Otago Daily Times
Music aided women to know their strength
‘‘SHOW business’’, Helen Reddy once said, ‘‘was the only business that allowed you to earn the same salary as a man and to keep your name’’.
The singer and actress best known for her trailblazing feminist anthem I Am Woman died in Los Angeles on September 29, aged 78.
She was one of the most famous Australians in the world during the 1970s, and an icon of women’s liberation.
Born in Melbourne in 1941 to vaudeville performers Max Reddy and Stella Lamond, Reddy learned to sing, dance and play piano as a child. By her late teens, she was performing in her father’s touring show.
At 20, she married the musician Kenneth Weate. The marriage was brief — after it was over, she and her daughter Traci moved to Sydney.
Ambitious and keen to try her luck in the United States, in 1966 she entered and won a singing competition. A trip to the US and a recording contract were her prize. Arriving in New York with 3yearold Traci, the promised contract evaporated. Reddy performed in clubs in the US and Canada to stay afloat.
She had the good fortune, however, to meet the expat Australian journalist Lillian Roxon (author of the groundbreaking Rock Encyclopedia) who organised a rent party for Reddy on her birthday. There, she met her future second husband (and manager) Jeff Wald. They married shortly after, moving to Los Angeles in 1968.
Reddy and Wald initially encountered resistance from the music industry when trying to build her career. But their persistence paid off: in 1970 she recorded a cover of I Don’t Know How to Love Him from Jesus
Christ Superstar, which made it to No 13 in the US and No 1 in Australia.
Reddy became involved in the women’s movement. As she recalled in her 2005 memoir, The Woman I Am, her growing interest in women’s liberation drove her to try to find songs that expressed her pride in being female.
Unable to find one, she ‘‘finally realised I was going to have to write the song myself’’. While Ray Burton wrote the music, the lyrics to I Am Woman were Reddy’s.
‘‘I am strong, I am invincible’’ encapsulates its powerful message. The song found its audience as the women’s liberation movement took off globally. It went to No 1 in the US in October 1972, and No 2 in Australia in 1973.
It made Reddy a star, and a celebrity feminist: one of a small group of women, including Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer, whose profile and media savvy helped communicate feminist ideas to wide audiences.
The song was the official theme song of International Women’s Year in 1975.
While I Am Woman made Reddy famous, her Grammy acceptance speech in 1973 made her notorious: thanking ‘‘God, because she makes everything possible’’.
Her win was said by Brisbane’s Courier Mail at the time to have ‘‘sent a thrill through the braless bosoms of women’s liberationists around the world’’.
Reddy was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1974. She performed until the early 2000s, released her memoir in 2005, and was inducted into the ARIA hall of fame in 2006.
While she kept a lower profile in the last years of her life, she appeared in the 2017 Women’s March in the US. A biopic directed by Unjoo Moon, I Am Woman, was released this year.
Alice Cooper famously dismissed Reddy as the ‘‘queen of housewife rock’’ in the 1970s. It is doubtful she saw this as the insult Cooper perhaps intended it to be.
In a maledominated music industry, and a sexist society where women were routinely discriminated against, Reddy’s music made women feel strong and invincible. — The Conversation