You're Gonna Hear Them Roar: 'I Am Woman' Is An Anthem Beyond Its Era

Oct 24, 2018
Originally published on April 4, 2019 4:50 pm

This story is part of American Anthem, a yearlong series on songs that rouse, unite, celebrate and call to action. Find more at NPR.org/Anthem.


One of the best-known anthems of second-wave American feminism might not have become a No. 1 hit without an obnoxious display of macho behavior.

In 1970, singer Helen Reddy's manager and then-husband, Jeff Wald, met with an executive at her label to discuss a song she hoped to record with the label. It was called "I Am Woman."

"Capitol Records said, 'That women's lib crap is gonna kill her,' " Wald remembers. " 'Why are you letting your wife do this stuff?' "

Wald, who identifies as a feminist himself, told the label executive that he and Reddy both believed the song would speak to liberated women of the era. "He said it was a piece of s***, and that he couldn't stand it, and that it was gonna end her career.

"So I jumped up on his desk," Wald says, "and I peed on it. And the cocaine had nothing to do with that behavior."

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Reddy herself now has dementia and was unable to be interviewed for this story. But she told Houston Public Media in 2014 that "I Am Woman" was delivered from heaven.

"It came to me and it wouldn't leave me," she said. "It was simply a phrase that — over and over, 'I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman.' And I thought, well, this has to be a song."

After Reddy penned the lyrics, songwriter Ray Burton came up with the tune. Wald took "I Am Woman" to a small radio station in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. — chosen because it was filled with secretaries and other independent women working pink-collar government jobs. Soon, Wald says, the station's phone was swamped with requests to hear a song that spoke to women at that moment.

"Market by market, we were working that record, you know?" he said. "Just one market at a time."

"It was so hard," Reddy recalled in 2014. "So hard. You know, so many radio stations would say, 'Well, we're already playing a female record.' "

It took nearly a year for "I Am Woman" to work its way to the top of the charts. After it become a No. 1 hit in December 1972, Reddy won a Grammy for best female performance. She thanked Wald, "because he makes my success possible." And then, God: "Because she makes everything possible."

Referring to God as a woman on national television in 1972 was an audacious move. But it rang true in the same year that the Equal Rights Amendment passed the Senate and Shirley Chisholm ran for president. The Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade just a month after "I Am Woman" reached No. 1.

"It really resonated for a lot of people," says Nadine Hubbs, a professor of musicology at the University of Michigan. "She was putting into words some really important social changes that were going on at the moment."

"I Am Woman" works as an anthem, Hubbs says, because it's emphatically first person, and yet about all women. The song's been covered by other singers over the years, including Betty Wright in 1973 and during a gleeful karaoke scene in the second Sex and the City movie. (Cynthia Nixon, one of the actresses belting it out, has since found another voice as a progressive political activist in New York City.)

About a year ago, the band Pink Martini also started performing "I Am Woman." Lead singer China Forbes was not crazy about the song at first — it felt a little dated. But she says she'll never forget the first time the band performed it.

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"All these women came rushing up to the stage. And it was hundreds and hundreds of women," she says. "And we all sang 'I Am Woman' together. It was so incredibly powerful that I went from being slightly dubious about singing 'I Am Woman' to addicted to singing the song.

"It's so wonderful that a song like that exists, because it's so galvanizing and empowering that the cheesiness goes away and you're just left with this incredible feeling."

Forbes' bandmate Storm Large believes audiences reacted so strongly for a reason. Pink Martini started performing "I Am Woman" right around the beginning of the #MeToo movement.

"Boy, is this song timely," she reflects. "It's got a lot of hope to it. And God knows, we need a lot of positivity and some optimism."

These days, the singers say, "I Am Woman" is not just for women. They've recently invited men and women onstage to sing this equal rights anthem together. The dudes get into it: "I'm very proud of our sausage Americans," Large says. In 2018, she suggests, "I Am Woman" might just be a battle cry for everyone.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Here is one timeless song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AM WOMAN")

HELEN REDDY: (Singing) I am woman, hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore. And I know too much to go back and pretend.

GREENE: "I Am Woman" was the No. 1 hit for singer Helen Reddy in 1972, and it remains today an anthem for female pride and solidarity. Helen Reddy sang it again at the Los Angeles Women's March last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2016 LA WOMEN'S MARCH)

REDDY: (Singing) 'Cause I've heard it all before, and I've been down there on the floor. And no one's ever going to keep me down again.

GREENE: NPR's Neda Ulaby tells us more about a song that was really a no-brainer for our year long series, American Anthem. I should warn you there is language here that may offend some listeners.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: In an interview with Houston Public Media in 2014, Helen Reddy explained where "I Am Woman" came from.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

REDDY: I guess heaven, you know? It came to me and it wouldn't leave me. It was simply a phrase that, over and over, I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman.

ULABY: Reddy could not get these words out of her head, and she wrote them down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

REDDY: And I thought, well, this has to be a song.

JEFF WALD: She was pissed off, and she wrote it in bed in about 20 minutes. Probably was pissed off at me, for all I know.

ULABY: Meet Helen Reddy's husband at the time. Jeff Wald was also her manager. To say the song was not expected to be a success is, he says, an understatement.

WALD: Capitol Records said, that women's lib crap is going to kill her. Why are you letting your wife do this stuff?

