.