Billy Joel wrote this song about his first wife, Elizabeth, whom he was married to from 1973-1982. When they first got together, she was still married to Joel's drummer Jon Small. Billy was so tormented by his affair that he made a halfhearted attempt to kill himself by drinking furniture polish. Ironically, the rocker was saved by the very man he was betraying when Jon Small rushed him to hospital.
Joel's then-wife Elizabeth was also his manager and worked in the music industry at a time when very few women did. Billy saw her take a lot of gruff in the working world and get called a lot of names, which led to him writing this song to defend her, in a way. He explained: "If you look at the structure of the song, it says, 'she can do this to you, she can do that to you, but she's always a woman to me.' That was the point of the song: they're bitching about her, and I'm saying, you can bitch all you want, she's great at business and she comes home and she's a woman with me."
This was a staple of Billy Joel's concerts in the late '70s, but when his marriage fell apart, he dropped it from the setlist, playing it only sporadically from 1980-2005. On one of his college tour shows, Billy said that it was about his first wife, who he didn't really want to be singing about in the first place. He explained that while he was singing it, he would start thinking about what meal he would eat after the show. No passion whatsoever, so he dropped it.
In 2006, Joel returned the song to his live repertoire, often deadpanning at the end: "and then we got divorced."
Joel told USA Today July 9, 2008: "Some people said, 'Oh, he's a misogynist, look what he says about this woman. He wrote this song called She's Only a Woman.' Which always cracks me up every time I read that. To me, it's a very simple understandable lyric. 'She may be that to you, but she's this to me.'"
Fyfe Dangerfield, the frontman of the British band Guillemots, recorded a version of this song in 2010 which was used in an advertisement for the British department store John Lewis.
This version was released as a single in the UK, reaching the Top 10. It was the third Billy Joel song to become a Top 40 hit for another act in Britain, following Barry White's version of "Just the Way You Are
," which hit #12 in January 1979 and Westlife's rendition of "Uptown Girl
" went all the way to #1 in March 2001.
Joel's version also returned to the UK singles charts in 2010, this time peaking at #29 (it previously reached #53). Joel told The Sun June 11, 2010: "It was totally unexpected, this was the first time I've ever licensed any commercial use for my music but it turned out to be a blessing as it's given me a new audience. I grew up seeing the negative side of commercials, so I thought, 'Am I selling out and ruining this song?' But it was a pleasant surprise and I've been in touch with Fyfe Dangerfield about it. I've been tuning into his music recently and he's good. And he stays pretty true to the original recording- on fact I think it's a better version than mine."
When the American singer-songwriter Pink married motocross racer Carey Hart in Costa Rica, she walked down the aisle barefoot accompanied by this song.
She was always a huge Billy Joel fan, and she got the chance to perform this song with her idol in 2014 at a Billy Joel town hall event hosted by Howard Stern. "I got to see my dad become happy when your songs came on, and we sang them together," she told him. "It's changed my life. When I sit down to write a song, my first thought is, 'this is going to suck, and I'm never going to be Billy Joel.'"
Regarding this song, Pink said, "I wanted it to be about me."