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Phenomenal Woman

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Phenomenal Woman

What is it that makes a woman beautiful? What is it that makes a woman powerful? Is it her eyes, her smile, her confidence, her stride, or her mystery? In the poem 'Phenomenal Woman,' Maya Angelou (1928‐2014) articulates that all of these things lend to a woman's beautiful and powerful nature. Maya Angelou's poem is an anthem of female empowerment that explores the theme of womanhood not through the lens of popular beauty trends, but rather through the inner strength and power of women that reflects itself outwardly and is magnetically attractively.

Phenomenal Woman Poem introduction StudySmarter

In the poem 'Phenomenal Woman,' Maya Angelou describes how a woman's smile and the way she carries herself reflects her inner beauty and confidence.

Pixabay

'Phenomenal Woman' Poem Information Overview
Poet:Maya Angelou (1928‐2014)
Year First Published:1978
Poetry Collection(s):And Still I Rise (1978), Phenomenal Woman: Four Poems Celebrating Women (1995)
Type of Poem:Lyric poem
Literary Devices and Poetic Techniques:Word choice/connotation, tone, alliteration, consonance, internal rhymes, end rhymes, imagery, repetition, hyperbole, metaphor, direct address
Themes:Womanhood and the power of women, societal expectations of woman and superficiality

Phenomenal Woman: Maya Angelou Poem Background Information

'Phenomenal Woman' is a poem by the poet, writer, and Civil Rights activist, Maya Angelou. The poem was originally published in Angelou's third poetry collection entitled, And Still I Rise (1978). The acclaimed poetry collection features 32 poems about overcoming difficulties and despair to rise above one's circumstances. In the book And Still I Rise, Maya Angelou addresses themes such as race and gender, which are characteristic of her poetry. 'Phenomenal Woman' is a poem written for all women, but particularly represents Angelou's experience as a black woman in the United States of America. Understanding the conventional white standards of beauty and racial prejudices in 20th century America adds additional meaning to Maya Angelou's declaration of her confidence in her beauty and power as a black woman.

Through the poem, Maya Angelou empowers women everywhere by telling them that their beauty lies in their confidence and that women contain unique strength, power, and magnetism. 'Phenomenal Woman' was later republished in 1995 in Maya Angelou's poetry book entitled, Phenomenal Woman: Four Poems Celebrating Women.

Phenomenal woman, Maya Angelou, StudySmarter

The purpose of much of Angelou's poetry is to celebrate womanhood.

Tami Heilemann--Interior Staff, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Phenomenal Woman Full Poem

Maya Angelou's poem 'Phenomenal Woman' is made up of five stanzas of differing lengths. Try to read the poem aloud to sense the cool, smooth, flowing effect Angelou creates with simple language and short lines.

Line'Phenomenal Woman' by Maya Angelou
1.2.3.4.5.6.7.8.9.10.11.12.13.
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
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
14.15.16.17.18.19.20.21.22.23.24.25.26.27.
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
Phenomenally.
28.29.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
30.31.32.33.34.35.36.37.38.39.40.41.42.43.44.45.
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
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
46.47.48.49.50.51.52.53.54.55.56.57.58.59.60.
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
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Phenomenal Woman Analysis

The first stanza of the poem begins, "Pretty women wonder where my secret lies. / I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model's size" 1 (Lines 1‐2). Maya Angelou sets up the poem with these words to indicate that she is not society's typical ideal of beauty. She separates herself from the "Pretty women," 1 indicating that she is not one of them and that conventionally attractive women may wonder where Angelou's appeal comes from if not from her idealized looks. Maya Angelou's word choice of "pretty" 1 and "cute" 1 have the connotation of lukewarm, unsubstantial words used to describe women, which she does not believe does them justice. Angelou does not associate womanhood with being sweet, cute, and docile, but with being powerful, strong, and confident. Taking a closer look at the opening lines, Maya Angelou conveys this self-assurance in the cool, confident tone of the poem, which is established from the outset by her use of alliteration, consonance, and both internal and end rhymes.

"Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.

I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model's size" 1

(Lines 1‐2)

The alliteration of the "W" sounds and the consonance of the "T" sounds carry the poem along smoothly, satisfyingly, and consistently. The end rhymes "lies" 1 and "size," 1 and the internal rhymes "cute" 1 and "suit," 1 create a songlike ring to the poem and help link words that connotate false ideals of beauty—it is a lie that beauty comes down to "size," 1 and that simply being "cute" 1 is a suitable definition for a woman. These literary devices also work to mimic the confidence and smooth nature of the woman's stride, which Maya Angelou goes on to describe in the next part of the poem.

Maya Angelou says that "my secret lies" 1 not in my "size," 1 but rather "in the reach of my arms, / The span of my hips, / The stride of my step, / The curl of my lips" 1 (Lines 6‐9). Angelou uses the imagery of the movement of parts of a women's body in order to turn female objectification on its head. While a woman's hips, walk, and lips may commonly be sexualized and presented as the determinants of a woman's value in popular culture, Angelou presents these things as components of her own power and representations of her self-confidence. The line "It's in the reach of my arms," 1 suggests that women are capable of reaching and achieving many things with an air of strength and grace (Line 6).

The refrain or repeated section of the poem is "I'm a woman / Phenomenally / Phenomenal woman, / That's me" 1 (Lines 10‐13). The repetition of this section and the word "phenomenal" 1 emphasizes the poems meaning that it is an exceptionally good thing to be a woman. The word "Phenomenally" 1 can also be understood to mean "unbelievably." In this context, the word can suggest that others may be questioning Angelou's abilities as a woman. It can also be read sarcastically, seeing as it is obvious that she is a woman and it should not come as a surprise. The many readings of the way Maya Angelou uses the word "phenomenal" 1 in the poem reflect the multifarious ways women can show their beautiful, exceptional nature.

Second Stanza of 'Phenomenal Woman'

In the second stanza, Maya Angelou continues to explain how she walks into a room with an air of cool and "The fellows stand or / Fall down on their knees, / Then they swarm around me, / A hive of honey bees" 1 (Lines 17‐20). Angelou suggests the magnetism of her confidence and presence as a woman. She uses hyperbole, or over-exaggeration to suggest that men are so struck by her presence that they fall on their knees and follow her around like "honey bees." 1 Maya Angelou uses a metaphor to describe the men around her as swarming bees, which exaggerates the number of men who follow her around and suggests that they do so in frantic fervor. Angelou uses hyperbole and metaphor playfully, not to be prideful or vain in emphasizing her power over men, but to empower women in seeing that their value is not determined by the male gaze, but by their own confidence.

Maya Angelou continues to explain that her magnetism lies in "the fire in my eyes, / And the flash of my teeth, / The swing in my waist, / And the joy in my feet" 1 (Lines 22‐25). In other words, her appeal comes from the life, passion, and joy in her eyes, her smile, and her walk. Maya Angelou's word choice of "fire" and "flash of my teeth" to describe her eyes and her smile create an unexpectedly intense and aggressive connotation. Angelou chooses these words to reinforce that the presence of a woman is not simply "pretty" 1 or "cute," 1 but powerful and attention-grabbing. The woman is not aggressively out to get people, but her beauty and confidence are so evident in the way she moves and carries herself that it is striking like fire or a flash.

Third Stanza of 'Phenomenal Woman'

The third stanza of the poem is noticeably short, consisting only of the two lines "Phenomenal woman, / That's me" 1 (Lines 28‐29). Maya Angelou uses this short stanza consisting of the second half of the refrain in order to create a dramatic effect and a pause. The separation of these words both visually and verbally calls the reader to pause and reflect on what it means to be a "Phenomenal woman," 1 which is essentially the purpose of the whole poem.

