Two songs. Two very different songs. Muddy Waters sang in his wonderfully unusual style about his manhood in “I’m a Man.” Several years later, Helen Reddy pronounced to the world “I am Woman.” These are two very different songs with different meanings based on the difference in men and women’s psyche and self-esteem. These songs may be one reason why Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” resonates with so many. Here are excerpts from each song, the first being from Waters, the second from Reddy.
Waters sang: I’m a man
I’m a full-grown man. Man
I’m a natural-born lovers man. Man
I’m a rollin’ stone. Man-child
I’m a hoochie coochie man.
While Reddy sang: I am woman, hear me roar. In numbers too big to ignore
And I know too much to go back an’ 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 (strong)
I am invincible (invincible). I am woman
I recognize this comparison could be viewed as unfair, as one is singing about sexual prowess and the other is shouting to fellow women that they can do anything, so don’t let people deny you that chance. However, you don’t hear many songs with this kind of title about men which do not speak to sexual prowess. In other words, a man’s self-esteem could be viewed as too tied up in his perception of his sexual prowess. The movie with Jack Nicholson, Ann Margaret, Rita Moreno, Candace Bergen, Art Garfunkel, etc. called “Carnal Knowledge” was about this very point. When you do hear more impactful songs about men, it is usually about becoming a man due to events such as the one about “Patches” who had to grow up quickly after his father died or about men working hard in the fields or mines to feed their families. This is what being a man is about.
However, the reason for Reddy’s anthem is women, unlike men, have not received the opportunities and, in many cases, still don’t today. I am reminded to this day of three female colleagues that became prominent in their professions, who each started out as Administrative Assistants in the early 1970’s. They took the only viable job to get ahead that a man would dare not take at the time. The context of Reddy’s song is important as well, as it was at the very beginning of the women’s movement. Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem were just getting started when this song burst onto the scene. And, it should not be a surprise that it did become an anthem for the movement.
As a 55-year-old man, I have written about the concerns of many that unless a community, society or country embraces the equal rights for women, their economy will not flourish like it could. I recognize that some may flourish due to an abundance of a natural resource in their borders, but that wealth does not flow to everyone and, in some of these places, women are treated as chattel. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn have written about this very issue in “Half the Sky.” You can access a post I wrote on this troubling book with the following link:
Men don’t need to have songs written about “I am man, hear me roar” as opportunities have abounded. Men also have tended to have higher expectations that women also need to embrace more. That is Sandberg’s point in her book. Lean in as you deserve this chance just as much as a man does. Just today, I read an article by Catherine Rampell, an economics writer in the Washington Post, about women in college that would tend to shy away from a major where they earn their first “B” whereas male students would recover from a “C” with their esteem not as tarnished. Her point is the male student expected to succeed in the major more so than the female student who may have received a better grade.
So, let’s continue to look for opportunities for women, as well as teaching our boys what being a man really is all about. It is the same thing that applies to women – being responsible and being accountable. If we give women an equal opportunity, we are doubling our chance to succeed. These other countries need to know they are competing in a global world with at least one arm tied behind their back. As Reddy sang, the voices of women are “in numbers too big to ignore.”