Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou

When I was a freshman in college, I had the wonderful experience of getting to hear Maya Angelou speak. It has been nearly 15 years since that evening, and most of what she said that has drifted out of my memory. What I remember most distinctly was how her presence filled the gym where she spoke. Her confidence. Her joy. The easy energy she carried with her. The way she casually dropped truth bomb after truth bomb. She was phenomenal.

Since then, I’ve listened to a number of conversations with her, read her poetry, and learned more about her life, and what I think I can appreciate now that I couldn’t as a college freshman was how Maya Angelou seemed to appreciate that despite the personal trauma she’d experienced (and there was quite a bit of that), despite the formal and informal racism she faced (and there was quite a bit of that), that one of the most revolutionary and subversive things that she could do was smile at the world, love herself, and be a whole person — on her own terms.

I wanted to share “Phenomenal Woman,” a poem that I think articulates and embodies these things beautifully. In this poem you can see how she casually casts off the “rules” of formal poetry. She uses rhyme when it suits her. She uses repetition, rhythm, and the length of her stanza to create her own form, her own music for her poem. It works in the same way that her beauty confounds “pretty women.” I think it’s lovely, and such a wonderful invitation for women to love and embrace their own beauty and to inhabit their own bodies rather than reshaping them to fit “a fashion model’s size.”

Phenomenal Woman

By Maya Angelou

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman

Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations created a lovely homage and video with a recording of Dr. Angelou reading this poem. Again, hearing Dr. Angelou give life to these words brings out some of her magic.

Photo Credit: By York College ISLGP –, CC BY 2.0,

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