The first-name-only singer has been making headlines and breaking down barriers for the past four decades and seems to only be getting better with age—I mean, she beat her own record as highest-grossing female touring artist of all time in 2016.
And on Friday night, the 58-year-old superstar was honored as Woman of the Year at the Billboard Women In Music event—and she made it clear that it hasn’t always been easy, by offering a blunt assessment of her life as a controversial, rule-breaking feminist.
“I stand before you as a doormat. Oh, I mean, as a female entertainer,” she explains. “Thank you for acknowledging my ability to continue my career for 34 years in the face of blatant sexism and misogyny and constant bullying and relentless abuse.”
What else did she say? Scroll down for six more memorable quotes from Madonna’s keeping-it-real-on-steroids speech.
1. “In life there is no real safety except for self-belief.”
On New York City at the beginning of her career: “People were dying of AIDS everywhere. It wasn’t safe to be gay, it wasn’t cool to be associated with the gay community,” she says. “It was 1979 and New York was a very scary place. In the first year I was held at gunpoint, raped on a rooftop with a knife digging into my throat, and I had my apartment broken into and robbed so many times I stopped locking the door. In the years that followed, I lost almost every friend I had to AIDS or drugs or gunshots—[I learned] in life there is no real safety except for self-belief.”
2. “My real muse was David Bowie—he embodied male and female spirit.”
“I was of course inspired by Debbie Harry and Chrissie Hynde and Aretha Franklin, but my real muse was David Bowie. He embodied male and female spirit and that suited me just fine. He made me think there were no rules. But I was wrong. There are no rules—if you’re a boy. There are rules if you’re a girl,” she explains.
3. “You are allowed to be objectified by men and dress like a slut, but [you’re not allowed to] own your sluttiness.”
While gaining fame and popularity alongside other visionaries like Bowie, Prince, and Michael Jackson, she quickly realized that there was a double standard: “If you’re a girl, you have to play the game. You’re allowed to be pretty and cute and sexy. But don’t act too smart. Don’t have an opinion that’s out of line with the status quo. You are allowed to be objectified by men and dress like a slut, but don’t own your sluttiness. And do not, I repeat do not, share your own sexual fantasies with the world. Be what men want you to be, but more importantly, be what women feel comfortable with you being around other men. And finally, do not age. Because to age is a sin. You will be criticized and vilified and definitely not played on the radio.”
4. “I’m a different kind of feminist. I’m a bad feminist.”
At a certain point in her career, Madonna says, “I truly understood women do not have the same freedom as men.” And while she began to explore feminism and a look for support systems among women, she realized that she might have to create the support she yearned for: “I remember wishing I had a female peer I could look to for support. Camille Paglia, the famous feminist writer, said I set women back by objectifying myself sexually. So I thought, ‘Oh, if you’re a feminist, you don’t have sexuality, you deny it.’ So I said, ‘Fuck it. I’m a different kind of feminist. I’m a bad feminist.'”
5. “As women, we have to start appreciating our own worth and each other’s worth.”
“What I would like to say to all women here today is this: Women have been so oppressed for so long they believe what men have to say about them. They believe they have to back a man to get the job done. And there are some very good men worth backing, but not because they’re men—because they’re worthy. As women, we have to start appreciating our own worth and each other’s worth. Seek out strong women to befriend, to align yourself with, to learn from, to collaborate with, to be inspired by, to support, and enlightened by.”
6. “To the doubters and naysayers and everyone who gave me hell and said I could not—it made me the woman that I am today.”
As she held back tears, the singer took the time to thank everyone who has been there for her at any time in the past 35 years: “It’s not so much about receiving this award as it is having this opportunity to stand before you and say thank you. Not only to the people who have loved and supported me along the way, you have no idea…you have no idea how much your support means,” she said. “But to the doubters and naysayers and everyone who gave me hell and said I could not, that I would no,t or I must not—your resistance made me stronger, made me push harder, made me the fighter that I am today.”
Feeling inspired? Find out how to talk to all the men in your life about women’s issues. Or read about ways that five celebrities—from Lena Dunham to Gigi Hadid—would make social media a better place if they could.