Nothing in her professional credentials suggested the Australian pop singer Helen Reddy as a feminist icon prior to 1972. She’d made her way to the United States from her native Australia on her own to pursue stardom, and she’d paid her dues working on the periphery of the music business for a number of years before making a breakthrough. Yet when that breakthrough came, it was in the form of a 1971 cover version of “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar—hardly a song about women’s liberation. But a feminist icon is exactly what Helen Reddy would become the very next year, when the anthem-to-be “I Am Woman” charged up the pop charts, reaching the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 on this day in 1972.
With lyrics that could have been lifted straight from the pages of the recently launched Ms. magazine, “I Am Woman” took the message of personal empowerment being espoused by the second-wave feminists of the early 1970s and put it out where it could do some real consciousness-raising—on the same AM airwaves that had been sending out very different messages about gender relations for many years. For a generation of American women raised on songs like “Johnny Angel,” “It’s My Party” and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “I Am Woman” represented something almost entirely new in mainstream pop: A song about female identity that made virtually no reference to men.
Helen Reddy wrote the lyrics to “I Am Woman” out of frustration. “I was looking for songs that reflected the positive sense of self that I felt I’d gained from the women’s movement,” she told Billboard magazine, “[but] I couldn’t find any.” True to the message of the hit song she would eventually write, “I realized that the song I was looking for didn’t exist, and I was going to have to write it myself.”
Released as a single in the spring of 1972, “I Am Woman” initially sputtered in its attempt to gain a foothold on the pop charts. It had fallen completely off the charts by late that summer, in fact, before re-entering the Hot 100 in September and beginning a steady climb upward thanks to Reddy’s frequent appearances on television that fall and to the volume of call-in radio requests those appearances generated—mainly from women.
Helen Reddy would have two further #1 hits in the 1970s with “Delta Dawn” and “Angie Baby,” but “I Am Woman”—the only hit song that Reddy penned herself—remains her signature achievement.