What does it mean to be a woman? Statistics, the media, society –– many of them would answer that womanhood lies in the gender wage gap, the tampon tax, abortion rights; the drawn out Harvey Weinstein legal battle or the #MeToo movement; in the Kardashian empire, Ladies Night at the local bar, or TikTok videos of preteen VSCO girls; broken stilettos, a Brazilian body wax, fake eyelashes. At least, these are the superficial labels that dog the steps of womanhood.
More often, womanhood is understood only in contrast to the patriarchy. Womanhood is a battle –– armor worn from girlhood until death, triumphantly painted in the colors of the conquest of man. Yet even here, in the fiery protest against gender-conforming shackles, there is no woman without man. Let us rewrite the question: What does it mean to be a woman in spite of man?
An answer (by no means the only one) can be found within the heart of The Secret Sisters’ new album, Saturn Return. The Secret Sisters have written an ode to womankind; a dedication to womanly mind, body and heart. It is an album which finds its truth in the contrasting sharp edges and soft curves of womanhood. Here, man is irrelevant, obsolete. He is not torn down or ravaged in fury –– these are not the songs of a battle waged against patriarchy. Rather, man holds no place in Saturn Return because these are stories of women, of womanhood, not of mankind or masculinity. To be “Woman” –– Saturn Return explores this independently of patriarchal contrast, in its own basking glory.
Saturn Return can be broken down into four parts, four core songs that make up The Secret Sisters exploration of Woman: “Silver,” “Fair,” “Nowhere, Baby,” and “Water Witch.” Each song presents a different aspect of womanhood, examined and experienced in the context and lens of women alone.
“Silver” is a dedication to the relationships between mothers and daughters. It is womanhood defined by motherhood, but confined to the special bond between women, and not the limitations of marriage or patriarchal oppression. The only song on the album that prominently recalls the country roots of previous work by The Secret Sisters, “Silver” is comforting and a touch haunting. The harmony of the duo’s voices holds something ancient within as the pair recalls the memories of those women who came before: “Look upon your mother and the silver in her hair / Consider it a crown the holiest may wear.” The song makes a point to acknowledge the sacrifices and abundant strength of mothers who have raised us, who have created the world we know by giving and nurturing life. “Silver,” the first song on the album, sets the tone of Saturn Return with its poetry and mix of ancient sentiment in a modern package. “Last night in my slumber came the matriarchs I miss / They said, ‘Do you wanna be anointed with age's lasting kiss?’” The silver hair of years spent in motherly toil is a badge of honor. Here, the Secret Sisters find a little-uttered truth: That motherhood is a mark of the unyielding strength and devotion of womanhood. It does not have to be a mark of oppression, as it has been and can certainly be. Motherhood is more than childbearing –– it is the eternal connection between mother and daughter, and every ancestor and descendent stemming from them.
“One is given wings and one gets more than she can bear / God in Heaven, can you tell me how that's fair?” In the song “Fair,” The Secret Sisters weave a story of the lives of two very different women. Through circumstance, one lives a life of ease –– of good choices –– and the other a life of hard choices. They are united in their womanhood, their respective difficulties, despite the opposition of their paths. Here, again, men are absent from the narrative. One might guess that in the background lies the patriarchal system that has led to “frownin’ from the pages of hard times,” but there is no nefarious villain to conquer. There is simply life to be lived, in all its beautiful and terrible simplicity. What is most enduring, however, is the evident love between these two unnamed women. Their friendship does not seem tangible, but rather their affection is bound in the solidarity of their identities of shared womanhood.
“Nowhere, Baby” is a short breath of fresh air. The Secret Sisters do lonesome journeys and somber ballads so well, but “Nowhere, Baby” takes a chance to celebrate self-validation and victory. “And it’s time I showed myself exactly what I am made of / And that’s not a cop out, not a dream drop, not a ‘close, but no cigar’”: Self-doubt is banished to embrace inner strength, courage and determination. A tale of a woman who spent a lifetime climbing “nowhere,” it is hopeful rather than deprecating. Moreover, it is a universal narrative: Life and time gets away from us, and suddenly we’re stranded too far from the starting line to go back, and the finish line too far away to grasp. Womanhood is life –– yes, it can be unique, but The Secret Sisters do not shy away from normalizing shared narratives. In the absence of contrasting womanhood with manhood, life thus becomes degendered.
“Water Witch” is by far the most fun song on Saturn Return, embracing the dark mystique of womanhood, the sharp, daunting edges of womanly power. Performed like a siren’s call, “Water Witch” recalls powerful, lonely woman figures of myth –– women who are remembered as villains, outcasts, or irresponsible perpetrators. There is something frightful in this haunting melody. The eerie allure of The Secret Sister’s serenade draws us to “where no happy man searches / in the place only mad women go.” Far from the stifling grasp of male pleasure, wild freedom is found as a solace for womankind.
The Secret Sisters leave us with a ballad to unite womankind, a banner to live and die under. In song, they offer the chance to understand what it means to be a woman, to live as a woman, to die as a woman in a context solely devoted to us, to women. Saturn Return is a celebration of shared experience, and more importantly, the bonds between women –– as they say, our strength lies in our numbers. The Secret Sisters leave us with a final call: “Behold the mark of her wisdom, make it your daily prayer / To look upon your mother and the silver in her hair.”