Today women know that after the words “I am woman” are spoken it’s very likely, thanks to Helen Reddy, the following three inspirational words will follow: “hear me roar.” The Australian singer, actress and activist not only wrote and performed the now well known, "I Am Woman," which became the anthem to the second wave feminism, but also became a cultural and symbolic icon for the movement too.
Helen was practically born into show business; her father Max was an actor, writer and producer, and her mother, Stella, was a singer. Born in In 1941, just outside West Richmond, Victoria, Helen was performing at the age of 4. Later, Helen attended Tintern Girls Grammar School in Melbourne, Australia.
Helen toured with her family on the vaudeville circuit until she was 17. Then, somewhat surprisingly given what she later came to symbolize, Helen decided to get married, become a stay at home mom and leave show business behind. However, shortly after their daughter Traci was born in 1963, the couple divorced and Helen returned to show business as a single mother seeking a way to support herself and her young daughter.
Making Her Move
After winning a competition on Bandstand, an Australian television show, Helen believed her prize included tickets to the United States and a recording contract with Mercury Records in New York City; however, this was not accurate. Her award was the tickets and a chance to audition for a record contract. Despite this, Helen decided to stay in the U.S. with her daughter.
Without a U.S. work visa though, Helen found earning money challenging in the States. Due to this, she frequently crossed the border to Canada for performances so she could earn enough to live. In 1968, her friend organized a party to help Helen pay rent. Guests paid to get in the shindig and Helen performed. It was at this party where Helen met her second husband and future manager, Jeff Wald. Three days after the party, Jeff and Helen were married.
Helen helped support the family with charity and lounge performances while still pursuing her own career. She recorded her first single, a cover of “One Way Ticket,” in 1968. The family moved to Los Angeles, and in 1971 Helen recorded her first hit, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” from the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, with Capitol Records.
In 1972 Helen’s career exploded when her single “I Am a Woman” reached the number 1 spot on Billboard Hot 100. Helen was the first native Australian to nab this prime spot in U.S. music charts. She co-wrote the hit song with Ray Burton and has been quoted saying that she was inspired by the women’s movement. The problem was, despite the women’s movement and the counterculture of the times, Helen reports that she didn’t hear any songs about strong women on the radio. In a 2003 interview with Australia’s Sunday Magazine, she explained that no songs seemed to exist that matched what she believed being a woman was all 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. The only songs were 'I Feel Pretty' or that dreadful song 'Born A Woman'. (The 1966 hit by Sandy Posey had observed that if you're born a woman "you're born to be stepped on, lied to, cheated on and treated like dirt. I'm glad it happened that way".) These are not exactly empowering lyrics. I certainly never thought of myself as a songwriter, but it came down to having to do it," she said.
And, that she did. Helen remarked that she was surprised by the strong reaction to the song and how much it resonated with her audiences. Helen’s song not only earned a Grammy, but also came to represent the song, or anthem, for second-wave feminism. Additionally, the hit launched Helen’s career into the limelight. “I Am Woman” was just the first of 14 top 40 songs Helen would have in her career.
Later Years and Today
Helen and Jeff divorced in the mid 1980s. After a decades-long career in show business, Helen retired in 2002 and moved back to Australia where she studied clinical hypnotherapy and neurolinguistic programming. In 2012, Helen returned briefly to show business performing her biggest hits, but in 2015 she was diagnosed with dementia and retired for good. Today Helen lives in retirement community in California, but her illness did not stop her from once again being a part of an important women’s movement. Earlier this year, Helen joined more than 750,000 people in the 2017 Women’s March at the Los Angeles downtown march event where she performed a capella her still very relevant hit, “I Am Women.”