Taylor Swift, Underdog Voices, and Women’s Historical Right to ‘Bolt’


“As she was leaving, it felt like breathing.”

If you’ve followed the latest Taylor Swift The Tortured Poets Department album release, you’ve likely listened to all 31 new songs by now—including sure-to-be-classics like “Fortnight” and “The Smallest Man That Ever Lived,” an ex-lover burn built out of sheer agony over the loss of what could have been. My favorite, and the song that provides the greatest insight into why Taylor Swift is an icon in her own right, is “The Bolter.”  

Ask Merriam-Webster and she’ll tell you that a bolter is “a horse given to running away” or “a person who ends his or her affiliation with a political party.” A quick Google search brings you quickly to a book by Frances Osborne—great granddaughter of Idina Sackville, perhaps the most famous bolter in what has been described as an “age of bolters.”

Sackville is known for leaving her fantastically rich husband and two children for a “penniless army officer” in 1918. In total, she married and bolted from at least five relationships in her lifetime. Sackville is a product of the buildup to the roaring ’20s, where flappers, prohibition and jazz dominated, yet she still didn’t fit in. Divorce was taboo, leaving a marriage and family a gasp-worthy high crime. 

In 1920, the divorce rate was 8.0 per 1,000 married women aged 15 and over—up from 4.7 in 1910, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. While the rate was on the rise, still only 0.8 percent of married women divorced in 1920—less than 1 percent. Sackville may sound like one of many bolters of her era, but it was a relatively rare occurrence.  

These historical stories of mischievous women give an instant knee-jerk reaction. We shame women who break rules of good behavior. “How dare they?” high society infers. The names and reputations of outlandish women are slandered along the way to maintain status quo—these high crimes and misdemeanors the product of being bold and female in the early 20th century.  

We have evolved, right? The jury is still out. Look to the latest news from New York’s highest court determining Harvey Weinstein was treated unfairly because too many sexual assault victims testified in his case. Or me, an anti-hero economist who was bulldozed by an American Economic Association committee when working to acquire funds for projects to improve the climate for women in economics.  

Time and again, structures that enforce traditional top-down, listen-don’t-speak environments stifle innovation and talent. These realities disproportionately affect those with less power.

This is where the magic of Swift’s lyrical ability steps in and why her musical poetry, as authentic as it is, is so meaningful to so many.

Underdog voices are often missing from mainstream storylines. In the case of “The Bolter,” she’s only ever seen through the lens of larger society as untrustworthy, cynical and even insane. Swift acknowledges this in the song, but then does something uniquely masterful: She flips the traditional societal storyline script from one of a naughty mistrustful ruse, to the perspective of an individual wanting more. She describes the perspective of the actor—the bolter in this case—by declaring, “As she was leaving, it felt like breathing.” Being choked by the role she was asked to play by high society, leaving felt like getting her life back. 

“The Bolter,” in Swift’s eyes, is a woman who does not fit traditional society. Swift gives the bolter a voice—one that until now had been silent. She’s a woman not interested in being a trophy wife for the masses to admire. She has her own desires, preferences and demands, but her hopes and dreams are stifled by the rules that others want her to play by. She is unwilling to give of herself to play this role.  

Swift herself is unwilling to play the role that society, and even her fans, subscribe to her. She only wants to fulfill the role she ascribes to herself, driven singularly by her own wants and desires. How bold. How amazing. How freeing. 

In 2017, she won a countersuit trial against a Colorado DJ accused of groping her after she was originally sued by him for his job loss. In 2019, she was unwilling to “accept her music industry fate” when her masters were sold without her consent and has been re-recording and re-releasing all of them as (Taylor’s Version).

Time and again, she stands up for herself. She speaks her voice and, in that respect, gives courage to others to do the same. 

At this point, the obscure becomes obvious: Swift is The Bolter. We cannot tie her down by roles we think she should play. No amount of angry dads, Brads and Chads will change her behavior, including showing up to support her significant other at his workplace.  

She will always be true to herself and, in doing so, continue to tell her own stories using her own voice. And, how lucky we are that her voice is everywhere and powerful. She is helping raise a new generation of underdog voices who, if we are lucky, will also choose to bolt.

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