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How women created, cultivated and continue to ensure the Beatles’ legacy

Feldman-Barrett, 50, is a second-generation fan whose love of the Beatles fueled her academic interests in youth culture and music. When she was 8, her mother took her and her 13-year-old sister to Chicago’s Beatlefest. Wowed by the bustle and energy of the attendees, Feldman-Barrett wondered, “Who are these people, and what is it that brings them together over a band that no longer exists? I think this was the beginning of my curiosity about the Beatles. It felt like a community I wanted to be a part of.”

That curiosity never waned as she grew older. While at college and living in Washington state, she took advantage of the area’s “DIY music scene along the I-5 corridor.” There was punk, grunge and, most notably for Feldman-Barrett, all-girl bands who, like herself, were no longer content to be in the audience.

“I had always wanted to play rock music,” she told me, “so I just picked up the bass and became part of the riot grrrl band Hussy.” By the late ’90s, and now in Portland, Ore., she also toured the West Coast singing and playing the guitar as solo artist Christine Darling.

She relocated to D.C. in 2001 to do graduate work in communications at Georgetown University, then pursued a PhD at the University of Pittsburgh. While spending the summer of 2002 with relatives in Berlin, Feldman-Barrett saw a TV show that featured interviews with the Liverbirds, an all-girl band that formed in Liverpool in the early ’60s and later found success in Germany. Seeing the Beatles perform at the Cavern had inspired the Liverbirds to start their own group. This was a eureka moment for Feldman-Barrett: “I asked myself how I don’t know about this band. … How come there isn’t a cultural history about all this? … How come there isn’t a history that focuses on the women who are part of the Beatles’ story?”

She returned to Germany in 2006 as a Fulbright scholar to complete work on her PhD, which would result in her first book, “ ‘We Are the Mods’: A Transnational History of a Youth Subculture.” While there she met people who knew the Beatles, including Astrid Kirchherr, the stylish German photographer the Beatles befriended in 1960 during their Hamburg days. Such encounters sparked years of research as Feldman-Barrett began interviewing women around the globe. “I was bowled over by how many women were keen to be part of this cultural history and have their Beatles stories and experiences documented for posterity,” she wrote me in an email.

All of that led to Feldman-Barrett’s examination of first-, second- and third-generation female Beatles fans, from 1960 to 2015, while tracking important changes in feminism that coincide with women’s growing influence in popular music. Third-wave feminism, she writes in the book, eventually facilitated the rise of female superstars such as Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and, later, Taylor Swift.

Men have always dominated the way the Beatles’ story gets told, but since the 1990s, female writers have greatly expanded our understanding of this history in ways particular to female experience. My own Beatles book, “My Private Lennon: Explorations From a Fan Who Never Screamed,” published in 2020, came about, in part, because I was fed up with men asking me if I screamed when they learned I had seen the Beatles live in Ed Sullivan’s studio. It’s an intensely personal account of the effect John Lennon has had on my life, a micro history of one woman’s relationship with a great artist. Feldman-Barrett’s book works on the macro level, researching and gathering histories from hundreds of women who loved, influenced and helped shape the band.

In his review in the journal Rock Music Studies of “A Women’s History of the Beatles” (which was originally published in 2021 and just released in paperback), Kenneth Womack, an internationally known Beatles expert, wrote that “A Women’s History of the Beatles” is “arguably the most significant title in Beatles scholarship since ‘Tune In’ (2013), the first volume in Mark Lewisohn’s groundbreaking biographical study of the group.” Womack credits Feldman-Barrett with opening up “a long-overdue area of inquiry in Beatles studies, and, indeed, popular music studies in general,” he wrote in an email. “Women’s experiences vis-a-vis popular music are essential to understanding the direction and nature of these art forms.”

In 2021, Feldman-Barrett joined the editorial board of the Journal of Beatles Studies, Liverpool University Press’s new online offering that plans to publish, starting in September, new essays and book reviews on the band.

I asked Feldman-Barrett, who currently lives in Australia, where she is senior lecturer in sociology at Griffith University in Brisbane, if changes in the pop-culture environment as a result of feminism indicated anything new about how younger women relate to the Beatles. “Their influence on female performers remains strong,” she told me. “Keep in mind that Billie Eilish sang ‘Happiness Is a Warm Gun’ for her first talent show, and she’s more recently covered ‘Something’ and ‘Yesterday.’ ”

In Peter Jackson’s recent documentary “Get Back,” released in November, he reexamines the documentary footage originally shot as the Beatles were working on material for what they had thought would be a live concert and TV show and offers a different, more joyful account of those fraught days. As Jackson’s documentary made clear to a rapt audience around the world, there’s always something worth discovering and rediscovering about the Beatles. “A Women’s History of the Beatles” provides a similar pleasure.

It also helps us understand how small events can produce outcomes that change the world. In the Beatles story, such moments include a music teacher who visits a 14-year-old boy in the hospital, where she gives him his first drum. An Anglo-Indian mother opens a coffeehouse and recruits a few Liverpool lads to paint its walls and then play on opening night. A young secretary on her lunch hour rushes to a sweaty club to hear rock-and-roll and then tells her friends about it. A mother buys her son a guitar. Tomorrow, a 5-year-old child will put on her parents’ headphones and hear a song that makes her happy and curious.

Sibbie O’Sullivan is a writer in Wheaton, Md.

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