Celebrate International Women’s History Month with Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman,” a No. 1 hit and a fitting soundtrack for 1972, a year highlighted by milestones for the women’s movement
When ‘70s hit-maker Helen Reddy passed in 2020, most obituaries reported that three of her many hits reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. One No. 1, though, was mentioned more than any of her others: “I Am Woman.”
The Australian singer first came to the attention of U.S. audiences when her recording of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” reached No. 13 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart in 1971. An album named for the hit was released, and among its 10 tracks was one co-penned by Reddy: “I Am Woman.”
Reddy, more interpreter than songwriter, said she wrote the lyrics to “I Am Woman” because she was looking for a song that expressed what the feminist movement had meant to her. Unable to find one, she decided to write her own.
The song might have remained a deep track save for its use over the credits of a little-seen 1972 film Stand Up and Be Counted. Before the women’s lib-themed comedy was released, Reddy’s label, Capitol, asked her to re-record “I Am Woman” in case the film was a hit.
The original film poster for Stand Up and Be Counted.
The movie was a flop. Not so for Reddy’s new recording, though. The original version was more easy-going, but the remake replaced that soft-rock feel with a strident, anthemic arrangement that made it a natural for group sing-alongs at any pro-female gathering.
Initially, the tune seemed headed for the same fate as the film, entering Billboard’s Hot 100 in the June 24, 1972 issue at No. 99 and disappearing three weeks later.
Thanks, though, to women calling radio stations to request the song (and at least in part to the infamously persistent promotional efforts of Reddy’s then-husband and manager Jeff Wald), the song re-entered Billboard’s charts in September and reached No. 1 in December.
It was a fitting cap for an eventful year in the women’s movement which saw the launch of Ms., a magazine co-founded by journalist Gloria Steinem, a leading light of the feminist movement. The year also was notable for the history-making presidential campaign of Shirley Chisholm, the first woman and the first African-American to seek the highest office.
Shirly Chisholm speaking at a podium.
In addition to the impact the contemporary feminist movement had on her, Reddy took inspiration from “all these strong women in my family who had gotten through the Depression and world wars and drunken, abusive husbands,” she told an Australian newspaper.
Another inspiration was Lilian Roxon, a journalist who pioneered coverage of 1960s lifestyle changes, becoming widely known as a rock music authority in the process. Roxon, an Australian who relocated to New York City, befriended Reddy when the singer arrived in the U.S. in 1966 with her daughter from her first marriage and very little money.
As the 1970s ended so did Reddy’s reign as a pop chart-turner. She began to focus on acting, in the Disney film Pete’s Dragon and onstage, mostly in musicals.
For Pete’s Dragon, Reddy sang the ballad “Candle on the Water”; the song became a minor hit and was nominated for Best Original Song at the 1977 Academy Awards.
She left California for Australia, where she earned a degree in clinical hypnotherapy. She retired from performing, thought better of it and performed regularly until the mid-2010s.
“I Am Woman,” though, remained a touchstone of her career, less for its chart success than for its impact. The song opened up feminism to a Top 40 audience and by extension to scores of women who might have viewed the women’s liberation movement as an intellectual enterprise reserved for coastal elites.
Reddy’s lyrics, simple and direct, celebrated women’s strengths, acknowledged oppression and looked forward to a more equal future. And it made the demands of the women’s movement sound like the common sense requests that they were.
One of Reddy’s final public performances was at the Jan. 17, 2017 Women’s March in Los Angeles. Introduced by Jamie Lee Curtis, Reddy began to sing her anthem, was quickly joined by the celebrities on stage (Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin among them) and then by the thousands of women finding the power of their collective roar.