Helen Reddy, who died in September (1941-2020), has been called the queen of 70s pop. She had three number one hits in the United States (Billboard Hot 100 chart) in 1973 and 15 singles that entered charts in the US top 40. Hits also followed internationally. Her ‘feminist anthem’ titled I Am Woman catapulted Helen Reddy to enduring fame. However, her overall recognition in the 1970s was based on radio airplay of hit songs, and US television primetime variety shows. She performed alongside, or hosted, some of the most famous singers and actors of that era.
Helen Reddy was lauded in many obituaries following her death. From an Australian perspective, she was the first Australian-born artist to get a number one hit on the US Billboard chart. I Am Woman was also the first ‘Australian-penned’ song to win a US Grammy Award. Over the decades, Reddy’s continuing relevance was mainly about feminism, singing her anthemic song, for example at an abortion rally in Washington DC in 1989, and an anti-Trump women’s protest in 2017.
Helen Reddy’s cultural importance is entirely wrapped up in the anthem-song I Am Woman, which in turn is firmly embedded in the so-called ‘second wave’ feminist historical charge.
A deeper investigation of Helen Reddy, her rise to fame, and her feminist credentials, throws up a series of weaknesses and contradictions in the dominant narrative. Both the feminist persona that she cultivated, as well as the meaning of her most famous song, deserve reappraisal. This investigation is particularly important from the perspective of men and women interested in the cultural perception of sexual power that favours a feminist worldview.
Helen Reddy was born into a show-business family and was involved in performance from a young age. In her autobiography from 2005, she identifies a key moment when she had a sense of injustice about women’s social portrayal (age 4?!).
In a burlesque comedy performance, a man sitting in an artist studio paints a woman in a bikini:
“The model asks to see the painting. He turns it around to reveal a blank canvas and tells her that he’s not really an artist, he’s just a dirty old man… I was really offended by that sketch… Now… I see what offended me was a woman being exploited by a man. It was my first consciousness raising experience and the beginning of my feminism…”
in Helen Reddy, The Woman I Am: A Memoir (2005), preview available in Google Books.
Comedy sketches from the 1940s could easily be seen in the context of their time. Perhaps dated, but not necessarily exploitative. There is a hint in this scenario of Reddy’s own emerging prudishness, with an implication that men’s sexuality is offensive. In 2010, Reddy complained publicly about modern bras, which suggests a similar view of sexual morality:
“When I was a girl, we used to complain we were divided into two groups: We were either virgins or we were whores,” she says. “And then along came Madonna — and now we’re all whores.
Reddy rebelled in her teens against the prospect of continuing the family tradition of an entertainment career and at the age of 20, in 1961, had married a man of 33. Reddy herself gives a very un-feminist explanation of her outlook at this time:
“I didn’t really want to have a career at all, because that was the 1950s and the ideal was to get married and then spend your life cooking and cleaning and living for your man. I had a trunk full of recipes, preparation for being a real woman.”
In 1976 (24 years before the 2000 interview), Reddy had already callously admitted that her marriage had been a sham:
“I knew even before we were married that I didn’t like him,”
Reddy separated from her first spouse, before her daughter was born. That former husband died in 1970, at the age of 42. Reddy returned to the performance industry with gusto. She had an ambition to be a successful performer at the highest level, focused on the US market. As Reddy indicated in 1983, in an interview with Dennis Hunt:
“I would have gotten to the states one way or another. I was very determined to come here.”
Reddy’s ambition looked close to being realised in 1966, when she won an Australian singing competition on a television show called Bandstand, hosted by Brian Henderson (semi-final performance of I belong). The prize was a trip to the US, where she expected to immediately sign a record contract. This did not eventuate. Instead, she stayed in the US in increasingly desperate straits, a single mother with a daughter aged three in tow, performing occasionally to small audiences, and lacking the work permit that would allow her to get secure ongoing employment as a performer.
Reddy was on the point of returning to Australia, when she found the basis for success. In 1968, in New York, a fellow Australian (male) held a crowd-funding party for Reddy, to help pay her rent. At this party, Reddy, now 27, met Jeff Wald, several years younger, Jewish, and working in the entertainment industry (alongside David Geffen).
As Reddy apparently admitted, she married Wald within days, “out of desperation over her right to work and live in the United States.”
Reddy also made a decision to become Jewish. Did she convert to Judaism as an act of compliance with her husband’s religion? Unlikely. She was a neither a servile woman, nor did she have any religious inclinations, except those relating to past life regression. She made this clear in 2000:
“I don’t follow any formal religion, because I think that once a religion becomes organised, it turns into a business.”
