Maya Angelou And Feminist Criticism

Maya Angelou is undeniably a feminist. Angelou set many milestones as a woman, claimed herself as a feminist, and wrote extremely women empowering messages in her writings. She is widely celebrated for her historic work. This includes many awards, one of her most significant being the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama while he was in office. As she once said, “A wise woman wishes to be no one’s enemy; a wise woman refuses to be anyone’s victim” and she spread that message to the world. She was nobody’s enemy and most certainly was not anyone’s victim. Angelou is not only an inspiration to women but also people of color, she even worked with Dr. Martin Luther King. Angelou believed in equality for all, and because of this, she is a pivotal member of the feminist community.

Before delving into how Maya Angelou was a feminist, one must understand what the critical lens of feminism is. Merriam-Webster defines feminism as, “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” (MW). Feminism is both an idea and a movement. The root belief of it is that all genders should be equal, but there is patriarchy and systematic disadvantages as well as oppression standing in the way of that. From these beliefs, a whole movement has arisen. There has been three waves of feminism: the first wave (1830-early The 1900s) dealt with woman’s suffrage, property rights, and political power, the second wave (1960-1980) was focused on granting woman sexual and financial freedom, the third wave of feminism (1991-present) is about closing the gaps between women and men. Many people believe that feminism isn’t as much of an issue in modern times, specifically in North America. Although, the third wave of feminism is still ongoing. Not only should less developed countries receive help to be brought up to speed, but there are many still prevalent issues. For example, the wage gap, sexual assault, and representation. Maya Angelou made fantastic strides for the feminist movement, and she was first in many milestones. Although, through studying her work one can follow her philosophies to continue the path she created and help improve our world.

Maya Angelou once said “I’m a feminist. I’ve been a woman for a long time now. It’d be stupid not to be on my own side”. She is a loud and proud feminist, and she shows this not only through her words but also through her actions and her poetry. She lived a historic and extraordinary life working through many blue-collar jobs but also succeeding as a director, actress, playwright, activist, and so much more.  Angelou was born on April 4, 1928 in Marguerite Johnson, St. Louis Missouri. She had a traumatic childhood, wherein at age seven her mother’s boyfriend raped her. Her uncles then murdered the rapist to avenge her. She took the blame upon herself and went mute for five years. Ironically enough, this is when she fell in love with books and writing. An intelligent woman named Mrs. Flowers eventually got her to speak again. Angelou would eventually go on to write many books based on these experiences. At the young age of 17, Angelou gave birth to a son named Guy. To support him, she had to work many jobs including becoming the first female streetcar conductor in San Francisco. As time went on Angelou pursued a career on stage singing, dancing, and acting. Angelou was introduced into more activism work after being introduced to James Baldwin after joining the Harlem Writers Guild in the late 1950s. After that, she heard Dr. Martin Luther King speak and she was extremely inspired. She proceeded to spend some time working for Dr. King and spreading his message. She continued her work writing in West Africa. Once she returned to the states, she was begged and eventually convinced to write her autobiographies. Her writings and poems were large successes and were very empowering to many women as well as the African-American community. As she had all this going on, she somehow managed to continue her work in film/television as well. She was the first black woman to have a screenplay produced. As if that feat was not large enough, she was also the first black female director. After acknowledging all the feats she accomplished in her long career, specifically within the context of critical feminist theory, it is impossible to deny that Maya Angelou was a feminist. She once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”. Maya Angelou made people, more specifically women who share her experiences feel empowered. She was a feminist because she set amazing precedence with her firsts. She did amazing activist work for both women and people of color. Also, because she helped women rise up instead of tearing them down

In Maya Angelou’s career as a writer, she wrote beautifully about the female experience and struggle. A lot of it was inspired by her extraordinary life, but a lot of it was also about things that woman experiences daily worldwide. This can be explored more thoroughly by analyzing one of her most famous poems “Still I Rise”. This poem was inspired by the traumatic rape that Maya Angelou experienced as a child. It was both empowering and controversial to hear a woman of color at that time speak to candidly about sexual assault. The writing depicts a woman taking back her body after being forced to go through something so severe. That is what the meaning is behind the phrase “Still I rise”. She is able to pick herself back up. She reclaims typically negative feminine attributes like “sassiness”, “haughtiness”, and “sexiness” and makes them sound enticing. She writes the essay using the first person “I” and this represents not only her but women as a whole. Maya Angelou writes to an unnamed male in this essay, taunting him. An example of this is when she says, “You may shoot me with your words, You may cut me down with your eyes, You may kill me with your hatefulness, But still, like air, I’ll rise”. By doing this she shows how powerful her inner strength truly is. She is unafraid of her attacker because she knows no matter what he does she will be able to overcome it. This represents women against male patriarchy. By embracing her womanly power, she is feminist because she believes women are just as strong as men.

On May 28, 2014, the world was shaken by Maya Angelou’s unfortunate death. Her life will never be forgotten though. Angelou was an unbelievably powerful feminist, who never let life get her down. It was if she saw obstacles and challenges, but never let her race or her sex deter her from success. Up until her death, she had been writing another autobiography, which is extremely impressive for her age. Her memory lives on through her detailed, poetic, and chaotic biographies, in which she poured her heart and soul into. She once said, “I got my own back”. In that simple sentence, she sums up how she was a feminist. She showed that a woman can be independent, also that they can have children and have careers. Maya Angelou was a feminist because of her activist work, her writing, and who she was. For this, she will never be forgotten in the feminist movement.


  • American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association,
  • Goalcasthttp. “25 Maya Angelou Quotes to Inspire Your Life.” Goalcast, 22 Nov. 2019,
  • “Maya Angelou.”, A&E Networks Television, 28 Aug. 2019,
  • “What Is Feminism?” IWDA,
16 December 2021
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