Forever No. 1 is a Billboard series that pays special tribute to the recently deceased artists who achieved the highest honor our charts have to offer — a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single — by taking an extended look back at the chart-topping songs that made them part of this exclusive club. Here, we honor the late Helen Reddy by diving into the first of her three Hot 100-toppers, the female empowerment anthem “I Am Woman.”
When a modern ear catches Helen Reddy’s soft-rock feminist anthem “I Am Woman,” it may sound quaint, even obvious: “I am woman, hear me roar/ In numbers too big to ignore”; “I am strong/ I am invincible/ I am woman.” But when it topped the Billboard Hot 100 in December of 1972, gender equality — which the country, not to mention the world, still hasn’t truly achieved — wasn’t even the commonly agreed upon value it is today.
In the early 1970s, mentions of the women’s liberation movement in media and public discourse were accompanied by eyerolls and dismissive sneers. Not rebuttals or outright admissions of misogyny, but obvious mockery — which any playground bully knows is an effective smokescreen for a topic that makes you uncomfortable, cf. the presidential debate on the day Reddy passed away at age 78.
And sure enough, the first No. 1 hit from Australian singer Helen Reddy – the earnest, gentle-yet-firm “I Am Woman” — was greeted by a sea of mostly male gripes when it became the No. 1 song in the country. Sure, it’s hardly edgy in its production or melody, but that never seems to bother those who place similarly gooey chart-topping fare from Johnny Nash (“I Can See Clearly Now”) and Neil Diamond (“Song Sung Blue”) in the ‘guilty pleasure’ bin. (Anyway, a ferocious garage-punk rocker with a similar message wasn’t gonna sweep Nixon’s America).
Yes, it’s obvious. Hell, this was a world where it was entirely acceptable to espouse the view that women shouldn’t even have careers beyond the kitchen. You’re demanding subtlety in a decade where one advertising slogan quite literally extolled the virtues of “keep[ing] her where she belongs”? Good luck with that.
It might not be Anne Koedt set to music, but “I Am Woman” was the feminist anthem that America in the ’70s needed: A solid, straightforward statement of purpose paired with an accessible, irresistible melody (courtesy guitarist Ray Burton, a fellow Aussie who co-wrote the song with Reddy). Even the sneering patriarchy couldn’t ignore the immediacy of the chorus or the staggering self-assurance of the lyrics. “I am woman, hear me roar” became a defining rallying cry for equality, one that continued to resonate among the generations that followed.
Fitting for the song’s subject matter, its climb to the top spot wasn’t easy. “I Am Woman” entered the Hot 100 at No. 99 in the summer of ’72, peaking at No. 97 before dropping off entirely. But Reddy’s tireless performances of the song on various TV shows (despite being heavily pregnant with a son by her then-husband/manager Jeff Wald) and its inclusion in a long-forgotten comedy about women’s liberation called Stand Up and Be Counted helped raise its profile; according to Reddy in her 2005 memoir The Woman I Am, women began calling in to radio stations after seeing it on TV, boosting airplay.
Eventually, it re-entered the Hot 100 in the fall and finally topped the chart Dec. 9, 1972. Arriving after the Temptations’ deeply funky tale of familial discord “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and holding the spot for one week before Billy Paul’s lush ode to adultery “Me and Mrs. Jones” took over, “I Am Woman” was a rarity for any decade, present one included – a No. 1 song from a woman that had nothing to do with being in love with a man. And in its direct, stark simplicity, it served as a refrain for pavement-pounding activists as well as those still under the thumb of societal gender norms.
“I couldn’t find any songs that said what I thought being woman was about. I thought about all these strong women in my family who had gotten through the Depression and world wars and drunken, abusive husbands. But there was nothing in music that reflected that,” Reddy said in a 2003 interview. “I certainly never thought of myself as a songwriter, but it came down to having to do it.”
For a non-songwriter, the lyrics pack a hell of a wallop. Born out of the exhaustion of being perpetually underestimated but with a rousing, determined strength, Reddy delivers the chorus with a bottomless spirit, as if she’s been told “no” a hundred times but hasn’t lost an ounce of hope (that spirit helped her nab the female pop vocal performance Grammy in 1973). And for as blunt as the chorus is, there’s a hard-learned logic and depth to the verses that’s often overlooked: “Oh yes, I am wise/ But it’s wisdom born of pain/ Yes, I’ve paid the price/ But look how much I gained.”
And what of the chorus? It might seem a touch kitschy five decades later, but put cynicism to the side and listen to the relish in Reddy’s voice as she delivers her mission statement. She declares “I am strong” and “I am invincible” with a joyous clarity and undeniable conviction. And when those backing vocals chime in to emphasize the words “strong” and “invincible,” it’s a reminder that sometimes you need to bring along your own cheerleading squad, because the world might not be ready just yet.
“I Am Woman” is a celebration, a rallying cry, a statement of purpose and a fortifying tonic all wrapped into one three-and-a-half-minute pop song. It’s one of the few songs whose impact extends well beyond music, inspiring countless people to affect real change in their lives and worlds. It’s a roar that is still reverberating.