In terms of impact, Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou might just be one of the most empowering poems ever written for the fairer sex. This work was originally published (and copyrighted) in Dr. Angelou’s 1978 autobiography, “Still I Rise.” With its flowing rhymes and straightforward wording—this poem is a breeze to read and a joy to be heard when read out loud.
Now, I’m not particularly well-versed when it comes to copyright laws, so I’m linking you guys to the full poem instead of posting it on this blog. (Read Phenomenal Woman in full here.)
In this poem, the writer attempts to explain her ‘inexplicable’ allure. First, to the “pretty women” puzzled by her magnetic charms, then to the men who are drawn to her like a “hive of honey bees.”
Strangely enough, she starts out with a strong disclaimer: “I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size.” It’s an admission that sums up the confusion felt by the men and women who are drawn to the writer. Then, as if to drive the point even further, she lists a number of purposely vague reasons behind her appeal. In the first verse, she says:
“It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.”
The rest of her explanations are just as nebulous—“the fire in my eyes, the flash of my teeth, the swing in my waist, and the joy in my feet…” and so on and so forth. Now, read carefully, dear reader and you’ll find that these are all qualities possessed by the everywoman. There are no race-restrictive, size-specific, or socioeconomically exclusive terms to be found here. Just a general description of your everyday woman. And therein lies the beauty of this poem. Rather than alienating a large chunk of its readers, the poem seeks to be inclusive. It revels in its inclusivity.
Another striking feature of this poem is the repetitive nature of a particular phrase. The words:
“I’m a woman
Figure beautifully at the end of every stanza. Beyond bridging the persona’s thought process, this acts as a celebration of her womanhood. The secret of the Phenomenal Woman is that she is her own woman. Her magnetic nature doesn’t lie in anything outside of the ordinary. She is phenomenal because she is herself.
Now, as far as analysis goes, that’s just us scratching the surface. While Phenomenal Woman remains an empowering and relevant piece of literature, to truly understand its impact and gravity, we need to delve into historical context.
There’s no denying that Maya Angelou was a very beautiful woman—physically, mentally, and emotionally. She was the complete package. But for an African-American girl growing up in the 1930s—a time when racist ideals and actions ran rampant in the Land of the Free—the standards of beauty excluded anything outside the ‘white.’
In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), Angelou remembers a moment of insecurity when she was a child. She thought, “Wouldn’t they be surprised when one day I woke out of my black ugly dream and my real hair, which was long and blonde, would take the place of the kinky mass that Momma wouldn’t let me straighten?”
We’re not going to delve into how wrong, cruel, and painful it is for a child to have such thoughts—that’s for another discussion—but it’s important that we also look at the unconventional nature of Maya Angelou’s beauty. Unconventional for that period, at least. When she reached adulthood, Angelou’s brand of beauty continued to challenge the norms. Unlike the petite, fair-skinned lookers of the 1950s, Angelou grew to be a voluptuous, 6-foot-tall woman.
These days, we look up (for some, like myself, quite literally) to those modelesque proportions. But bear in mind that during that period, even Sylvia Plath who purportedly stood tall at 5’9”, felt some semblance of insecurity over her height.
Now, simply put, there was a period when Angelou struggled with accepting her looks and sexuality. And putting that struggle into perspective makes Phenomenal Woman even more poignant because it speaks of the writer’s acceptance and celebration of her unique and magnetic beauty. It’s speaks of her triumph in transcending the norms to embody what is truly beautiful in a woman.
All in all, this poem is a glorious, timeless, and inspirational work. It is poetry at its finest, folks.
On a Personal Note:
The first time I encountered the poem, Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou, it was through my mother’s copy of Chicken Soup for the Soul. (Or was it “Chicken Soup for the Woman’s Soul?”) Though only 16, and by no means a woman at that point, my teenage self was immensely moved by Dr. Angelou’s words. I immediately wrote down the poem in my high school journal, thinking, “Here is the type of woman I want to be.”
Now at 30, the poem remains an inspiration to me. It spans a page of every journal I’ve ever had. And every time I feel a pang of insecurity, I read the poem out loud and I tell myself—“Now, that’s the type of woman I ought to be.” Reading this poem never fails to put a smile on my face. Hopefully, it will have the same effect on you.