Broken Icon of Feminist Invincibility

Adults, as well as children, believe myths. One of the feminist myths about women is their invincibility—brought to center stage by Helen Reddy’s newly released biography, "The Woman I Am" (2006).  She is, of course, the artist who recorded the 1972 feminist anthem "I Am Woman Hear Me Roar." In case you’ve been living on another planet, these are the key lyrics:

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 Am Woman" earned Reddy a Grammy Award in 1973 for Female Pop Vocal Performance; she concluded her acceptance speech at the awards ceremony by famously thanking God “because She makes everything possible.”

A prototypically dramatic PR blurb for her memoir states: “[A]t the height of her career, Helen’s world was shattered by the death of both her parents and, simultaneously, the news that she had a rare and incurable disease.”  This account is calculated to engender a sympathetic response and to tease an impulse to rush out and buy the book to learn the full details of the tragedy.  

The facts, as is often the case, are quite a bit different.  Reddy was born in 1941 to an Australian show-business couple and began her career as a performer by the tender age of 4.  In her late teens Reddy was briefly married to an older musician, with whom she had a daughter, Traci.  In 1966 she moved to America as a single mother with 3-year-old Traci in tow.  

In short order Reddy met, moved in with, and eventually married Jeff Wald, an agent.  After finding little success in New York, she first tried Chicago in 1967, and then moved on to L.A. in 1968.  She signed with Capitol Records in 1970 but by 1975, despite nearly a dozen hit singles, her singing career was essentially over.  Her last Top Ten hit was 1975’s "Ain’t No Way to Treat a Lady."  

One rather disingenuous biographer gives this account of what followed next: “Disenchanted with life in general during the ’80s, she performed infrequently.”  

That statement papers over quite a lot.  

In fact her marriage to husband No. 2 began to unravel in the early 1980s, egged on by his cocaine habit and aggressiveness.  Reddy and Wald had a son, Jordan, who became so unmanageable by age 10—not that much of a surprise considering his role models—that Reddy called her estranged husband to come get him out of the house she was sharing with her “boyfriend.”  

So much for the Roaring Woman’s “invincibility.”

The realities facing the average unmarried mom make her anything but invincible, no matter how energetic, gifted, famous or heroic she is.  What does the average unmarried mother—without the income from several hit Gold records—face in trying to provide for herself and her children?  Never-married mothers typically have less education than the unmarried mothers who are divorced, and the odds of the former getting child support are miniscule.  With limited education, she’s lucky if she can find a job that pays enough to cover the rent and put food on the table without having to resort to food stamps.  Health insurance through her employer is harder and harder to come by.  And then there is the problem of finding adequate child care, particularly for the working mothers with children under school age.

For those at the very bottom of the economic ladder, there is some government help with medical costs; children under age six in families with incomes below 133 percent of the federal poverty line ($20,841 for a family of three) are eligible for Medicaid coverage, as are children 6 and older in families with income below 100 percent of the federal poverty line ($15,670 for a family of three).

Government provides some funding for child care.  Federal and state spending for subsidized child care has quadrupled in the last decade from $3 billion in 1996 to $12 billion in 2005 as part of the effort to move welfare recipients into the work force.  Even with this large increase, the expanded funding for child care subsidies provides for only about 2.5 million children.  Even with the nearly 60-percent decline in the welfare caseload since 1994, there are still about 4 million children in families receiving income assistance.

Even if the cost and availability of child care were not critical factors (which they certainly are), the vulnerability of unmarried mothers would remain. When, not if, a child comes down with some infection—not a particularly rare event in the life of a small child, particularly those being exposed to many other children in the typical child-care or pre-school setting—even those women whose health care and child care are fully funded by the government have a problem.  The average low-income, working, unmarried mother with a sick child often has no option but to take time off from work.  

Doctors have witnessed a flood of working mothers demanding antibiotics for their children in order to get them readmitted to day care as quickly as possible.  Dr. Michael Blum, medical officer in the Food and Drug Administration’s division of anti-infective drug products, says, “Resistance [has] increased to a number of commonly used antibiotics, possibly related to overuse of antibiotics. In the 1990s, we’ve come to a point for certain infections that we don’t have agents available.”

Thus the average low-income unmarried mother is highly vulnerable when facing a sick child.  And that vulnerability tends to make unmarried mothers in general less reliable workers in comparison to women without children or to married women with a spouse who is willing and able to help juggle family responsibilities. The unemployment rates of women with children under 6 years of age broken down by marital status clearly reflect this fact.  From 1980 to 2005, the unemployment rate of single (never-married) mothers of children under 6 has been almost four times higher than that of married mothers; similarly the unemployment rate of divorced, separated and widowed mothers has been a little over twice that of mothers who are married.  

Despite the Hollywood myths and the feminist rhetoric, being a mother of small children is a vulnerable time for women, and the presence and support of a husband is vital to the welfare of both the mother and her children.