In 1997, musicians and fans alike mourned the loss of one of the country’s most talented and successful singer/songwriters when Laura Nyro passed away in her Danbury, Conn., home. At the age of 49, the poet-musician had lost her battle with ovarian cancer. Though young, Nyro had already left an indelible mark on the music industry.
Nyro was born Laura Nigro in the Bronx, N.Y., into a family with deep artistic roots, making it no surprise that Nyro proved herself a natural musician at a young age. Her father, Louis Nigro, was a professional jazz trumpeter and grew up playing an array of instruments with his brothers in their neighborhood park. Her mother, Gilda Mirsky Nigro, came from a family of respected visual artists with a fondness for music, and was a natural performer herself who enjoyed singing and acting. Although she was talented enough to earn the attention of representatives from Broadway, Gilda’s father, despite ascribing to other progressive ideologies, forbade his daughter from entering the world of performance. Gilda Nigro would later come to stand behind her daughter’s career path and, somewhat ironically, Nyro’s grandfather would also turn out to be one of her biggest supporters and influences.
Exposed to all of these influences early in childhood, Nyro did not hesitate to exercise her talents. Her family recalls that as a three-year-old, the future singer/songwriter found joy in humming, singing, and entertaining. At just eight years old, inspired by Billie Holiday and other music her mother would play for her, Nyro began writing her own songs. It was during her years as a student at Manhattan’s High School of Music and Art that, in a spirit that reflects her father’s park performances, the singer would take to the streets and subway stations to showcase her gifts.
By the early 1960s, Nyro had learned the piano and was gaining recognition. At the age of seventeen, she wrote her first hit, “And When I Die,” which was later recorded and catapulted to fame by groups such as Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Blood, Sweat, and Tears. By 1966, she released her debut album More Than A New Discovery on the Verve/Folkways label. She joined Columbia Records in 1968 and released Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, followed shortly thereafter by New York Tendaberry and Christmas and the Beads of Sweat. Her songs filled radio airwaves in the late 1960s and 1970s, but many of them became hits for other performing artists, including “Wedding Bell Blues” and “Stoned Soul Picnic,” recorded by The Fifth Dimension; “Eli’s Comin’” by Three Dog Night; and “Stoney End,” by Barbra Streisand. Nyro recorded several albums in the late 1970s and 1980s, including the live album Season of Lights in 1977, Nested in 1978, and Mother’s Spiritual in 1984.
Nyro’s fans praise the singer/songwriter for the soulful emotions behind her songs and performances. Described as a trailblazer and feminist by many, Nyro accepts these titles and offers credit to a few muses such as Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan. She explained, “I was always interested in the social consciousness of certain songs…I felt at home in the peace movement and the women’s movement, and that has influenced my music.” Today, many look at Nyro as a muse herself. Among other female musicians, Joni Mitchell acknowledges Nyro’s impact on her own work. One music critic even wrote that it was Nyro who “paved the way for the rise of the urban female singer-songwriter.”
Laura Nyro was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2012.
During This Time
1966 - Today: Struggle for Justice
Feminism in the late 1960s was aided by President Kennedy, who formed the President’s Commission on the Status of Women in 1961, and his successor, President Johnson, who backed passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting discrimination based on race, sex, national origin, or religion. Difficulties in implementing the law through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) led a group of women in 1966 to create the National Organization for Women (NOW), demanding “action to bring American women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now.”
A younger group called for a more radical approach to social change than simply considering what was possible to achieve politically. “Women’s liberation” demanded freedom without limitation. Some took part in consciousness-raising groups, others demonstrated against the Miss America pageant, and many discussed their expectations of mutual enjoyment of sex. They established rape crisis centers, domestic shelters, and women’s studies programs. Title IX of the federal Education Amendments Act also increased pressure on universities to hire more women faculty and expand the number of female college athletes. Activist protest among gays and lesbians, such as the Stonewall Riot, symbolized this group’s potential to resist oppression.
Under pressure, many states repealed legislation prohibiting abortion. In 1973, the Supreme Court legalized its availability to women in Roe v. Wade. Also in 1973, the Senate and the House of Representatives passed the ERA, and states began its ratification.
Yet, dissension arose in the ranks of the movement, as it had earlier after passage of the 19th amendment. Feminists disagreed as to whether pornography should be banned or protected as a form of free speech, and whether lesbian identities should be kept secret or disclosed. Black women were more concerned with poverty and welfare in their communities than with personal career advancement; for them, sterilization abuse was more important than abortion, and they were deeply insulted by attacks on the African American family as matriarchal and dysfunctional.
A backlash was growing in the 1970s, along with a New Right in politics. The ERA was defeated and opposition to abortion increased. Conflicts between pro-life and pro-choice candidates have impacted every presidential campaign since then.
Still, gains have been made in many areas. From 1960 to 2000, increasing numbers of women sought entry to higher education, and bachelor’s degrees awarded to them increased from forty to sixty percent. Definitions of marriage have changed, as when courts gave full rights and responsibilities and the name of marriage to same-sex civil unions in Connecticut in 2008. The Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991 highlighted concern about sexual harassment on the job, and the number of sexual harassment cases filed with the EEOC have increased, as have judgments in favor of the women. Finally, in 2009, women crossed the fifty percent threshold and became the majority of the American workforce. Once largely confined to repetitive manual jobs, now they are running organizations that once treated them as second-class citizens.
The Women’s Movement has changed women’s lives, influenced the economy, and made debate about their roles, family life, and sexual conventions central to national politics and American history.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.