It’s been nearly 50 years since Helen Reddy changed the world for women with her iconic 1971 hit song, “I Am Woman.” She died last week at age 78, in Los Angeles.
Although she produced a voluminous and critically-acclaimed body of work, all the headlines of her death read the same, pointing to the song that changed the world and jettisoned her career.
“I Am Woman” was anthemic—it hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts just before Roe v. Wade was decided by the Supreme Court.
That was also the same year the Equal Rights Amendment passed by the Senate (although it’s still not been ratified by all U.S. states).
And it was the same year Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress, ran for president.
But more than that, it was the same year-turned-decade-turned-movement that millions of women around the world realized that, like Reddy unapologetically asserted in “I Am Woman,” they too could roar.
And roar they did.
The song buoyed a new era. Housewives and women young and old rejected the patriarchy and rebuffed their expected subservience. Divorce rates skyrocketed. Piles of bras were burning along with flaming piles of rejected toxic masculinity.
Yet, a half a century later, on the evening Reddy passed away, President Donald Trump, in the first presidential debate with Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, gave a wink and a nod to the misogynistic, racist group, the Proud Boys.
“Stand back and stand by,” Trump told the group when asked by moderator Chris Wallace if he would denounce white supremacy. But instead of denouncing, he gave the group marching orders. Within minutes, the quote-turned-hashtag was trending, and Proud Boys were scrambling to put the slogan on t-shirts.
Reddy’s death also comes just weeks after another iconic feminist leader, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, lost her long battle with cancer.
The Supreme Court Justice ushered in notable victories for women over her six-decade career, one of which is given a nod in the 2019 Helen Reddy biopic, “I Am Woman.”
Reddy, played by Tilda Cobham-Hervey, proudly flashes a credit card—her own credit card. That was something women couldn’t get on their own before Ginsburg helped rewrite the laws allowing women to open bank accounts and take out loans and lines of credit without a male co-signer.
Instead of continuing Ginsburg’s legacy for women’s rights, though, President Trump nominated conservative federal judge, Amy Coney Barrett, 48, to be Ginsburg’s replacement.
If approved, Coney Barrett is likely to rule against women both in an Obamacare repeal (on the Supreme Court docket for November 10, 2020), and in any challenge to Roe v. Wade, the legal right to abortion.
Hear Us Roar
But Reddy’s passing (and Ginsburg’s) shouldn’t be viewed as a defeat of the women’s movement. It’s ammunition, a reminder of their legacies — our legacies — and the millions of women “I Am Woman” inspired to make wholesale changes to their lives. Reddy made us invincible, all right, and we’re nowhere close to being done.
In countless ways, the 1970s couldn’t feel further away from modernity; but the similarities are important. Whether we realize it or not, we’re in the midst of a generational revolution.
There’s widespread unrest over the deaths of innocent Black men and women at the hands of police. The response to the deaths of people like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd are reminiscent of the Civil Rights movement that began in the 1960s and extended well into the 1970s, during the height of the Vietnam War. (The 2020 Spike Lee film “Da 5 Bloods” brilliantly exposes racial inequality in the military.)
The climate emergency humanity can no longer ignore began with the first Earth Day in 1970 sounding the alarm.
And the current paradigm shift happening in our food system moving us away from destructive chemically-intensive agriculture and excessive meat and dairy consumption was sparked in the 1970s as organic farming and macrobiotic and vegetarian diets took hold of America.
Restaurants like The Source in Los Angeles and Moosewood Kitchen in New York turned the world onto hippie vegetarian fare and away from the meat-heavy processed diets of generations past, while in the UK, Cranks expanded its chain of wholefood vegetarian restaurants.
Places like the Tennessee commune called The Farm, birthed the soy-based meat that would later become Tofurky. The Farm also birthed another empowering movement for women: home birthing.
Ina May Gaskin, one of the founding members of The Farm, penned “Spiritual Midwifery” and assisted thousands of births at the commune. Her book and teachings ushered in a new generation of women embracing childbirth as an act of self-empowerment, roaring their way through drug-free home births en masse.
Vegan Women are an Essential Part of the Change
Whether it’s founding a plant-based business, moving into positions of leadership in the workplace or within politics, or leading the charge against climate change or animal exploitation, the voices of vegan women must continue to be heard.
Indeed the 1970s, would have been incomplete without the roar of women Reddy sparked in her own quest for independence. And the same rings true now, 50 years on, as all these battles, some won, some still raging, find a new generation of women to take up the torch.
“If I have to, I can do anything. I am strong. I am invincible. I am woman,” Reddy sang back in 1971.
And, because of her, every generation since knows what exactly that really means.
Jill Ettinger is a writer, editor, and business development consultant focused on vegan and sustainable industries. She lives in Los Angeles with her daughter and their two rescue cats.