Fourth Stanza of 'Phenomenal Woman'

The fourth stanza of the poem introduces the perspective of men and how they interpret women. Maya Angelou writes, "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" 1 (Lines 30‐36). These lines reinforce that the power of women comes from within, it is not simply their physical beauty and it is not something that can be physically touched or seen. Maya Angelou goes on to say that this "inner mystery" 1 lies in "the arch of my back / The sun of my smile, / The ride of my breasts, / The grace of my style" 1 (Lines 38‐41). Once again, Angelou mentions parts of a woman that may typically be objectified and presents them with autonomous power. For example, "the arch of my back" 1 refers not simply to the feminine curve in a woman's spine but implies her upright posture and confidence.

Fifth Stanza of 'Phenomenal Woman'

In the fifth and final stanza, Maya Angelou makes a direct address to the reader, saying "Now you understand / Just why my head's not bowed" 1 (Lines 46‐47). She goes on to explain that she does not have to speak loudly to grab attention, and but that the power is in "the click of my heels, / The bend of my hair, / the palm of my hand, / The need for my care" 1 (Lines 53‐56). Here, Angelou points out feminine qualities that may make women seem delicate and superficial, yet she presents them as a strength, emphasizing the need and power of a woman's care. Angelou repeats the refrain again at the end of the poem, reminding readers that she is a "Phenomenal woman," 1 and now they know exactly why.

Phenomenal Woman Summary and Analysis StudySmarter

Maya Angelou conveys that a woman's caring nature and femininity are part of her power.

Pixabay

Phenomenal Woman Meaning

The meaning of the poem 'Phenomenal Woman' is that women are a powerful presence. However, this power does not come from superficial beauty, but from the inner confidence and strength of women which reflects itself externally. Maya Angelou uses the poem 'Phenomenal Woman' to point out that it is the inner beauty and grace of women that creates the magnetism and presence we see on the outside.

Phenomenal Woman: Form

'Phenomenal Woman is a lyric poem written in five stanzas of varying lengths. Though it makes use of rhymes occasionally, it is primarily written in free verse.

A lyric poem is a short poem that has a musical quality to its reading and typically conveys the speaker's strong feelings

Free verse is a term used for poetry that is not bound to a rhyme scheme or meter.

Maya Angelou was a singer and composer in addition to being a writer, so her poems are always guided by sounds and musicality. Though 'Phenomenal Woman' does not adhere to a particular rhyme scheme or rhythm, there is an evident flow to the reading of the poem as the words ebb and flow guided by the repetition of sounds and similarities in short lines. Angelou's use of free verse reflects the free and natural beauty of a woman, who shows her glowing inner beauty in everything she does.

Phenomenal Woman Themes

Womanhood and the power of women

In the poem 'Phenomenal Woman,' Maya Angelou presents womanhood as a powerful and mysterious thing. It is not something that can be physically seen or fully understood because women have an "inner mystery" 1 that is alluring to men and to others (Line 34). This "mystery" is not something that can be defined or taken by others, lending women a unique power in their identity. The poem stresses that a woman's inner power is reflected outwardly in the way she moves, carries herself, smiles, and in a way that she radiates joy and confidence. Maya Angelou makes it clear that femininity is not meek, but it is a strength. The poem sends the message that the world needs a woman's care and presence, which is part of her dynamic power.

Societal expectations and superficiality

The poem is opened with the declaration that the speaker does not fit the beauty standards of society. However, this does not deter her from being confident nor from being perceived as beautiful. While society often turns to physical and superficial means to define a woman's beauty, Angelou explains that this physical beauty is a manifestation of a woman's inner strength and confidence.

