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'I Am Woman' By Helen Reddy Brought Feminism To The Pop Chart In 1972

Music | December 9, 2020

Helen Reddy in 'Midnight Special' in January 1973. Photo by: Paul W. Bailey/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

With six words -- "I am woman, hear me roar" -- Australian singer Helen Reddy summed up a moment in 1972, and did it in a chart-topping hit. Anthems of social justice and empowerment don't necessarily make radio playlists, but the "I Am Woman" phenomenon was bigger than pop music; it was capping a year that saw congressional approval of the Equal Rights Amendment, passage of Title IX, and the launch of Gloria Steinem's Ms. magazine. Feminists, with their "women's lib" movement (as it was called then), were taking charge, in numbers too big to ignore. 

Long before Shania Twain celebrated feeling like a woman and Destiny’s Child encouraged women to be independent, there was Helen Reddy. Reddy was an unexpected superstar who empowered women with "I Am Woman," the first song to truly promote feminism. The 1972 tune made Reddy a symbol of feminism at the pinnacle of the women’s liberation movement. 

'I Am Woman' Was Inspired By The Women In Reddy's Family

Source: NPR

Reddy was born in Melbourne, Australia and became a star in the land down under through a seemingly old-fashioned method: winning a talent show competition. Eventually relocating to Los Angeles with her then-husband and future manager Jeff Wald, she signed a recording contract with Capitol Records. She began her career with Capitol covering soft ballads, but one night everything changed. While lying in bed thinking about the strong women in her family -- her mother, her grandmother, and her aunts -- a phrase kept repeating itself in her mind. “I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman.” Reddy wondered whether there were any songs that celebrated the strengths and capabilities of women, but realized most songs about the assumed women were meant to serve and love a man, the stronger of the sexes. Reddy was inspired to prove that women were meant to “roar.”

'I Am Woman' Was Around For Over A Year Before It Became A Hit

Reddy was involved in liberal politics and the feminist movement, but had yet to explore writing her own material. Nonetheless, she sat down and wrote all of the lyrics to "I Am Woman," which she credited to divine inspiration. Reddy collaborated with her friend Ray Burton, guitarist of the Australian band The Executives. Reddy stated that she wrote every lyric and Burton created a melody from these lyrics, although Burton claims he rearranged some of the lyrics to fit the music he wrote. The song was included on her May 1971 debut album I Don’t Know How To Love Him, but only the title track from Jesus Christ Superstar became a hit. However, when "I Am Woman" was featured in the soundtrack for the women’s liberation comedy Stand Up And Be Counted, it started receiving favorable attention.

Source: Pinterest

With "I Am Woman" gaining some popularity, Capitol Records thought there might be greater success in recording a finer-tuned version. Since the original song was barely two minutes long, Reddy wrote an extra verse: “But I’m still an embryo, with a long long way to go, until I make my brothers understand.” Capitol enlisted the best session players along with producer Jay Senter. The new version created a more sophisticated sound with a slower tempo and an emphasis on brass instruments. The lyrics posed no judgement or blame on men, but only a focus on the competence and power of women with the affirmations “I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman” repeating throughout the chorus. It was a slow climb, but after six months the single became a hit, reaching #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in December 1972 and selling over a million copies -- reportedly, 80% to women.

'I Am Woman' Said Exactly What Many Women Were Feeling At The Time

Source: Pinterest

Helen Reddy became a force to be reckoned with after the release of "I Am Woman."  Feminism was rampant during the early ‘70s with women pushing back on the stereotypes that limited them throughout history. No longer were they settling for the expectation of being a homemaker (unless that is what they truly wanted); women were now fighting through protests and rallies to gain their fair share of power in the workplace and general life. Sexism was a common practice in the entertainment world, which Reddy experienced firsthand. When Reddy would open for male musicians and comics prior to achieving fame, she was frequently the subject of degrading jokes and comments by the headliners as if she was just a sexual object. Fortunately, women were taking a stand in the music industry with female artists such as Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Grace Slick, Janis Joplin, and Carole King breaking barriers by fronting bands, writing and producing their own material, and expressing themselves through a deeper levels than just love songs.

Helen Reddy Was The First Australian To Win A Grammy

Many men were intimidated by the rising power of women resented "I Am Woman," feeling it was anti-men. However, the song still went on to achieve the 1973 Grammy award for Best Pop Vocal Performance By A Female Singer, establishing Reddy as the first Australian to win a Grammy. She upset even more people during her acceptance speech when she stated, “I want to thank God because she makes everything possible.” By 1974, Reddy was the world’s top-selling female singer with eight gold records. Her song’s vigorous line “I am woman, hear me roar” is constantly heard throughout pop culture to celebrate the power of women, and is still just as relevant in today’s feminist fight. Throughout the next decades, Reddy continued to release songs but none ever equaled the impact of "I Am Woman" as she avoided politics and controversy. Reddy was a regular guest on talk shows and variety programs -- and hosted her own, The Helen Reddy Show, in 1973 -- and was frequently referenced in the ongoing women’s liberation movement. 

Reddy passed away in September of 2020, but will always be known for her “roar.”

The Lyrics To 'I Am Woman'

I am woman, hear me roar

In numbers too big to ignore

And I know too much to go back an' pretend

'Cause I've heard it all before

And I've been down there on the floor

No one's ever gonna keep me down again

Oh yes, I am wise

But it's wisdom born of pain

Yes, I've paid the price

But look how much I gained

If I have to, I can do anything

I am strong

(Strong)

I am invincible

(Invincible)

I am woman

You can bend but never break me

'Cause it only serves to make me

More determined to achieve my final goal

And I come back even stronger

Not a novice any longer

'Cause you've deepened the conviction in my soul

Oh yes, I am wise

But it's wisdom born of pain

Yes, I've paid the price

But look how much I gained

If I have to, I can do anything

I am strong

(Strong)

I am invincible

(Invincible)

I am woman

I am woman watch me grow

See me standing toe to toe

As I spread my lovin' arms across the land

But I'm still an embryo

With a long, long way to go

Until I make my brother understand

Oh yes, I am wise

But it's wisdom born of pain

Yes, I've paid the price

But look how much I gained

If I have to, I can face anything

I am strong

(Strong)

I am invincible

(Invincible)

I am woman

I am woman

I am invincible

I am strong

I am woman

I am invincible

I am strong

I am woman

Tags: 1970s Music | Feminism | Helen Reddy | I Am Woman | Song Meanings, Lyrics, And Facts

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Emily Morenz

Author

Despite her younger age, Emily Morenz (Emo) is a serious 1960s/1970s enthusiast who is pretty much the Austin Powers of this decade. Through her all-vintage wardrobe, obsession with old time rock 'n' roll, and her mid century bedroom and 1,200+ vinyl collection you might think she just stepped out of a time machine. Emo plays the rare gems of the ‘60s and ‘70s on her radio show on OC’s 101.5 KOCI and teaches rock ‘n’ roll history on her podcast “The Rock & Roll Sweetheart.” When there's not a pandemic, she's rockin’ out with all the middle aged-men at every single classic rock concert happening around the town, and she will battle her away to front row and dance hard. Paul McCartney even once brought her up on stage to dance...while she was in a walrus costume. You also might find Emo surfing waves, skateboarding through a neighborhood, groovin' '60s gogo style, and pretending like she can play bass. And she's obsessed with peanut butter and corgis.