I am woman, hear me roar
In numbers too big to ignore
And I know too much to go back and pretend
Cause I’ve heard it all before
And I’ve been down there on the floor
No one’s ever gonna keep me down again
Oh yes, I am wise
But it’s wisdom born of pain
Yes, I’ve paid the price
But look how much I gained
If I have to, I can do anything
I am strong
I am invincible
I am woman
I grew up just knowing the lyrics to Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman, the way I just knew my own name. I grew up in a house of 4 sisters and 1 mother and there was nothing we liked better than putting on some Whitney Houston and singing/dancing along. But there were only two songs my mother ever sang unprompted, unconsciously, without a backing track: Amazing Grace, and I Am Woman (one of the many things she has in common with Barack Obama). At the time I didn’t think much of it. I knew the lyrics but it sure as heck wasn’t playing on MTV. And anyway, weren’t we already a female-led household of strong sisters doing it for ourselves? I didn’t think about why both my mother’s brothers went to university while she, even more intelligent and competent, was a high school drop out who got engaged to a trucker at 16, married at 18, and had me at 20, by which time she’d given up her “career” (hairdressing) to raise children at home – she had 4 of us by 26 and did it all alone, even when she was diagnosed with cancer. During divorce proceedings she gave up spousal support to keep our childhood home; as a single mother with no work experience or credit history of her own, she would have struggled to keep the 5 of us in a 2 bedroom apartment, and she failed to qualify for a loan to replace our rusted out van. Now I have to wonder: was my mother, a stay at home mother and perpetual caregiver, a secret feminist? All evidence points to yes, and not so secretly either. She taught us to “carry our own canoe” (that sounds like a particularly Canadian brand of feminism), to work hard enough to be able to support ourselves, to live with someone before committing to marriage. MY MOM WAS A FEMINIST? I grew up in the 90s, when feminist was a dirty word, but that didn’t mean the struggle for equality was dead, and clearly Helen Reddy’s 1971 song was still an anthem to women raising their own daughters now.
Helen Reddy wrote a feminist anthem in response to the sexism she encountered repeatedly in her life and career. It will not surprise you to know that the (male) record executives didn’t get the song and didn’t want to include it on her album. Or that her (male) husband stole all her money and put it up his nose.
Tilda Cobham-Hervey is absolute perfection as Helen Reddy; she’s the reason to watch. Director Unjoo Moon sticks pretty close to the usual biopic formula, but a magical spark from Cobham-Hervey is all this film needs to ignite not only a strong performance but a stunning musical performance as well.
Helen Reddy was the Katy Perry of her time. She was the first to make us roar. But while Perry’s pregnancy was announced to fanfare and unveiled rather dramatically in a music video, Reddy’s motherhood was considered a liability and proof she could never truly commit to her career. Fighting sexism has turned out to be a very long struggle and sometimes we need to look back in order to appreciate just how far we’ve come.