Reddy’s religious conversion would have been useful, as the music industry of the US had influential Jewish entrepreneurs.
Importantly, the marriage in 1968 to Jeff Wald was followed by a hiatus for Reddy. Her husband became a successful talent agent in Hollywood, while she remained relatively idle at home. In this period, she did a course in hypnotherapy in 1969 at UCLA and became a feminist, the basis for her most famous song.
Women’s Liberation, or feminism was gaining social prominence in the US, following the 1960s hippy ‘free love’ era. Radical feminist views and actions became newsworthy. An early example was Valerie Solanas, who in 1967 self-published an overtly man-hating book entitled SCUM (society for cutting up men), in which she advocated for the eradication of men. In 1968 she famously attempted to murder Andy Warhol.
Also in 1968, a feminist protest at a Miss America beauty contest made bra burning notorious. In 1970, Lillian Roxon, an Australian-born, New York based feminist, journalist and acquaintance of Helen Reddy, reported on a landmark street march by women in the city that August. Angry mass protests (the ‘roar’) were a newsworthy aspect of the growing women’s movement.
Relevant to this examination, also in 1970, an obscure Australian left-feminist student, Irena Dunn, quipped that “A woman needs a man, like a fish needs a bicycle.” This phrase crossed the ocean to the US and became a popular graffiti on campuses, though attributed to the feminist Gloria Steinem.
Radical feminists argued that men were exploitative and abusive and women should detach themselves romantically, sexually and economically from them.
Crucially, Helen Reddy did nothing of this sort.
Reddy put an ultimatum to her husband, to focus his career on promoting her own career. He accepted and began promoting her with relentless enthusiasm. Thus, in 1971, Reddy had her first hit record, with ‘I don’t know how to love him’. Although this was a minor hit, it was due to Wald’s tireless work in networking, contacting music executives, and phoning radio stations.
In 1976, one journalist, Mary Murphy, observed a pattern in the relationships between superstar women and their husbands, using Helen Reddy as a key example:
“The successful female star is the center of her own universe and the man [husband] basks in her reflected glow. He is he shadow person, the supporting player, hitched to a star.”
Notably, when Reddy’s fame started to collapse, the relationship with her husband also collapsed. They separated in 1981, and were involved in a notorious divorce in 1982.
Helen Reddy’s husband was one of several men that had been crucial to her survival and eventual rise to multi-millionaire status. Indeed, men were so important to her advancement, that it undermines the feminist narrative woven around her success.
Who inspired I Am Woman
The song I Am Woman accelerated and transformed Helen Reddy’s success and is the basis of her enduring fame, while her wider career has sunk into historical obscurity. The contemporary mainstream media (and recent obituaries) have focused on a feminist fairy-tale version of its emergence, promoted by Reddy.
In interviews over many decades, Reddy portrayed writing the song as a moment of ‘divine inspiration’. As she recalled in 2003, according to a tightly scripted feminist narrative:
“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.
“I certainly never thought of myself as a songwriter, but it came down to having to do it.”
Sometimes Reddy mentioned a co-writer of the song, in interviews:
“I knew Ray Burton, an Australian musician, and he had a crack at the music and thus was born the song.”
The role of Burton was far more significant than noted by Reddy. This musician had worked with Reddy in Australia. Likewise, he had travelled to the US and continued to work with her. He also had an unusual opportunity to witness the ‘consciousness raising’ sessions that Reddy initiated in the Hollywood Hills, where she lived. He said women would, “sit around and whine about their boyfriends.”
After experiencing the atmosphere of ‘consciousness-raising’, Burton said:
“I felt quite out of place among all of these gung ho women’s lib females but I could see the commercial potential because these women were SERIOUS! I suggested to Helen that if she felt so strongly about women’s rights she should get some words down on paper and I would then take them away and construct a song from them… I guess I wrote some of the lyrics as well.”
Subsequent to a bio-movie about Reddy, released in 2020, just before Reddy’s death, Burton expressed his annoyance of having been written out of the story. He again cited his recollection of words expressed 50 years ago:
“Look, if you feel so strongly about Women’s liberation Helen, why don’t you write something down for me to work on?”
The world’s most famous feminist anthem was a man’s idea.
I won’t sing songs like that, except when I do
Prior to I Am Woman, Helen Reddy had for many years sung cover songs. Likewise, her emerging fame would be based on doing ‘easy-listening’ cover songs, reheated hits, written by others, that she could sing better. But in 1972, she had a surprise hit, with an empowerment song that had been suggested by her male collaborator, Ray Burton. Reddy then spun a contrived feminist narrative, that would serve her well. Reddy repeatedly claimed that she felt contempt for a music industry that portrayed women in a downtrodden light. In a 1973 interview:
“I’ve always rejected songs like ‘Take me back, baby, I’m on my knees/Begging you please.’”
