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Woman Work

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Woman Work

Have you ever heard the saying, a mother's work is never done? Do you think it stands true? In her poem 'Woman Work' (1978), Maya Angelou (1928‐2014) writes from the perspective of a black woman in America, who must balance her roles between being a mother, a housekeeper, and a slave sent to work out in the plantations. Her work is never done, but she keeps on moving and the only solace she seeks is that of the peace of the nature that surrounds her.

Through this short, lyric poem, Maya Angelou is able to explore expansive themes and ideas regarding slavery, ownership, nature, work, rest, and the expectations and strength of women.

'Woman Work' Information Overview
Poet:Maya Angelou (1928‐2014)
Year Published: 1978
Poetry Collection: And Still I Rise (1978)
Type of Poem:Lyric Poem
Literary Devices and Poetic Techniques:Firstperson perspective, imagery, tone, atmosphere, anaphora, syntax, alliteration, contrast, personification, assonance
Themes:Slavery, ownership, nature, work and rest, expectations of women, strength of women

About Woman Work and Maya Angelou

'Woman Work' (1978) was written by Maya Angelou, an African American poet, writer, and Civil Rights activist. Angelou was also a singer and composer, which influenced the way she wrote and performed her poetry. Maya Angelou's poetry has an extremely rhythmic quality and her way of reading was close to singing. In 'Woman Work' the fourline stanzas can be seen as verses of a song.

Maya Angelou grew up in the American South during times of segregation. Angelou witnessed and experienced the effects of slavery and racism. The narrator in 'Woman Work' can be best understood as a black female slave in America.

The poem 'Woman Work' was originally published in Maya Angelou's third poetry collection titled, And Still I Rise (1978). The book, And Still I Rise, presents messages of empowerment in rising from discouragement and hardships. It also explores the themes of race and gender.

Angelou describes the poem 'Woman Work' as presenting the endless work of a woman. 2 While the hard work of men in the fields typically lasts from sunrise to sunset, the work of a woman is never-ending. However, Maya Angelou presents a woman's strength through her ability to manage so many responsibilities.

Woman Work Maya Angelou Background Info StudySmarter

Maya Angelou was known for her distinctive voice and musical way of reading her poetry. Angelou won a Grammy for a recording of the recitation of her poem 'On the Pulse of Morning' (1993) at Bill Clinton's presidential inauguration.

Clinton Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Woman Work: Full Poem

Line'Woman Work' by Maya Angelou
1.2.3.4.5.6.7.8.9.10.11.12.13.14.I've got the children to tendThe clothes to mendThe floor to mopThe food to shopThen the chicken to fryThe baby to dryI got company to feedThe garden to weedI've got shirts to pressThe tots to dressThe cane to be cutI gotta clean up this hutThen see about the sickAnd the cotton to pick.
15.16.17.18.Shine on me, sunshineRain on me, rainFall softly, dewdropsAnd cool my brow again.
19.20.21.22.Storm, blow me from hereWith your fiercest windLet me float across the sky'Til I can rest again.
23.24.25.26.Fall gently, snowflakesCover me with whiteCold icy kisses andLet me rest tonight.
27.28.29.30.Sun, rain, curving skyMountain, oceans, leaf and stoneStar shine, moon glowYou're all that I can call my own.

Woman Work Poem Summary

The poem opens with a long list of things that the speaker says she needs to do, including caring for the children, cleaning, gardening, tending to company and to the sick, and picking cotton. Maya Angelou focuses on domestic tasks which are relevant to the majority of wives and mothers, but also includes details specifying that this woman is a black slave.

The list of things that the woman in the poem has to do begins with things that she has understandable responsibility for, such as taking care of her children. However, her duties gradually expand to include broader, increasing obligations. The woman's responsibilities questionably stretch into caring for the home, the garden, the visitors, the sick, and then ultimately, the plantation, which she has absolutely no ownership over. The woman turns to nature for solace and peace from all of her work.

