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And that's the tee... on Beyoncé's feminist evolution

Beyoncé in sunglasses and a hat on a pink background with the words

Happy Monday, Feministas. In the wake of Beyoncé’s 40th birthday last week, we’re taking a quick look back at her already revolutionary career and evolution into the feminist cultural force she has become. 

Over the last two decades, she’s inspired a generation of women with her fiercely independent, sex-positive, and empowering music, art, and showmanship. And lucky for us, her endless talents also come with a heavy dose of modern feminism. Her lyrics cover all of the usual pop staples like love and sex, but they also dip into topics like motherhood and body positivity, activism and equality

Even as she fades in and out of the spotlight, always on her own terms, she manages to keep us in the loop on her unique experience of Black womanhood, and the way that changes and evolves over time. Let’s dig in :)

Big dreams & endless drive

In a recent interview with Harper’s Bazaar, Beyoncé described the first decade of her life as “dedicated to dreaming.” She was singing and dancing in competitions by the age of seven and was often the only Black girl, so she felt she needed extraordinary “stage presence, wit, and charm if [she] wanted to win.” By ten, she was recording songs in a studio and fully committed to getting Destiny’s Child (originally called Girl’s Tyme) off the ground with her childhood friends, which meant her “teenage years were about the grind.” 

Her early devotion to that dream meant giving up a lot of the more typical childhood experiences, but it also built up the kind of mental toughness, stamina, and remarkable skill she would need to succeed in and eventually dominate a music industry and pop scene that is so often racist, sexist, and discriminatory behind the scenes. 

In 1992, Destiny’s Child earned a spot on Star Search, which earned them some early recognition, and over the next few years, they continued to build their reputation throughout Houston, and then Texas and eventually Hollywood. In 1997, they signed a record deal with Columbia Records and Beyoncé’s career was off to the races. 

Independent Woman, Pt. 1

Destiny’s Child spent about eight years in the spotlight and became one of the best-selling girl groups of all time, from 1998 to 2005, when they formally split and Beyoncé officially went solo. During that time though, the group released music that was way ahead of its time by today’s feminist standards. Chart-toppers like “Say My Name” modeled a kind of self-respect in the face of infidelity, “Survivor” became an anthem of female resilience, and “Independent Women, Pt. 1” still resonates as one of the pop world’s foremost bangers on the topic of financial independence and empowerment:

The shoes on my feet, I bought 'em

The clothes I'm wearing, I bought 'em

The rock I'm rocking, I bought it

'Cause I depend on me 

As we all know, Beyoncé’s solo career had even greater success. Over the last fifteen years, she’s sold over 118 million records worldwide, Billboard named her the highest-earning Black musician of all time, and she’s won countless accolades for her art and talents—28 Grammy Awards, 26 MTV Music Awards, 24 NAACP Image Awards, and X BET Awards… just to name a few.

It would be easy to go on and on about her music, her foray into acting and film, her brief stint with alter ego Sasha Fierce, or her most recent and perhaps most culturally relevant works Lemonade and Everything is Love—and we kind of do in our feminist playlist recommendations (check out mixtape #1 and #2)—but what makes Beyoncé such a stellar role model for our modern feminist community in particular is what happens off the stage...

Okay ladies, now let’s get in formation

Even early on in her career, Beyoncé made a point of building towards a brighter future by giving back to her community. After Hurricane Katrina, she and Kelly Rowland started the Survivor Foundation, which provided transitional housing for displaced families as well as funding for new construction and the rebuilding effort. 

In the years since, Beyoncé has continued to support housing and natural disaster relief through her nonprofit BeyGOOD, which she started in 2013. That organization has evolved to take on a variety of initiatives from the support of minority businesses and college scholarship programs to funding access to clean drinking water, pediatric health care and beyond. 

She’s also been able to support emerging Black and female artists through her company Parkwood Entertainment (named after a street she used to live on in Houston, TX), which was founded in 2010 and serves as an umbrella brand for all of her creative ventures, from music videos and films like Cadillac Records and Lemonade to touring and live events. Ivy Park, Beyoncé’s fashion line, Ivy Park has also been taking the world by storm, starting in partnership with TopShop in 2014 and eventually making its way into athleisure as its own brand and alongside Adidas.

Making sure the future is female

Beyoncé’s also been an advocate for various political campaigns and social movements throughout her career, publicly endorsing Obama for President in 2008 and 2012, Hillary Clinton in 2016, and Beto O’Rourke for Texas Senator in 2018. At one of Hillary’s final pre-election events, Beyonce performed and stated to the audience, “I want my daughter to grow up seeing a woman lead our country and knowing that her possibilities are limitless."

She’s participated in countless charitable campaigns on issues ranging from childhood obesity and food security to hurricane relief and education for women and girls around the world. And in recent years, she and her husband, Jay-Z, have contributed tens of thousands of dollars to Black Lives Matter and millions to providing mental health and personal wellness services to essential workers during the height of COVID-19. 

She openly embraces the label of “feminist”—her song “Flawless” even features notable feminist writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie—and perhaps more importantly, Beyoncé lives those values through and through by using her platform to uplift and empower other Black and female artists, from her philanthropic endeavors to her music and business, with decisions on who to work with and support in the industry. 

Who run the world? Girls

Okay, here’s the thing: even after breezing over all of those incredible achievements, we’ve barely scratched the surface of what Beyoncé has done in her time as a superstar. We all know that. But what makes her such an extraordinary role model for women all over the world has less to do with what sets her apart, a.k.a. her singular and unequivocal talents, and more to do with her empathy and humanity—the way she uses those talents to relate the most universal feelings and experiences and improve the world for others however she can.

Some connect to her as a dreamer, with ever-higher aspirations and unwavering dedication to herself and her work, others to her openness about the beauty and difficulty of love, marriage, and motherhood. And even though Beyoncé’s career and art touch on the important issues of race, womanhood and feminism, sexual freedom, Black wealth, money and power, and her craft is always finely tuned to the highest standards of perfection, the music is made to be enjoyed. When she puts on a show, she shows up to entertain. 

Beyoncé pushes boundaries and defies our expectations all the time, but part of her genius is using her pop and R&B to deliver her message—it always feels deeply accessible to people like you and me. And somehow, after all that she’s given us, she’s only 40. So let’s keep on listening, Feministas, because we feel pretty sure Queen B’s just getting started. 

Thanks for reading, Feministas. See you next week for more of The "F" Word, our weekly newsletter and blog on all things feminist, from activism to fashion and beyond. Want it delivered? Scroll down, sign up, and we’ll send it straight to your inbox.

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