March 31, 2017
I am woman, hear me roar
In numbers too big to ignore
And I know too much to go back an’ pretend
‘Cause I’ve heard it all before
And I’ve been down there on the floor
No one’s ever gonna keep me down again
I’m cheating a little bit here. I wanted to use this song to end Women’s History Month and talk a little bit about the women’s liberation movement.
This is a famous phrase, but it’s not in heavy rotation (as an adage, nor just used in everyday conversation). But the song itself has maintained its place in history and continues to inspire women across the world.
“I Am Woman” has been featured in various television shows and in films, including:
- Married with Children. Peggy Bundy sang it in a grating way around her husband, main character Al Bundy.
- The Simpsons. Homer Simpson sang the song when he was dressed up like a woman.
- My Best Friend’s Wedding.
- Sex and the City 2.
- A Burger King commercial. The song was kinda spoofed to promote the restaurant chain’s Double Whopper sandwich. The song was changed to “I Am Man.”
Also, the song was the inspiration for Katy Perry’s hit, “Roar.” (By the way, Perry shares a birthday, October 25, with the writer of the original song, Helen Reddy.)
By 2016, there was a movie in the works to celebrate Reddy’s musical success in the United States. The film, “I Am Woman,” was produced by Rosemary Blight and set to be directed by Unjoo Moon. The movie script was written by Emma Jensen (Maddox).
What’s the History Behind the Song?
Helen Reddy said the words, “I am woman, hear me roar” came to her as she was lying in bed (Bixler). However, she wasn’t pleased with the initial results.
“I Am Woman” was featured on Helen Reddy’s first studio album, I Don’t Know How to Love Him (1971). The song was added so that Reddy could have enough songs to put on her album, but she and her producer didn’t like the original version. Although the producer said Reddy sounded “too butch” on the song, it was included on the album anyway.
Later, the song would be given a makeover after movie producer Mike Frankovitch requested it be used in the “feminist comedy” entitled “Stand up and Be Counted.” Reddy gave permission for her song’s use on two conditions:
- She needed to be allowed to re-record the song.
- Frankovitch had to donate $1,000 each to Women’s Centers in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles.
The song was released in 1972 to coincide with the movie’s release. The re-done version of the song “I Am Woman” would be included in Reddy’s second album, which bore the same name.
Where Does Women’s Liberation Come In?
In a 2014 interview with The Advocate, singer Helen Reddy talked about her inspiration for writing “I Am Woman” and the reception of the song.
At the time “I Am Woman” was being recorded, the Equal Rights Amendment* was being prepared by Congress for state ratification. Also, the Supreme Court was considering Roe v. Wade.
Reddy easily admits she was inspired by the women’s liberation movement in the 1970’s. Reddy was inspired by Australian rock critic and feminist Lillian Roxon (Maddox).
Also from her interview with The Advocate:
Reddy said she wanted to write a song for women that celebrated their strength and set it apart from other songs about women. “They were all cotton candy and garbage. No one else was writing songs about strong women, so I thought, why not me?”
Once her song was re-released as a single in 1972, soon became a hit and was seen as the anthem of the movement. The reaction was generally split along gender lines. But to Reddy’s surprise, the song was also popular among gay men.
Gay men loved the song because it resonated with them in a way that crossed gender lines. In the 1970’s gays were also fighting for equal protection under the law. To them, the song signified solidarity (Bixler).
Did You Know the Song Was Co-Written By a Man?
Ray Burton should be given tremendous credit for the song’s creation. The Australian songwriter and composer, whose catalog includes over 200 songs, began collaborating with Reddy in 1970. Burton worked on the song in August of that year and it was released by Capitol Records sometime afterward.
Helen Reddy (who is also Australian-born, having arrived in New York in 1966) invited Burton to “two or three” get-togethers at her home in Hollywood Hills. Those get-togethers involved Reddy and her female friends, so Burton was the only male there. The women would talk about the women’s liberation movement and Burton could tell how serious these women were about the subject.