Woman Work Poem Analysis

'Woman Work' is written from the firstperson perspective, which lends a personal voice to the collective voice of women who undertake seemingly endless work and responsibilities. The speaker mentions that there is "cane to be cut," 1 she must "clean up this hut," 1 and there is "cotton to pick," 1 indicating that she is a slave (Lines 11, 12, and 14). Many black slaves in America lived in log huts and worked long hours on sugar and cotton plantations.

Woman Work Summary and Analysis StudySmarter

Slaves in America often lived in wooden cabins, which were also referred to as "huts."

Pixabay

The context of this female worker being a slave lends an additional perspective to the idea of her labor, as she is not simply working for herself and to support her own family. Rather, her life and labor are owned by another person—the slave owner or plantation owner. This idea of ownership is significant and is revisited at the end of the poem. The plantation is a symbol of slavery, which strips her of her freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, the woman is not complaining, but builds urgency in her business and scattered, unending obligations.

After the list of things the woman has to do comes four stanzas that resemble the verses of a song, describing how the woman turns to nature for relief from her unending work. While the list of things to do creates a stressful atmosphere and intense tone, the rest of the poem has a calm tone and relaxed atmosphere due to the introduction of the imagery of nature.

First, the speaker asks the sun to shine upon her and the rain to cool her. Second, she asks the wind to blow her so that she can rest and "float across the sky" 1 (Line 21). Third, she asks snowflakes to cover her, kiss her, and let her rest. Lastly, she says to the nature that surrounds her, "You're all that I can call my own" 1 (Line 30). Nature is the only thing that is there for the speaker when she needs comfort and relief. Nature symbolizes something that is free; it can not be truly owned or kept by anyone, in contrast to the woman who is a slave.

Woman Work.Rain falling on a leave.StudySmarter

Rain is often a symbol of renewal and cleansing, which the speaker seeks as she is tired from her endless work and wants to feel free and new.

Pixabay

Throughout the poem, the woman never complains about her obligations. She states them matter of factly and turns to nature for solace without letting her burdens manifest in anger or desperation. This points to both the inner and outer strength of a woman. In the poem, 'Woman Work,' Maya Angelou points to both the strength and resilience of women, as well as the endless demands and expectations of society that leave women in search of rest and relief.

Woman Work: Form and Rhyme Scheme

'Woman Work' is a lyric poem, or a short poem that has high musical quality and often conveys strong emotions. The poem's first stanza is fast-paced and highly rhythmic, and the rest of the stanzas are four lines and have the flow of verses of a song. Angelou actually sings them when reciting the poem.

The poem 'Woman Work' comprises five stanzas. The first stanza is a long, 14line stanza that lists all the things that the speaker is expected to do as a woman slave. The third, fourth, fifth, and sixth stanzas are each four lines long, and are characterized by the imagery and personification of nature, which the speaker turns to for relief.

Though there is no consistent meter throughout the poem, Maya Angelou's words are tied together with rhymes and short lines. The first stanza follows a consistent AABB rhyme scheme, which establishes stresses on the end words of each line and helps create a fast-paced, rap-like rhythm. The fast rhythm established by the AABB rhyme scheme and short lines reflects the busy nature of a woman's life and responsibilities.

"I've got the children to tend —A

The clothes to mend —A

The floor to mop —B

The food to shop" 1 —B

(Lines 1‐4)

This rhyme scheme is disrupted in the verse stanzas, slowing down the reading of the poem to help create a more relaxed atmosphere, which mimics the imagery of nature. While the second and third stanzas do not have very clear rhymes, the fourth and fifth stanzas follow an ABCB rhyme scheme that lends to the poem feeling of closure.

"Sun, rain, curving sky —A

Mountain, oceans, leaf and stone —B

Star shine, moon glow —C

You're all that I can call my own." 1 —B

(Lines 27‐30)

The rhyme between "stone" and "own" emphasizes the idea of ownership that was initially presented by the context of slavery. The woman feels that all this work she is doing belongs to others, but that nature is something that comes to her aid and thus, she can truly call it her own.

Woman Work Literary Devices

Maya Angelou uses many literary devices and poetic techniques in the poem 'Woman Work,' including anaphora, syntax, alliteration, contrast, personification, and assonance.

