Maya Angelou’s Firsts Of Feminism

Acclaimed as one of the greatest voices of African-American literature, Maya Angelou is best known for her poem, “​Still I Rise​,” a story depicting her triumphs over tremendous anti-feminist social obstacles and her struggles to achieve a sense of identity following years of oppression and trauma. Nevertheless, her poem is written with the message of hope. The themes in this poem best exemplify the beliefs of feminist literary criticism and are demonstrated through the prominence of strong women in her poetry, her unforgiving scrutiny to anti-feminist norms, and her career of firsts in various male-dominated industries. Hence, it is clear that Angelou was not only a feminist but also one of the key influential figures in shaping our more progressive, modern-day understandings of gender equality with her life’s works.  

Angelou’s childhood was shaped by strong women. She was raised in Stamps, Arkansas by her paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson, whom she called “Momma” in the absence of a mother or father figure due to her parents’ turbulent marriage. Although Henderson is not present in Angelou’s poem “​Still I Rise​”, she is a main focus of another of Angelou’s famous works, “​I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings​”, which deals with a horrifying trauma she endured. After being raised by her grandmother for several years, who was also solely responsible for the care of Angelou’s brother and their semi-paralyzed Uncle Willie, Angelou was returned briefly to her mother’s care at the age of seven. It was at this time that she was cuddled then raped by her mother’s boyfriend, as described in one of the most chilling, heartbreaking moments of “​I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings​”. This traumatic event sent Angelou into a deep depression where she became effectively mute and stopped talking. She remained in this state for five years, until, at twelve-and-a-half years old, her grandmother acquainted her with Mrs. Bertha Flowers, an educated black woman who finally got her to speak again. “Mrs. Flowers, as Angelou recalled in her children’s book ​Mrs. Flowers: A Moment of Friendship (1986)​, emphasized the importance of the spoken word, explained the nature of and importance of education, and instilled in her a love of poetry. Angelou graduated at the top of her eighth-grade class.” It is only because of the strong women in Angelou’s childhood, like her grandmother and Mrs. Flowers, that she was able to overcome a horrific trauma and grow up to be a strong woman herself. So, henceforth, Angelou incorporated portrayals of strong women in all of her works, forever making her mark on the literary world as one of the first feminists in her field.    

The strong women portrayed in Angelou’s literary works were not only other people. In fact, one of Angelou’s best portrayals of a strong woman was the portrayal of herself. In “​Still I Rise​”, Angelou speaks freely as “I”, and wastes no time diving into the topics she believes in, scrutinizing Western anti-feminist norms with a sharp wit and the promise to rise above any obstacles that are thrown in her path. With lines like, “Does my ​haughtiness ​offend you?” and “Does my ​sassiness ​upset you?”, she uses terms that are traditionally used by men to degrade women and empowers them with a sense of pride. Today, women are proud to call themselves “sassy”, as it is a sign of strength and self-love; that may have never been the case if it were not for Angelou ‘taking back’ the word and empowering it. In another verse of the poem, Angelou takes this a step further and empowers her sexuality as well, writing “Does my sexiness upset you? / Does it come as a surprise / That I dance like I’ve got diamonds / At the meeting of my thighs?”. This was extremely progressive for the time, as women discussing their sexuality was often met with horror by men, as if it was some big secret. Today, women are empowered in both discussing and exploring their sexuality, thanks in no small part to Angelou’s valor and determination to challenge anti-feminist norms, and to speak her opinions freely.    

Throughout her lifetime, Angelou found work and succeeded in a number of male-dominated fields, that, today, are no longer male-dominated. This first began at the age of sixteen when young Maya, who had just moved to San Francisco with her mother, walked into a railway personnel department to ask for an application to become a streetcar driver. “She had always admired the tailored uniforms the female streetcar conductors wore, outfitted with change dispensers on the front, and she thought to herself, ‘that’s the job I want’”. However, her enthusiasm was not reciprocated, and as the first African American and third female to ever apply for the job, she was turned away. When she went home that night and told her mother what had happened, her mother gave her some advice:    

My mother asked me why. 'Do you know why?' I said, 'Yes, because I'm a Negro.' She said, 'Yes, but do you want the job?' And I said yes, and she said, 'Go get it. Here, I'll give you money. Every day, you go down and be there before the secretaries get there. You sit there in the office. You read one of your big, thick Russian books. (I was reading Dostoevsky or Tolstoy or something at the time.) And when they go to lunch, you go. Go to a good restaurant. You know how to order good food. Then go back before the secretaries get back from lunch, and sit there until they leave.' I did all of that. They laughed at me. They pushed out their lips and used some negative racial [slurs].... But here's the thing. I sat there because I was afraid to go home. I was afraid to tell my mother that I wasn't as strong as she thought I was. So I sat there for two weeks. Every day. And then after two weeks a man came out of his office and he said, 'Come here.' And he asked me why I wanted the job, and I said, 'I like the uniforms.' And I said, 'I like people.' And so I got the job.    

The determination and perseverance that Angelou demonstrated to get this job was indicative of things to come. In the years that followed, she allied herself with the Harlem Writers Guild, danced and sang calypso at famous venues across the United States, appeared in Broadway productions, and in Cairo, served for two years as the first female editor-in-chief of the Arab Observer, a news publication. By being the first woman to achieve many of these things, not only did she inspire thousands of women, but she also opened these types of professions to the women who would succeed her for generations.    

Maya Angelou was a force of nature for feminism. Her incredible achievements challenged society, inspired millions, and had an enormous impact on our understanding of gender equality today. Through the prominence of strong women in her poetry, she demonstrated that women, like her grandmother and Mrs. Flowers, could do all the things that men could do by being providers and achieving incredible things. Through her unforgiving scrutiny to anti-feminist norms, she empowered words that were being used to degrade women and changed the narrative for future generations. Through her determination to find work and succeed in male-dominated fields, she shattered the glass ceiling and door, and opened it for other women to walk in. Because, as she herself once said, “if you don’t like something, change it.” 

Works Cited

  • Angelou, Maya. 'How Dr. Maya Angelou Became San Francisco's First Black Streetcar Conductor.' Interview by Oprah Winfrey. ​The Oprah Winfrey Show​. OWN. 12 May 2013. Television.
  • Angelou, Maya. 'Still I Rise.' ​And Still I Rise​. New York: Random House, 1978. N. pag. Print.
  • Barmann, Jay. 'How Maya Angelou Became San Francisco's First African-American Female Streetcar Conductor.' ​SFist​. N.p., 30 Dec. 2018. Web. 12 Dec. 2019.
  • 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Author Biography.' ​CliffsNotes​. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2019.
  • 'Maya Angelou Quotes.' ​BrainyQuote​. Xplore, n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2019.
  • Sitar, James. 'Maya Angelou's Biography.' ​Poetry Foundation​. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2019.
  • Spring, Kelly. 'Maya Angelou.' ​National Women's History Museum​. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2019.
16 December 2021
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