Congress was in the midst of finalizing the Equal Rights Amendment for state ratification and the U.S. Supreme Court was in the throes of deliberating Roe v. Wade when Helen Reddy recorded "I Am Woman." The song became an anthem that helped define the women's movement in the 1970s and made the singer an instant feminist icon.
More than 40 years after it became a hit in 1972, Reddy reflects on her signature song and its relevance today. She says she remembers lying in bed one night when the words "I am woman, hear me roar" came to mind. The opening lyrics have endured in the pop culture lexicon and was even echoed last year in Katy Perry's hit song "Roar," which is considered a feminist cry and a nod to Reddy.
Reddy says she was undoubtedly influenced by the women's rights movement at the time, but her motivation was to write a song about women that would be different from those that were common on the radio back in the day.
"They were all cotton candy and garbage," she tells The Advocate. "No one else was writing songs about strong women, so I thought, why not me?"
Once "I Am Woman" became a hit, female fans would tell her at personal appearances what the song meant to them. She was surprised at the enormous reaction to the song, which won her a Grammy Award. But there was another group from her fan base that also expressed appreciation for the inspirational anthem.
"You wouldn't believe the men," she says, "particularly gay men."
At the time it became a hit, gays were fighting for equal rights as much as women were. Reddy says they perceived the song to be more about solidarity and less about gender.
"I Am Woman" was the first of Reddy's 14 Billboard Top 40 songs on the radio during the '70s. With her stardom came frequent television appearances on variety programs like The Carol Burnett Show, and she even had her own summer-replacement series during the decade with The Helen Reddy Show. She was cast as a singing nun in the disaster flick Airport 1975 and had a part in Disney's film Pete's Dragon. Her other number 1 radio hits included "Delta Dawn" and "Angie Baby."
Eventually she moved back to her native Australia and retired from performing. She got a college degree in clinical hypnotherapy and neuro-linguistic programming.
"We've come a long way," she says when asked about feminism today.
At 73 (she coincidentally shares a birthday, October 25, with Katy Perry), Reddy emerged from semiretirement a few years ago and is back onstage singing her hits. "I Am Woman" is the encore in her act, which she will perform January 24-25 at the Orleans Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. The song, she says, is relevant today in stating that women still have a long, long way to go before they make their brothers understand the message of equality.
"You can still sense the audience feeling the strength in that song," she says.