Maya Angelou Quotes About Being a Woman

Angelou deeply believed in the strength and uniqueness of being a woman. She saw womanhood as something to be embraced and celebrated despite life's difficulties. Maya Angelou is famous for her inspiring quotes for women, and they can help readers understand her perspective and the theme of womanhood in her poetry. Here are some quotes about womanhood by Maya Angelou:

I am grateful to be a woman. I must have done something great in another life." 2

I would like to be known as an intelligent woman, a courageous woman, a loving woman, a woman who teaches by being." 2

Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women." 2

Phenomenal Woman Maya Angelou Quotes StudySmarter

Maya Angelou greatly believed in the strength of women and their capabilities to rise above challenges.

Pixabay

How would you explain Maya Angelou's view of being a woman using one of these quotes? What is your own view of womanhood and does it align with Angelou's view? Why or why not?

Phenomenal Woman - Key Takeaways

  • 'Phenomenal Woman' is a poem written by Maya Angelou that was first published in 1978.
  • The poem explains how a woman's beauty is not defined by societal standards, but by her inner power and capacity to radiate confidence, joy, and care.
  • The poem is a lyric poem written in free verse with a cool and confident tone.
  • The poem features literary devices such as word choice/connotation, tone, alliteration, consonance, internal rhymes, end rhymes, imagery, repetition, hyperbole, metaphor, and direct address.
  • Key themes of the poem are womanhood and the power of women, and societal expectations and superficiality.

1 Maya Angelou, 'Phenomenal Woman,' And Still I Rise, 1978.

2 Eleanor Gall, '20 Maya Angelou Quotes to Inspire,' Girls Globe, April 4, 2020,

Frequently Asked Questions about Phenomenal Woman

Maya Angelou wrote 'Phenomenal Woman.'

The message of 'Phenomenal Woman' is that female beauty is not meek nor determined by superficial standards. Rather, the external beauty of women reflects their unique inner power, confidence, and radiance. This power can be seen in the confident way they carry themselves and the joy and passion in their smile and their eyes. 

Maya Angelou wrote 'Phenomenal Woman' to empower women in recognizing and celebrating their strength and worth.

'Phenomenal Woman' is about a woman who does not fit societal standards of beauty, yet is extremely attractive because of the way her strength, power, and femininity are projected with confidence. She reveals her inner beauty in the way she carries herself. 

The purpose of 'Phenomenal Woman' is to show that womanhood is not superficial, but it is a deep and powerful thing that can be reflected in everything women do.

Final Phenomenal Woman Quiz

Question

Who is the author of the poem 'Phenomenal Woman'?

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Answer

Maya Angelou

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Question

What type of poem is 'Phenomenal Woman'?

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Answer

A lyric poem

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Question

'Phenomenal Woman' is written in free verse. What is free verse?


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Answer

Free verse is a term used for poetry that is not bound to a rhyme scheme or meter. 

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Question

In the poem, how is society's idea of female beauty different from Angelou's?

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Answer

While society often turns to physical and superficial means to define a woman's beauty, Angelou explains that this physical beauty is a manifestation of a woman's inner strength and confidence.

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Question

How would you best descibe the tone of the poem? 


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Answer

Cool and confident

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Question

What effect does the short, two-line stanza, "Phenomenal woman, / That's me" have on the reading of the poem?


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Answer

Maya Angelou uses this short stanza consisting of the second half of the refrain in order to create a dramatic effect and a pause. The separation of these words calls the reader to pause and reflect on what it means to be a "Phenomenal woman," which is essentially the purpose of the whole poem.

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Question

When Angelou writes that her power lies in "the arch of my back," what does this imply?


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Answer

A woman's upright posture and confidence

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Question

In the fifth and final stanza, Angelou says, "Now you understand / Just why my head's not bowed." What literary device is this an example of?

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Answer

Direct address

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Question

What are the key themes of 'Phenomenal Woman'?

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Answer

Womanhood and the power of women, societal expectations and superficiality

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Question

Angelou writes that men "swarm around me, / A hive of honey bees." What literary device is this an example of?

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Answer

A metaphor

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