Today we honor and celebrate the woman who wrote and sang the unofficial anthem of Second Wave Feminism, the talented Helen Reddy. Reddy, a social justice activist, was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1941, she was part of a long-standing Australian business family. Her immediate family, however, were actors, singers, and performers, and she began touring with them at the age of four. Her teenage rebellion took the form of an early marriage and an attempt at domestic stability. When the brief marriage ended, she found herself a single mother and returned to singing to support her small family. She won a contest that she thought signed her to Mercury records and moved with her daughter to New York, only to find that she’d won the chance to audition; Mercury rejected her.
Still feeling that her chances of success were better in the U.S., Reddy undertook a performing career. For the better part of five years she eked out a modest living. She met her second husband, agent Jeff Wald, at a party friends were throwing to help raise money for her rent. They moved to Los Angeles where Wald found initial success managing other acts. When Helen insisted he turn his energies back to her career, he went at it full force and eventually landed her a contract with Capitol Records, where she would stay for the most successful run of her career.
A life-long feminist, Reddy wanted to record a song about the power of the movement. As she noted in an interview,
I was looking for songs that reflected the positive sense of self that I felt I’d gained from the women’s movement. I couldn’t find any. All I could find were these awful songs like “I am woman and you are man, I am weak so you can be stronger than.” So I realized the song I was looking for didn’t exist and I was going to have to write it for myself.
Fortunately, her inspiration and dedication resulted in the now iconic I am Woman. She recorded an initial version of the song for her first album but wasn’t satisfied with it. When producer Mike Frankovich asked to use the song I am Woman in his film Stand Up and Be Counted, Reddy took the opportunity to add another verse, tighten up the lyrics, and re-record the song. She gave Frankovich the license to use the song in exchange for him donating money to Women’s Centers in LA, New York, and Chicago. The new version was a major hit, going to #1 in December 1972 (her first of three chart-toppers). When the United Nations declared that 1975 was “The Year of the Woman” they chose I am Woman as its theme.
Even though she’d been warned that such forthright feminism might kill her career, she never hesitated. Her bravery was rewarded with a decade-long run on the charts that make her one of the most successful Australians on the Hot 100. She also managed a successful acting career and never abandoned the activism that helped launch her success.
A dual citizen, she lived mostly in California until recently. She served as the state’s Commissioner of Parks and Recreation for three years. She has now retired from live performances and returned to Australia. She remains active in civil rights and advocacy. The recommended reading list on her website is a feast of progressive politics and social activism. She now practices as a clinical hypnotherapist and motivational speaker, building on a lifetime of serving as an inspiration. I must confess this was and remains one of my favorite albums of all time. In fact, it was the first album I bought for my husband when we were dating. If you don’t own a copy of this, I strongly encourage to you buy it.