On December 9, 1972, “I Am Woman” by Helen Reddy hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The Australian pop singer wrote the empowering anthem after noticing the lack of songs that celebrated women’s fortitude. When Reddy won the Best Female Pop, Rock, and Folk Vocal Performance award at the 1973 Grammys, she thanked her husband and manager for making her success possible and “God because She makes everything possible.” Aside from winning Reddy this honor and opportunity to give a feminist speech, “I Am Woman” became a fitting theme song for the second wave feminist movement. It also inspired other female artists to celebrate the invincibility of the female species in their own music.
Listeners were first introduced to Reddy in 1971 with her cover version of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from the Broadway musical, “Jesus Christ Superstar.” After the success of the single, Reddy was in the studio working on her album that was scheduled to include songs from music legends like Van Morrison, Leon Russell and Graham Nash. However, she was determined to include a song about the special experience of womanhood. She explained in a 2003 interview, “I couldn’t find any songs that said what I thought being woman was about. I thought about all these strong women in my family who had gotten through the Depression and world wars and drunken, abusive husbands. But there was nothing in music that reflected that.” She noticed that the only songs about women were either superficial or chronicled suffering and abuse. She was also disgusted by the way show business disenfranchised and marginalized women. Although Reddy did not consider herself a songwriter, she realized that to share her message she was going to have to write the song herself. In bed one night, the phrase “I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman” kept running as a constant loop in her head. That mantra became the iconic chorus of “I Am Woman.”
After recording the song, Reddy did not expect it to turn into a hit record. However, a year after making the song, the creators of the women’s liberation comedy, “Stand Up and Be Counted,” selected “I Am Woman” to be played during the opening credits. Her record label released it as a single in May 1972 and it slowly climbed up the Billboard charts to No. 1 in December. Although male dominated radio stations were slow to play it, Reddy’s performances of the song on TV turned it into a popular hit
Reddy’s song was timed perfectly with the growing second wave feminist movement. Gloria Steinem’s Ms. Magazine had just began publication and when the National Organization for Women (NOW) ended their 1973 Washington, D.C. gala with “I Am Woman” blasting from the loudspeakers, the attendees were galvanized by the song. Betty Friedan, founding member of NOW, reflected on the song’s effect on the crowd in her book, “It Changed My Life”: “At a gala entertainment (at the 1973 NOW convention in Washington)…a dramatic celebration of herstory closed with the song “I Am Woman”; suddenly women got out of their seats and started dancing around the hotel ballroom, joining hands in a circle that got larger and larger until maybe a thousand of us were dancing and singing…It was a spontaneous, beautiful expression of the exhilaration we felt in those years, women really moving women.”
“I Am Woman” is still considered an empowering anthem for women. After Kathryn Bigelow gave her acceptance speech as the first woman to receive the Best Director award at the 82nd Academy Awards for her 2009 film “The Hurt Locker,” the orchestra played an instrumental version of the symbolic song. Today, as women continue to stand up for equity in the workplace and beyond, “I am woman, hear me roar” is as relevant a message as ever.