ULABY: It's important to say here that Helen Reddy is still alive but she suffers from dementia so she wasn't able to be interviewed. Wald, though, is happy to fill in the backstory about how they got pushback from a Capitol Records executive.

WALD: He said it was a piece of [expletive], and that he couldn't stand it and that it was going to end her career. So I jumped up on his desk.

ULABY: He jumped up on the desk, and I cannot describe on the radio what he did next.

WALD: And the cocaine had nothing to do with that behavior.

ULABY: So Wald took the song to a radio station in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, a city they picked because it was filled with secretaries and other independent woman working pink-collar government jobs. Soon, he says, the station's phone was swamped with requests to hear a song that spoke to women at that moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AM WOMAN")

REDDY: (Singing) Yes, I am wise, but it's wisdom born of pain. Yes, I've paid the price.

WALD: Market by market, we were working that record. You know, just one market at a time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

REDDY: It was so hard. It was so hard.

ULABY: Helen Reddy, in that 2014 interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

REDDY: You know, so many radio stations would say, well, we're already playing a female record.

ULABY: It took nearly a year for "I Am Woman" to work its way up the charts and become a No. 1 hit. When Reddy then won a Grammy for best female performance, she thanked her manager husband.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REDDY: I would like to thank Jeff Wald because he makes my success possible, and I would like to thank God because She makes everything possible.

ULABY: Calling God She on national television was audacious. But remember, this was 1972, the same year the Equal Rights Amendment passed the Senate and Shirley Chisholm ran for president. The Supreme Court made its decision in Roe v. Wade just a month after "I Am Woman" reached No. 1.

Nadine Hubbs is a musicologist at the University of Michigan.

NADINE HUBBS: This song really resonated for a lot of people. She was putting into words some really important social changes that were going on in that moment.

ULABY: Part of the reason the song works as an anthem, she says, is because it's so emphatically first-person, and yet, about all women.

HUBBS: She's clearly singing for women, not just for herself. And she's placing herself on a larger stage.

ULABY: With lines like, I am strong, Hubbs says, the chorus crystallizes the drive and passion of the women's movement.

HUBBS: And then you have the other women coming in, the collectivity coming in. Strong, they echo her. I am invincible, invincible.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AM WOMAN")

REDDY: (Singing) I am strong. Strong. I am invincible. Invincible. I am woman.

HUBBS: There's where she's with her gals.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AM WOMAN")

REDDY: (Singing) I am woman, watch me grow. See me standing toe-to-toe.

ULABY: "I Am Woman" has been covered by other singers over the years. Betty Wright recorded it in 1973.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AM WOMAN")

BETTY WRIGHT: (Singing) I am woman. W-O-M-A-N. Uh huh. I am woman, watch me grow.

ULABY: The main characters in the movie "Sex And The City 2" picked it up in 2010 during a gleeful karaoke scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SEX AND THE CITY 2")

SARAH JESSICA PARKER: (As Carrie) Everyone.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As karaoke crowd, singing) I am woman, watch me grow. See me standing toe-to-toe.

ULABY: And about a year ago, the band Pink Martini started performing it, too. But lead singer China Forbes was at first not crazy about the song. It felt, well, a little dated. Then she made a joke when she introduced it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHINA FORBES: Are there any women here tonight?

(APPLAUSE)

FORBES: Can you come up onstage?

ULABY: All these women came rushing up to the stage, and it was hundreds and hundreds of women.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FORBES: So this is a song that is becoming more and more relevant every day. It goes something like this.

(Singing) I am woman, hear me roar in numbers too big to ignore.

And we all sang "I Am Woman" together, and it was so incredibly powerful that I went from being slightly dubious about singing the song, "I Am Woman," to addicted to singing the song, "I Am Woman."

ULABY: Sure, "I Am Woman" is a period piece, and maybe a little bit corny. But, says Forbes...

FORBES: It's so wonderful that a song like that exists 'cause it's so galvanizing and empowering that the cheesiness goes away, and you're just left with this incredible feeling.

STORM LARGE: When you're in it, and you're performing it and everybody's singing it, you're just like, oh, my God. I can do anything. (Laughter).

FORBES: It's so true.

ULABY: That's Forbes' bandmate, Storm Large. She says their audiences reacted strongly for a reason. Pink Martini started performing "I Am Woman" right around the beginning of the #MeToo movement.

FORBES: Boy, is this song...

LARGE: Yeah. Do we need it.

FORBES: ...Timely.

LARGE: Right.

FORBES: Like, wow.

ULABY: Suddenly, a song that seemed sort of dusty felt intensely relevant.

LARGE: It's got a lot of hope to it, and God knows we need a lot of positivity and some optimism.

ULABY: And not just for women, they say.

FORBES: Lately, I've been inviting men and women onstage, and they come up. The men come up, too. It's so awesome.

LARGE: Yeah. We need their help. And the dudes get into it, too. I'm very proud of our sausage Americans (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AM WOMAN")

FORBES: (Singing) But I'm still an embryo with a long, long way to go until I make my brother understand.

ULABY: A battle cry that speaks beyond gender to unify its audiences in a fight for a fairer world. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AM WOMAN")

FORBES: (Singing) I am strong.

LARGE: (Singing) Strong.

FORBES: (Singing) I am invincible.

LARGE: (Singing) Invincible.

FORBES: (Singing) I am woman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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