She’s gone: the woman whose song leapt directly from the radio into our awakened activism; the artist whose lyrics dared to assert I am strong. I am invincible. I am woman.
Helen Reddy, whose 1972 hit “I Am Woman” sold over a million copies and voiced what so many women were feeling but dared not express out loud, died on September 29; she was 78.
While her clear-voiced artistic range included a host of other hits—from the movingly maternal “You and Me Against the World” to the spooky “Angie Baby” and robust “Delta Dawn”—Reddy’s signature “I Am Woman” release was as much a challenge as a commercial product. There never had been, nor will there ever be again, a pop culture tribute to the burgeoning women’s liberation movement, broadcast free and uncensored to all Americans via AM radio.
The song demanded no partisan affiliation, asked no favors, and identified no enemy, other than acknowledging there was “a long, long way to go/until I make my brother understand.”
Reddy asserted, “I’ve been down there on the floor/no one’s ever gonna keep me down again,” before most battered women’s shelters had opened, in a year when marital rape remained legal, when lesbians were classified as mentally ill felons with no foreseeable hope of winning civil rights.
She sang, “You can bend but never break me ‘cause it only serves to make me more determined to achieve my final goal“—words each listener could apply to her own journey, own goal, and whatever dues she’d paid along the way.
That collective survival rang out in the reassurance “Yes, I’ve paid the price/But look how much I gained,” a credo for legions of women who were paving the way for other sisters in every endeavor from Congress to West Point to the Boston Marathon.
“I Am Woman” did not purport to voice or clarify specific struggles of Black women, queer women, indigenous women or women in prison, many of whom drew strength from other survival songs. Without universalizing the reach of one white woman (from Australia, yet!), what made “I Am Woman” radical was that by 1973, 10-year-old boys and 60-year-old businessmen alike were humming it as they mowed lawns in Durham, N.C.
Its message was delivered, incredibly, by the same sexist pop music industry that wouldn’t hire women as session musicians or let commercial stations play more than one female vocalist per hour.
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On that threshold of the 1970s, before Internet, social media, helplines and Roe v. Wade, women who were afraid to walk out of an abusive marriage, desperately hiding women’s lib pamphlets under the sofa mattress, and sick with fear over how to find/afford/survive an illegal abortion could turn on a radio. Radio unexpectedly delivered “I Am Woman” into their bloodstreams.
Radio left no paper trail, no clinic bill, no letter from a secret girlfriend; instead, Helen Reddy conveniently turned every listener’s front porch or station wagon into a three-minute feminist space. The kids’ morning carpool, the auto repair bay, the grocery store, the dentist’s office, summer camp, the restroom at the dollar movie house: If that song was on the air, someone got an education.
And when I was ten, eleven and twelve, it was a song that made millions of girls like me ready to do battle: that rallying cry, the word woman, was inseparable from second-wave feminism. Falling asleep at night to the sound of Helen Reddy on our first radios, we were the generation that grew up to major in women’s studies; to be women’s history professors; even, in my case, to document the women’s music movement that came fast on the heels of Reddy.
On a hundred-year timeline, “I Am Woman” appears exactly halfway between U.S. women winning the vote in 1920 and today’s pandemic 2020. We’re waking up to the reality that yes, the suffrage victory was a century ago. And the 1970’s? Fifty years back, now. Feminist activists of the 1970’s are aging, but thankfully not through marching, writing, learning from each other, joined in the never-completed fight for social justice.
The suffrage movement, too, had songs. But the passage of the 19th Amendment sure didn’t guarantee a vote for women of color in the U.S.; as Angela Davis documented in Blues Legacies and Black Feminisms, Black blueswomen of the Harlem Renaissance used ballads and club gigs as truth-telling performances decades before Helen Reddy roared. Too often, commercial white radio wouldn’t play blues songs, which actually called out racism, poverty, bulldagger bravery, unreliable men.
Girl groups of the 1950’s succeeded commercially, as long as they were apolitical; hard-hitting songs of the civil rights movement made folk heroines of both black and white protest artists, but many were censored on suspicion of being un-American.
It wasn’t until the 1970’s that a women’s rock band, Fanny, made the Top 40; and the lesbian-feminist cultural revolution called women’s music took off just after Helen Reddy emerged, with independent recordings (many produced by Olivia Records or Redwood) popularized via woman-only concerts and festivals. It fell to Helen Reddy to split the difference, split the century, and (to paraphrase historian Ruth Rosen) split the world open by cheerfully challenging the patriarchy in mainstream prime time.
“Hear me roar…in numbers too big to ignore.” There will be more of us. And more of us. And roaring.
In the hours following her death, newspaper obituaries rushed to reassure everyone that Reddy did not hate men. (“In 1973 she won the best female vocal pop performance Grammy Award for “I Am Woman,’ quickly thanking her then-husband…”)
It takes a women’s music performer like Jamie Anderson to emphasize “When she won a Grammy for Best Female Performance, she thanked ‘God, because she makes everything possible.’”
In numbers too big to ignore, we mourn a vocalist who took the risks that resonated; who gave us one transportable symbol of the times, heard on the car radio just when we left home to find ourselves.
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