This past September saw the passing of Helen Reddy. Born in Melbourne in 1941, the singer became a feminist icon after her song “I am Woman” pushed her to international fame in 1972. Empowering a whole generation of women, Helen Reddy’s anthem became synonymous with the liberation movement of the 1970s and a lasting symbol of American counterculture.
The song managed to break records after its initial debut, catapulting Reddy to the spotlight where she would remain for nearly a decade. However, despite becoming a widely beloved figure, the song was met with some initial controversy. Called by some male critics “Dangerous and man-hating” the singer always insisted on the aim of the song as an anthem for general empowerment, as put by Variety’s Dennis Harvey “nobody called Sinatra a menace when he sang “My Way,” a no less straightforward hymn to self-determination”. The readers might be surprised to learn that there was some divergence within the Feminist movement itself about the suitability of the song as an unofficial anthem due to some of its lyrics “I am still an embryo with a long, long way to go”. Despite the discord created due to the possible identification of the liberation movement as exclusively siding in one way or the other with the incipient “Pro-choice” movement of the time, the song became an anthem to be sung at protests, rallies and a key part of the pop culture of the 1970s.
When asked about her views on becoming a historical figure in the political and social climate of 70s America she did not doubt in expressing her pride and also famously said "I had no idea what the song was destined to become. If I'd known, I would have been far too intimidated to have written it.” The music industry (and the rest of the world) has still not forgotten her acceptance speech at the 1973 Grammy Awards. After accepting her award for ‘Best Rock, Pop and Folk Vocal Performance’ that year (making “I Am Woman’ the first Australian-written song to ever win a Grammy) she thanked “God, because She makes everything possible” solidifying her position as an iconic figure within the music industry. At a time when female singer-songwriters such as Joni Mitchell and Patti Smith were beginning to exercise creative freedom, Helen Reddy cleared the path for the ensuing generation of artists who would achieve notoriety despite the discrimination prevalent in the industry.
Second-wave feminism would have not been the same without her. Managing to make the Women’s Liberation Movement recognisable in ways that no other song ever achieved, she pushed millions of women to enter the professional world and strive for equal rights. Although nearly 50 years have passed since the song's release, Helen Reddy’s words are as relevant today as they were when they first reached the public.