In many interviews over decades, Reddy regurgitated a simulated idealism about her musical direction. Reddy’s most successful songs were never feminist-inspired or themed. Her hits were chosen for commercial gain, to make money. Therefore, the songs were either about romantic love, or ironically, about women who had gone crazy after being wronged by a man. Key examples: I Don’t know how to love him (1971, vaguely servile love song), Delta Dawn (June 1973, woman goes mad over being jilted by a man), Leave Me Alone (October 1973, woman jilted, disturbed, homeless) Angie Baby (October 1974, disturbed girl and her fantasy lovers), Ain’t No Way to Treat a Lady (1974, woman tries to leave cheating man). Reddy sang exactly the kind of songs that she said she rejected.
Contemporary propaganda ignores the contradiction between Reddy’s self-marketing, and the actual product she supplied for 10 years. However, some television and music critics of the 1970s did recognise the formula for Reddy’s success. This TV review is from 1973:
“In her lyrics, Miss Reddy proclaims: “Yes, I am wise, but it’s wisdom born of pain.” Her program is burdened with neither much wisdom nor any pain. It is slickly packaged entertainment, with a light and welcome accent on women.”
The lyrical theme of many of Reddy’s hits contradict her claim that she wanted to sing about strong women. Alice Cooper famously declared that Reddy was ‘the queen of housewife rock’. Reddy was aware of the accusation and embraced it, with a positive spin, in 1975:
“That means I’ve reached a lot of people in a simplistic manner who would never go to a lecture or read an article on Women’s Lib.”
Indeed, Reddy had to tread lightly to communicate her feminist ideology to simplistic women, because feminism in the 1970s was still seen as potentially, “angry, man-hating, dangerous”.
Reddy’s left-feminist political ideology was revealed in interviews, her attendance at pro-abortion rallies and support for left-political causes. However, eight years after Reddy became famous, some writers already expressed cynicism about a wealthy superstar patronising the female masses with formulas for liberation. In 1979, a Tom Buckley NYT review of a Helen Reddy television special, put the boot in:
“And it just may be that Miss Reddy, whose songs still lament the hard lot and indomitable spirit of her sex, and Miss Fonda, who is also a fervid feminist, will lure legions of careworn women from their washboards, scrubbing brushes and darning needles to the television set, even at the risk of a beating from their beer‐sodden husbands.”
I Am Woman – selling out in the afterglow
In the 1970s, the image of Helen Reddy had been cultivated, with its soft marketing of feminism. I Am Woman was a song that had a semi-sacred status. Opportunities had arisen to sell this song for commercials, but these were rejected.
From the 1980s onwards, Reddy and her pop hits were no longer in high rotation on radio stations. Feminist solidarity was seemingly low. Reddy even performed a song I Can’t Say Goodbye to You at a 1981 Miss World competition. Miss World pageants had made feminists very angry from the 1960s onwards. They had previously staged protests against such ‘objectification’ of women.
Newspapers kindly explained that Reddy had to pay the rent, having allegedly spent $40 million living the high life in the previous decade, and living on reduced means, following her separation from Jeff Wald.
Selling the iconic I Am Woman songs for commercials also became financially optimal. So Reddy allowed its use for purposes that might have seemed a ‘sell-out’ in the 1970s. For example, Burger King used a parody of I Am Woman in 2006 to sell hamburgers. The advert included men burning their underwear:
I am man, hear me roar,
In numbers too big to ignore,
And I’m way too hungry to settle for chick food!
Woman who doesn’t like man
Helen Reddy had used men (and feminism) to advance her ambitions and career. As the men ceased to be useful, it made sense to move on. Reddy’s husband, Jeff Wald, had been instrumental in the Reddy’s success, but by the 1980s, he was not able to push her downward facing career further. He also had an admitted major cocaine addiction that contributed to frequently aggressive behaviour.
The eventual divorce in 1982 was famously bitter, due in part to a custody dispute over their son. Wald jokingly claimed in a radio interview, in August 2020 (just months before her death), that only with dementia “She Forgot She Hates Me!”. That was more than 30 years after their divorce.
One particular interview with Reddy in 1999 indicates the depth of her hatred for her ex-husband Wald, but also a more disturbing generic contempt for men:
“If you are going to have children, have one as a single mother because otherwise you will never have him out of your life. Not only will your children always be his children but your grandchildren will be his grandchildren and you will have him in your life until you Die. So I say, go to a sperm bank.”
