What Helen Reddy Meant to Us
When Helen Reddy’s anthem ‘I Am Woman’ topped Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 chart in December 1972, I was nine years old. I didn’t know what a feminist was, didn’t understand why the words felt so powerful or even what women all over the country were feeling. But I did shout the song at the top of my lungs when it came on the radio; its message resonated with me and millions of young women who were growing up during the second wave of feminism. I’m hoping it becomes an anthem for our times again.
Helen’s brief but dynamic lyrics spoke of women’s strength, wisdom, invincibility, determination and conviction while recognizing the pain and price women often paid for bravely showing off these qualities.
Dancing around my small-town-Texas bedroom, I mouthed her words into the mirror. They became my words. Everything Helen sang about, I wanted to be.
My short chocolate-colored hair and brown eyes were even a match for hers. Suddenly there were options to idolizing Barbie’s impossible body and teased blonde bouffant.
Even if I didn’t understand this new energetic and powerful feeling, the Ms. magazines that arrived for my mother each month were giving me some answers. They were always placed — along with the mail — on her white wicker reading chair. I’d whisk it away before she saw it, hiding with it and a flashlight in my closet. Thanks to Gloria Steinem and her dynamic editorial team, I inhaled each issue and exhaled a southern girl’s relief from the feminine order. I absorbed the photos, the startling articles, and the “stories for free children” within its pages. Addressed to the Mrs., it challenged us to leave the Miss behind and become a Ms. This was food for feminists.
Ms. magazine exploded imagery in my brain and Helen Reddy’s song was the soundtrack.
It fomented my inner dialogue and served as a guidepost to the world around me. The ideas challenged women and girls to question the standards, beliefs and conventions that many mothers and grandmothers had been living with for years. Suddenly, in addition to the bold and wickedly independent women in my own family, I could envision a world different from the one outside my suburban front door.
The same month that Helen’s song was playing on every radio station, Ms. magazine’s December issue arrived with a bold pink cover that shouted in all capital letters, “Peace on Earth and Good Will to People.” It said people. Not just men. All people.
I’m a feminist today because of the strong matriarchs in my family — my great-grandmother was a hotel owner who secretly performed abortions in its back rooms, and both my grandmother and mother owned their own business. But the influences of Helen Reddy, Gloria Steinem and Marlo Thomas and other vanguard women can’t be denied. Some may not recall that Marlo, known to most as the TV star from That Girl, was also the creator/producer of the groundbreaking children’s recording and TV special Free to Be, You and Me which debuted in November 1972. I often sang the catchy theme song and the entire album in the shower, even if I didn’t fully grasp its radical ideas of gender neutrality and individuality. The vinyl record is still in my collection.
Some things I don’t remember happening, maybe because I hadn’t even lit 10 candles on my birthday cake, include the Senate’s passing of the Equal Rights Amendment (March 1972), the formation of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project headed by Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Brenda Feigen, and even Bea Arthur in the famous two-part abortion episode on the TV show Maude (November 1972). But certainly these first-ever moments helped catapult my belief that I could own my strong feelings.
Like these women, I could believe in my rights — including the right to make decisions for my own body, which I did later on in my life.
Just one month after Helen’s song hit the top of the charts, Texas attorneys Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington won the seminal Roe v. Wade case before the Supreme Court (January 1973). Then, Erica Jong’s book, Fear of Flying, challenged the prevailing ideas of female sexuality adding ‘zipless fuck’ to our lexicon. I also read that in my closet when I found it on my mother’s bookshelf a few years later. That same year year tennis player Billie Jean King beat Bobbie Riggs in the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ match in my hometown stadium, the Houston Astrodome. (September 1973).
Looking back, it’s no small wonder that I became a tennis player, joined the debate team (like my mother and Texas Governor Ann Richards), and wrote for my high school newspaper (Gloria’s influence again). At one time I even thought I’d become a lawyer (like Barbara Jordan). We were handed a roadmap to a new future that Helen, Gloria, Billie Jean, Linda, Sara, Ruth, Erica, Bea and so many others gave us. It’s a legacy we may have taken for granted along the way.
Many of the girls and women of the 70’s became the pussy-hat wearing, women’s marching grandmothers and mothers of today’s young people who will also be voting in November. Through these past decades, Helen continued to sing her anthem urging us on, even as recently as the 2017 Los Angeles Women’s March.
Let’s remember why we roared then. Let’s roar together now.
*A little more than a year after Helen Reddy’s biographical film ‘I AM WOMAN’ debuted at the Toronto Film Festival, the feminist icon passed away on September 29, 2020.