Anaphora

"The clothes to mend

The floor to mop

The food to shop" 1

(Lines 2‐4)

Anaphora is the repetition of a word or a group of words at the beginning of consecutive phrases or sentences.

Maya Angelou uses anaphora, repeating the word "The" 1 at the beginning of phrases listing the tasks the speaker has to do. This creates a droning effect, which suggests how the list goes on and on with mundane tasks. The article "The" 1 also indicates a distance and lack of belonging. As opposed to using "my" and saying, "my clothes," the speaker says "The clothes," 1 indicating her lack of ownership. Using the article over the pronoun suggests the speaker's detachment from all the things she has to do.

Syntax and Alliteration

"Shine on me, sunshine

Rain on me, rain" 1

(Lines 15‐16)

While the first stanza makes no use of commas or punctuation, leading to a quick, rhythmic reading, the shorter stanzas make use of syntax in order to slow down the reading of the poem, creating a calmer effect. In this example, there is a comma used to separate the subjects of the phrases, "sunshine" 1 and "rain." 1 The alliteration of the "S" and "R" sounds at the beginning and ends of the phrases creates a redundant, circular effect, emphasizing that the work of nature and the woman's desires are simple. While the woman has a never-ending list of things to do, the sun must simply shine and the rain just has to rain; all the woman wants is to feel their warming and cooling comfort and relief.

Contrast

"Storm, blow me from here

With your fiercest wind

Let me float across the sky

'Til I ca rest again." 1

(Lines 19‐22)

In this stanza, Maya Angelou contrasts intensity and calm, action and rest. The speaker asks the wind to blow her away with its "fiercest wind" 1 suggesting intensity and near violence. However, she clarifies that she only wants to be blown strongly to "float across the sky," 1 traveling far from her work and troubles until she can "rest again." 1 The speaker turns to nature as an escape from her reality, and knows that she can only be truly at rest and at peace when she is far from human struggles and one with the earth in eternal rest. The contrast between the fierce blowing and the floating to a resting place emphasizes nature's strength and gentleness. These characteristics are also used to describe the power of a woman.

Personification

"Fall gently, snowflakes

Cover me with white

Cold icy kisses and

Let me rest tonight." 1

(23‐26)

Although personification is present in all the fourline stanzas, it is most prominent in the fourth stanza. In this stanza, snowflakes are personified, and they are to whom the speaker commands "Cover me with white / Cold icy kisses and / Let me rest tonight." 1 This stanza also contrasts movement and stillness, which suggest work and rest. The speaker hopes that the busyness of her life can slow down so that she may feel affection and freeze for a moment's rest. Once again the speaker asks for rest, and this can be understood as a break and relief from the toils of everyday life, but also connotes death, which is the eternal rest.

Assonance

"Sun, rain, curving sky

Mountain, oceans, leaf and stone

Star shine, moon flow

You're all that I can call my own." 1

(Lines 27‐30)

Maya Angelou uses assonance throughout the poem. It is particularly noticeable in the final stanza, with the repetition of the long "O" sound. The assonance accompanied by the stanza's unique syntax helps create a flowing, spelllike reading of the poem. It is as if the speaker is a sorcerer calling these elements of nature towards her because they are the only things in the world she feels listen to her.

Woman Work: Themes

Although the poem 'Woman Work' is quite short and uses simple, everyday language, Maya Angelou explores complex themes of slavery, ownership, work, rest, female expectations and strength, and nature through it. These themes reflect the complexities of life, which the speaker hopes to remedy with the simple comforts of nature.

Slavery and Ownership

The speaker in the poem is a black female slave who is constantly working for others and faces the dilemma of having nothing in her life to call her own. Angelou eloquently hints at this overarching hardship of slavery without getting into the nitty-gritty elements of it. Slaves were not able to claim themselves or their children as their own, as their lives were in the hands of another and trapped in a system bigger than themselves. The speaker does not say "my children" or "my baby," but "the children" 1 and "the baby" 1 (Lines 1 and 6). This indicates both the woman's lack of ownership over her own children, and also the likelihood that she had to care for her slave owner's children as her own. At the end of the poem, the speaker calls out to nature saying "You're all that I can call my own" 1 (Line 10). This suggests that everything else the woman works for in the poem, she feels she has no autonomy or ownership over.

