The story of Helen Reddy's song I Am Woman

When Helen Reddy wrote her song I Am Woman, she was speaking as a feminist to women she felt she could reach through music.

In 1972, the Australian singer spoke to CBC Radio about the music business, and writing that song

Tilda Cobham-Hervey is seen portraying Helen Reddy in the biopic I Am Woman. (WestEnd Films)

Australian singer Helen Reddy, whose song I Am Woman was heard as a rallying cry for feminists during the 1970s, has died. She was 78. 

Co-written by her, and first released in 1971, the song was a hit record which won the singer that coveted symbol of North American musical success — a Grammy award.

The 2019 film I Am Woman tells the story of Reddy's struggle to launch her career in the U.S., beginning with her arrival in New York city in 1966 with false expectations of a record deal, her three-year-old daughter and very little cash. 

There she was befriended by journalist Lillian Roxon, and met Jeff Wald, who she married and who ultimately managed her career.

The singer talks to CBC Radio about the difficulties of succeeding in entertainment as a woman.

Back in August 1972, Reddy spoke to CBC Radio's The Scene about the music business, as she was enjoying success with her song I Am Woman on the charts (it peaked at number one in December that year.)

Interviewer Ross Perigoe asked her if a woman could succeed in entertainment "as an equal."

"It's one of the few fields that has been open to women, but only on a certain level," Reddy said.

"It's only in the last three years that I could walk on stage as me." 

'I'm not glamorous'

Helen Reddy, Oct. 27, 1977 (The Associated Press)

She explained that the trappings that contributed to the "stereotypes" of "what a girl singer looks like" had gone away, "thank God."

Reddy said that made it possible for "someone like me to make it because I'm not glamorous, I'm not a sex symbol."

She also talked about her songwriting process, admitting that she rarely performed her own songs.

The singer described her method of writing songs, including I Am Woman's first lines.

'Are you invincible?'

"It's harder, I guess, to sing my own stuff, because it's more personal," Reddy said, explaining that she would write and put her work away, before taking it out some time later to try to approach it more objectively.

"The singer in me edits the writer," she added, citing the first words she came up with for the one song she did become famous for writing as well as singing.

"I am strong, I am invincible. I am woman," she quoted. 

"That was the beginning of the song, and everything else went from there."

"Are you invincible?" Perigoe asked.

"Damn right," Reddy answered.

'I am a feminist'

Helen Reddy in London, where she was performing at the Palladium, May 1978. (Getty Images)

In a Toronto Star interview from Dec. 26, 1974, Reddy talked about the origins of the song, which came out of a realization of her own ability to overcome difficult times. 

She also talked about the difficulty of getting airplay for it, because of its strident feminist message.

The pop singer talked about raising the conscience of women re: feminism.

"I am a feminist," she said, when speaking to The Scene. "I avoid the term women's liberation like the plague. 

"I would like get into the hearts and minds of women who, for example, wouldn't have a copy of Ms. magazine in their house.

"But these women can be reached and ... I'm trying to find a way to reach them, ... to give them a confidence in themselves that they've never had."