Dolly Parton: Feminist heroine

Singer, businesswoman, philanthropist – and now Broadway impresario. It's time to claim the country star as a feminist icon, argues Joan Smith

At first sight, she isn't an obvious feminist heroine. She's got big hair, big breasts, an unbelievably tiny waist, and she admits to having had masses of cosmetic surgery. It's easy to imagine her catching the eye of a young Bill Clinton – or indeed an old Bill Clinton – and endlessly having to brush off the kind of groping and sex talk that working-class women have always encountered in the office.

But Dolly Parton is more than a collection of body parts, a point she makes in one of the songs she's written for a musical version of the classic women's movie Nine To Five: "Under this hair is a brain, not that you'd ever care/And you only see tits, but there's a heart under there". Parton starred in the original film in 1980 along with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, playing three office workers who plot the downfall of their "sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot" of a boss.

Parton jumped at the chance of writing songs for a stage version, which has opened on Broadway following a successful short run in LA. At 63, she is a little mature to play Doralee Rhodes, the secretary who fantasises about sexually harassing her groping boss and then roasting him alive on a spit; in the musical, all three lead roles have passed to a younger generation of actresses. Yet Parton has the ageless, synthetic looks of a woman who has decided to ignore the passing of time and she is as witty about her appearance as she is about most elements of her life. "It costs a lot of money to look this cheap," she once declared.

The words capture both her self-awareness and her recognition of the importance of class in the supposedly egalitarian US. Parton's feminism is bawdy and funny, perfectly matched to the message of the original Nine To Five, in which the women are smarter than their boss and eventually outwit him. The film's writer, Patricia Resnick, wanted it to be "a darker comedy" – much darker, since her storyline involved Doralee, Violet and Judy actually killing their boss – but Colin Higgins's screenplay is definitely feel-good rather than overtly political. At the time, Resnick was that rare creature, a lesbian in Hollywood – "I always says that I'm a gay man in a lesbian's body," she recently told an interviewer – and that may account for the movie's huge gay following.

It should never be forgotten that Parton is a contemporary of the feminist writer Shere Hite. She would never claim to be an intellectual but she belongs to an extraordinary generation of American women and uses the language of female empowerment. Her most famous song, "Jolene", is about seeing off a female rival, but Parton continually challenges expectations about women, championing the right to dress and behave as she likes. It must take some courage to go through life enduring so many limp jokes about breasts and the knowledge that your name has been given to the first cloned sheep (Dolly was cloned from cells from a ewe's mammary gland).

Parton is working-class and it is that experience she reflects in her songs (which she writes as well as performs, giving her much greater control of her career). She met her husband at the age of 18 in the Wishy-Washy laundromat in Nashville, Tennessee, and has been married to him since 1966, an extraordinary achievement in show business. She has been a country-and-western star for more than 40 years but her taste in clothes owes more to burlesque – the ribald stage shows featuring exotically dressed dancers and strippers – than the contemporary designers championed by sophisticated TV shows such as Sex and the City.

One of Parton's key concerns is literacy and she has poured money into reading projects across the States, reflecting her understanding that the ability to read and write is the route out of poverty. When she decided to extend the project to kids in the UK, she chose the predominantly working-class Yorkshire town of Rotherham, where her arrival in the town to meet local councillors was widely regarded as the biggest event since George V's visit in 1911. Parton doesn't look like anyone's idea of a major American philanthropist, but that is exactly what she is, using her astute business sense to help people from backgrounds as poor as her own.

Simple messages are often the most powerful, and the workplace hasn't changed so much in the last 30 years that the themes of Nine To Five no longer resonate. A slew of sex discrimination and sexual harassment cases in the City suggests that women are still getting a raw deal, and the movie's slogan – "getting even is a full-time job" – has contemporary appeal. Doralee and her friends aren't activists in the Andrea Dworkin mould, but feminists come in all shapes and sizes, as Parton attests. She may not be a role model but she's stylish, surreal and absolutely her own woman.

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