The above statement was made 18 years after her divorce from Wald (she married and divorced another male subsequently). Reddy had harboured an ongoing bile, for decades, packed into a female-centric IVF philosophy. Yet, an even more disturbing attitude was revealed in a subsequent television interview in 2002. Roseanne Barr, who appeared to be very drunk, wiggled a confession from Reddy:
Barr: “How did you get the guts to get up there and sing a song that would piss all the men off…?”
Reddy: “I was too pissed off at the time to care… there was a lot of anger at that time… When a person’s consciousness is first raised, there’s a lot of anger’.
Reddy: “You are going to be a grandmother too. You are just going to love it… I hope it’s a girl.” [min 1:28].
Barr: “No it’s a boy.”
Reddy: “Oh… Well never mind” [Min 1:36].
Having a female grandchild is cool… Male?… Not so much.
Reddy’s attitude towards men developed both in her lived experience and through her ideological indoctrination in the late 1960s, via feminism. Is it possible that her pride only in strong women in her life had an opposite: that she had a contempt for men who were weak, alcoholics, drug addicts, failures? Was her feminism of such a radical variant that it extended to the contempt for all things male? Reddy’s sentiment bears a resemblance to that of the radical feminist Valerie Solanas, who suggested in 1967 in The SCUM Manifesto:
“It is now technically feasible to reproduce without the aid of males (or, for that matter, females) and to produce only females. We must begin immediately to do so. Retaining the male has not even the dubious purpose of reproduction.”
The alpha female describes her power
Ultimately the song I Am Woman, seems not about women at all. The vocal roar in the song might emanate from women on the march. But it is more convincing to think of the roar coming from Reddy herself. The roar certainly did not come from the meek, ‘downtrodden’ housewives that she sought to convert to a higher consciousness.
Reddy came from humble beginnings. She was able to fulfil a searing ambition to succeed. She rose to stardom inside an alleged patriarchal society, with the essential aid and encouragement of supportive men. And her success was not simply musical or financial. She was invited to perform for Presidents. She was invited to the White House of President Nixon and then Ford. She socialised with that ruling elite, while her husband snorted coke in the White House bathroom. She experienced social mobility on an epic scale and grabbed it by the horns.
In a provocative short-lived interview in 2014, just before the onset of her dementia, a journalist, Raymond Gill, sought an elaboration on her achievement of, “rubbing shoulders with the leaders of the military-industrial complex.”
Reddy did not answer the journalist’s attempted probing questions, because they were both commercially off-topic and subversive. Nevertheless, the journalist had targeted a key issue.
The narrative of Helen Reddy (and of feminism in its entirety) contains an uncomfortable (suppressed) contradiction. Reddy was a powerful woman who was attracted to men that would serve her interests. She had an ambition to be famous and wealthy, and indeed she became a multi-millionaire, mixing with the elite of the world. In other words, she once lived unlike 99.9 percent of all women (and men) on planet earth.
The enduring fame of Helen Reddy is entangled in a mythology, that depends on the facts of modern sexual and social power (and mobility) being suppressed. In the 1970s, journalists still voiced the popular concern that feminism included negative views about males. Such questioning has been eliminated from the mainstream media today.
Note on internet sources
All internet references or links for this article were sourced in October 2020. All referenced links were initially accessible in this period. However, some video footage went offline in this month, possibly in response to the death of Helen Reddy.
Mobilize for Women’s Lives Rally in Washington in 1989. (ReddyRockedthe70s) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jBZ4As2Si-0
I am woman, women’s march, Los Angeles January 21, 2017 (ReddyRockedthe70s) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oXwfEZTLG6Q
‘She Is Woman, She Is Helen Reddy,’ Ellen Cohn June 24, 1973
‘Still woman, still roaring’ by David Dale, Sydney Morning Herald, February 12, 2000, page 133 (Spectrum).
Mary Murphy, in “Superstar women and their marriages,” New York Magazine 9 August 1976.
“The Anthem and the Angst”, Sunday Magazine, Sydney Sunday Telegraph, June 15, 2003, Page 16.
“Helen Reddy Sings Out for Women’s Lib—but Jeffrey Calls the Tune” Robert Windeler, in People magazine, February 3, 1975
“Helen still believes, it’s just that she has to pay the rent too”, by John Burns of the Daily Express, reprinted in Melbourne Herald, December 16, 1981.
“A Gritty Account of Life as a Famous Hollywood Drug Addict” Jeff Wald’s account, as told to Kim Masters, 30 May 2011