One day, Burton encouraged Reddy to get her thoughts down to paper and write a song about women’s rights. “A week or so later,” Reddy came to him with lyrics. The song was “written out in part prose, part poetry form on a notepad size piece of paper.”
Burton wrote the melody for the song based on the lyrics. But he made some changes, including adding and replacing some words, and rearranging lyrics to fit his melody. He said it took him 12 hours to do everything.
Burton fashioned himself as “being primarily an R&B, soul, country, rock type singer/songwriter/guitar player,” but he was proud to work on the song. While he has been ribbed for collaborating on the song, he said that one reason for his work was that he was for equality, too.
By his own admission, Burton recognized that being given credit for the song could have harmed Reddy’s credibility with some activists. But should wrote the vast majority of the lyrics and he would like to receive proportional credit for his work on the song.
Where Did I First Hear the Words ‘I Am Woman’?
I’m not sure when I first heard it, but I remember seeing a cute commercial with the cover of the song. The commercial took place in a maternity ward and there were baby girls raising their fists as they lay in their warming units (or whatever you call them).
Overall, I liked that commercial, even if I didn’t know who wrote the song. The ad was able to convey the type of energy and excitement I believe a lot of women felt when they were advocating for the women’s liberation movement.
What Happened to Helen Reddy?
In 2015, there was news that Helen Reddy was diagnosed with dementia. She was moved to the Motion Picture and Television Fund’s Samuel Goldwyn Center for Behavioral Health in Woodland Hills, California. While in the early stages of dementia, she was asking the same question every few minutes and often forgot where she placed things. At the time, she had concert a planned for June 11 in San Diego, but that was cancelled.
Reddy’s family has denied that she has dementia, but she retired from performing due to poor health. When asked earlier this year how she was feeling, Reddy said she felt great. She was able to give an interview to an Australian outlet and talk about some of her old Hollywood friends.
* The ERA was a constitutional amendment originally authored by Suffragist Alice Paul in 1923 (“ERA”). It called for men and women to have equal rights throughout the states, but some women in the women’s liberation movement wondered if it would affect women in divorce settlements (GWANET). Although it was finally passed by Congress in 1972, it has never been ratified by the states.
Bixler, Brian. “Helen Reddy and the Making of an Anthem.” The Advocate. 29 Nov 2014. Web. Retrieved 31 Mar 2017. http://www.advocate.com/arts-entertainment/music/2014/11/29/helen-reddy-and-making-anthem
“ERA Today.” Alice Paul Institute. Web. Retrieved 31 Mar 2017. <http://www.alicepaul.org/newsevents/era-today/>.
“Helen Reddy, who sang ground-breaking feminist anthem, in nursing home with dementia.” The Daily Telegraph. 5 Aug 2015. Web. Retrieved 31 Mar 2017. <http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/entertainment/sydney-confidential/helen-reddy-who-sang-groundbreaking-feminist-anthem-in-nursing-home-with-dementia/news-story/d753b08c468cc4610dfb4a4392c85a20?nk=3bc466982e753d52b091a981af149a3f-1490967653>.
“History and Theory of Feminism.” GWANET — Gender and Water in Central Asia. Web. Retrieved 15 Mar 2017. <http://www.gender.cawater-info.net/knowledge_base/rubricator/feminism_e.htm>.
“I am woman by Helen Reddy.” Songfacts. Web. Retrieved 31 Mar 2017. <http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=2226>.
Maddox, Garry. “Short Cuts: Singer Helen Reddy’s trailblazing life to become a film in I Am Woman.” The Examiner. 18 May 2016. Web. 31 Mar 2017. <http://www.examiner.com.au/story/3915448/short-cuts-singer-helen-reddys-trailblazing-life-to-become-a-film-in-i-am-woman/?cs=40>.
Widersehn, Sarah. “Singer Helen Reddy feeling ‘great.’” News.com.au. 23 Jan 2017. Web. Retrieved 31 Mar 2017. <http://www.news.com.au/national/breaking-news/singer-helen-reddy-feeling-great/news-story/bee749f9a47d9959a59ca79f005945d4>.