I Am Woman is not exactly a radical feminist protest song, but it did help to crystallise the self-belief of groups of American women in the 1970s to throw off the shackles of centuries of conditioning and assert their own political, economic and sexual potency. Whilst today the song sounds a little kitsch, in 1972 it became a huge No.1 US hit single that represented an irreversible new wave of feminist thinking in the developed nations of the world.
In the 21st Century, when raising a family on the income from a single breadwinner would be impossible for most of us, it's tempting to think of the women's liberation movement in the USA in the Sixties and Seventies as quaint. In fact, it's testament to how much was achieved in such a short time that most of us now consider it anathema that generations of women were expected to spend the best years of their lives keeping their homes clean, their children clothed and their husbands fed. That post-war suburban fantasy, the American Dream of the nuclear family, was to all intents and purposes a male ideal, with women following chastely and subserviently behind.
"I am woman, hear me roar," sang the woman who came to America with no money, no husband and a three year-old daughter in search of a career. "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."
Reddy had already experienced some success with her version of I Don't Know How to Love Him, a plaintive ballad, sung by the character of Mary Magdalene in Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's hit musical Jesus Christ Superstar. The part was played by Yvonne Elliman in the West End and Broadway, but Reddy, who came from an Australian showbiz family, had by then married a music business insider who persuaded Capitol Records to let her record the song, which eventually reached the US No.3.
I Am Woman wasn't a global phenomenon, but it was very successful in North America and back home in Australia. As a result, Reddy was the world's bestselling female vocalist for the next two years and had two more US No.1 singles. The song was co-written by Aussie singer-songwriter Ray Burton, although credit for the lyrics differs greatly depending on whose version you are reading, with both co-writers claiming to have had the original inspiration, whilst veteran session musician Mike Deasy seems to have been the man behind the song's memorable guitar hook.
To some extent, Reddy used her position to do good. She became a community activist, appointed to the California Department of Parks and Recreation, and in 1978 it was reported that she was donating one third of her impressive income to charity. But her husband, Jeff Wald, proved unequal to the task of setting an example for the world to follow. When their rocky marriage eventually ended in divorce in 1982, Wald reportedly had a $100,000-a-year cocaine addiction and much of the other two-thirds of their fortune had been spent on a lavish lifestyle.
To the modern feminist, there's more than a suspicion that Helen Reddy's paean to women's rights might have been a sham. "I refused to settle for a man who would not help me get what I wanted," she told New York magazine in 1976, describing her relationship with her husband. And her co-writer Ray Burton freely admits that he wrote the song because "with my commercial savvy I could sense the women's liberation movement bubbling up and just about ready to come to the boil".
But whatever the motivation, this song did become an anthem for disparate women's groups across the United States who challenged the preconceptions of men and women alike, risking ridicule and abuse to ensure equality for women for their own bodies, education, careers and legal rights. For the first time, American women questioned the idea that only one half of the population is qualified to be on top. When she collected a Grammy award for I Am Woman, Helen Reddy thanked God "because She makes everything possible".
You can learn more about Helen Reddy here
About the curator: Jon Ewing
After graduating from the University of Keele in England with a degree in Politics and American Studies, Jon worked as editor of a music and entertainment magazine before spending several years as a freelance writer and, with the advent of the internet, a website designer, developer and consultant. He lives in Reading, home to one of the world's most famous and long-running music festivals, which he has attended every year since 1992.
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