Nature

Nature is personified in the poem. It is the only one who listens to the speaker, cares for her, and gives her rest and relief. While the rest of the world only asks and makes demands of the woman, the woman is able to make demands of nature, and it helps to calm her. Nature is presented in the poem as something both powerful and gentle. It is something bigger and greater than the struggles of the human person, and simultaneously belongs to no one and everyone; it is vast and mysterious but resonates and can bring solace to every human heart.

Work and Rest

A woman's work is presented in the poem as a list of never-ending tasks of caring for everyone and everything besides oneself. The woman in the poem never complains, but it is evident that she greatly desires comfort, affection, and rest. Rest is explored through the imagery of nature, which provides a respite from the stresses of work. However, the language of the poem also indicates that the woman seeks eternal rest in the form of death. Angelou brings in the idea of death to suggest that humans are meant to work on Earth, and full peace only comes after death.

Expectations of women and the strength of women

Maya Angelou points to the large demands put on a woman who is to fulfill the role of mother, maid, caretaker, and slave. Angelou suggests that domestic roles that women often undertake are increasingly demanding and often unrealistic. Women are made to care for everyone and everything, and Angelou calls into question where a woman gets the strength to do so. Maya Angelou suggests the hardship of all the demands made on a woman, but also how balancing all these responsibilities reveals her inner strength. It is not a superficial shiny and glorious strength that a woman contains, but a quiet, enduring strength that endows her with a unique capacity to care.

Woman Work - Key Takeaways

  • 'Woman Work' is a poem written by the African American author, poet, and Civil Rights activist, Maya Angelou.
  • The poem uses poetic devices such as firstperson perspective, imagery, tone, atmosphere, anaphora, syntax, alliteration, contrast, personification, assonance
  • Nature is personified in 'Woman Work' to reflect something that listens to the speaker and gives her relief and peace.
  • 'Woman Work' explores the themes of slavery, ownership, nature, work, rest, expectations of women, and the strength of women.
  • In the poem, 'Woman Work,' Maya Angelou points to both the strength and resilience of women, as well as the endless demands and expectations of society that leave women in search of rest and relief.

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

2 Maya Angelou, ABC National Radio, 2014.

Frequently Asked Questions about Woman Work

The themes of the poem 'Woman Work' include slavery and ownership, nature, work and rest, expectations of women, and the strength of women.

The tone of the poem 'Woman Work' is initially intense, but shifts to a calm tone with the descriptions of nature. 

The rhyme scheme of the poem 'Woman Work' is AABB in the first stanza, and shifts to ABCB towards the end. 

Nature is personified in the poem 'Woman Work' in order to reflect how the speaker turns to nature for comfort, relief, affection, and peace.

The message of 'Woman Work' is that the life of a woman, particularly that of a black female slave, comes with endless demands for work both in the domestic sphere and out in the fields. Women are expected to do so many things which can make them extremely tired, but also points to their strength in their ability to accomplish so much.

Final Woman Work Quiz

Question

Who is the author of the poem, 'Woman Work'?

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Answer

Maya Angelou

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Question

What type of poem is 'Woman Work'

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Answer

A lyric poem 

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Question

Name at least two themes in 'Woman Work.'


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Answer

Slavery, ownership, nature, work and rest, expectations of women, the strength of women 

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Question

What is personified in the poem 'Women Work'?

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Answer

Nature

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Question

What is the rhyme scheme of the first stanza of 'Woman Work'? 

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Answer

AABB

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Question

Which of the following words would not be used to describe the poem 'Woman Work'?

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Answer

Wordy 

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Question

​How would you best describe the speaker in 'Woman Work'?


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Answer

A black female slave

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Question


What does the speaker say about nature at the end of the poem? 

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Answer

"You're all that I can call my own"

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Question

The four line stanzas in the poem can also be referred to as what? 

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Answer

Verses 

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Question

What is the connotation of last four stanzas in the poem?

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Answer

Relief from work, and eternal rest in the form of death

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