‘Phenomenal Woman’ appeared in Maya Angelou’s third volume of poetry, “And Still I Rise”. It was first published in 1978. In this poem, she celebrates her body and the uniqueness that separates her from other women. Angelou, who died at the age of 86 in 2014, is one of the most celebrated poets and memoirists in American literature. Her first memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, was the first U.S. bestseller ever written by an African American woman, and it catapulted Angelou into instant fame in the literary world. The majority of her work deals with both the racism and sexism she experienced as an African American woman.
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Throughout each stanza, the speaker exposes the attributes she possesses that deem her irresistible to others, particularly to those of the opposite sex, despite the fact that she does not fit into society’s definition of what makes a woman beautiful.
The first stanza includes the physical traits that make her stand out, from her hips to her smile. As the poem continues, she extols the inner mystery that makes her so attractive to the men around her.
At the end of the work, she describes the confidence and pride she has in herself, which radiates from her. In essence, this is Angelou’s anthem about her pride in being a woman.
You can read the full poem here.
Angelou’s constant use of the word “phenomenal” is twofold. One most often defines the word as meaning extraordinary and impressive, and she is certainly reveling in being an extraordinary and impressive woman; however, the word phenomenal is also synonymous with unbelievable. By consciously choosing to call herself phenomenal, the speaker seems almost incredulous that she is lucky enough to be a woman. That’s why she says in the last four lines of the poem,
’Cause I’m a woman
Structurally, Angelou breaks her poem into four major stanzas, with a smaller, yet still significant stanza in between. So, there are a total of five stanzas. While there is some evidence of rhyme, she mostly uses an unconventional rhyme scheme. She begins her poem with a couplet in the first two lines: “Pretty women wonder where my secret lies./ I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size”. While her use of rhyme is sporadic, she does, however, repeatedly end her lines with words that end in “s.” This adds to the sultry, sensual tone of the poem, particularly when it is read aloud.
Just as bees are naturally drawn to that sweet substance, men are just as enchanted with her, even though she defies all conventional beauty standards. “I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size,” she writes.
This comparison also highlights the primitive side of human sexuality. The bees have an innate, uncontrollable desire to be near the honey; likewise, the men cannot help but flock towards her.
She relies heavily on repetition throughout her poem, ending the majority of her stanzas with “That’s me.” In addition, the phrase “phenomenal woman” is repeated throughout the course of the poem, once again emphasizing Angelou’s unconventional beauty and appeal to the opposite sex.
Angelou’s ‘Phenomenal Woman’ taps on the themes of womanhood, identity, pride, self-love, and self-acceptance. The main theme, being womanhood, is celebrated throughout the poem. The line, “I’m a woman” propagates her self-confidence in being a woman. She not only celebrates her bodily beauty but also her inner glow. Another important theme, identity is explored from the perspective of gender. She does not talk about her racial identity. Rather her voice expresses her pride for being an attractive woman, not physically but mentally.
The themes of self-love and self-acceptance are there in this work. In the last stanza, the speaker says that her head is unbowed as she accepts how she is. She is happy with it and takes pride in the way her body radiates her inner beauty.
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,
In the first stanza, Angelou’s speaker bluntly tells her reader that other women wonder what she has that they are missing, even though she lacks the traits that society most often judges to be beautiful; she intuits that the other women are jealous of her. She writes, “They think I’m telling lies.” The speaker continues on, telling the reader her appeal lies in her arms, hips, and lips.
Her voice reflects a sense of confidence. She does not hesitate over talking about the span of her hips or stride of her steps. Her body is unique and she is satisfied with how she is. Besides, she doesn’t care about the so-called “fashion”. She is confident that it’s in the reach of her arms.
The last four lines of this stanza are repeated in the following stanzas with slight variations. These lines act as a refrain that expresses the speaker’s inner happiness for being a “phenomenal woman”.
I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
In her second stanza, she moves away from discussing women and begins to discuss the spell she seems to have over the men she encounters. Her attractiveness goes beyond the physical: it is something innate inside her that makes her so irresistible to men. While women can change the way they look, Angelou insinuates that they will never be able to replicate what she naturally possesses inside herself.
The third stanza contains only two lines. These lines are a part of the refrain. Separating these lines in this stanza, Angelou tries to emphasize the idea. Besides, she uses this scheme to give special stress to the words. It enhances the confident mood of the poem. As readers can see, these lines need special emphasis. The repetition of the same idea also expounds on how she feels when men hover around her like honeybees. She feels confident by thinking about men’s reactions and celebrates her phenomenal beauty.
Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
This idea continues into the fourth stanza, where the speaker discusses the fact that even men cannot pinpoint what it is about her that is so irresistible. Her answer to them is that she’s a woman. She is saying, “Unbelievably, I’m a woman. I’m an extraordinary, amazing woman. That’s who I am.”
Readers can find a metaphor in this stanza. It is present in the phrase, “inner mystery”. The “mystery” is nothing but the speaker’s self-confidence. Besides, the “sun of my smile” contains another metaphor. Here Angelou implicitly compares her smile to sunshine. The “sun” is also a symbol of energy as well as self-sufficiency. So, her smile is energetic like the sunlight.
Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
In the last lines of the poem, Angelou speaks directly to her reader, after explaining her appeal to her audience. She explains that she does not need to draw attention to herself; the attention is naturally given to her because she is a woman. Her last line, set apart in its own stanza, simply says, “That’s me.” Because she is a woman—a phenomenal woman—she has the confidence and pride to walk with her head held high.
‘Phenomenal Woman’ was first published in Maya Angelou’s poems’ collection “And Still I Rise” (1978). Later it was published in her book of poetry “Phenomenal Woman: Four Poems Celebrating Women” in 1995 along with Maya Angelou’s most popular poems such as ‘Still I Rise’ and ‘Our Grandmothers’.
This poem was previously published in Cosmopolitan magazine along with her ‘Just For a Time’ in 1978. In the 1993 American romantic drama film Poetic Justice, it was also featured. After its initial appearance, it got a favorable response from the critics as well as the audience. Angelou often performed ‘Phenomenal Woman’ which has been called her “personal theme-poem”. Literary critic Harold Bloom considers it as a “hymn-like poem to woman’s beauty”.
In an interview, Angelou said that the poem was for all women. She added, “Now, I know men are phenomenal, but they have to write their own poem”.
Angelou’s poem, ‘Phenomenal Woman’ conveys the message of self-love and being oneself to readers. This poem is about the celebration of womanhood.
The adjective “phenomenal”, when combined with the noun “woman”, creates wonders. The literal meaning of the phrase is “an extraordinary or remarkable woman.” Apart from that, anything which is phenomenal is perceptible by the senses. So, the qualities of the woman are sensual. One can only understand her worth by immediate experience.
The poetic persona, a representation of Angelou, is “phenomenal” for the qualities she already has as a woman. She loves how she is and her head is never bowed. For this reason, she is an extraordinary woman for her inner beauty and courage.
The mood of this piece is celebratory, uplifting, inspirational, and cheerful. Throughout the poem, the self-love and confidence of the speaker get reflected in its mood.
The poem challenges the social stereotypes in the very first lines, “Pretty women wonder where my secret lies./ I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size.” In this way, the speaker makes it clear she does not conform to the stereotypes both physically and mentally.
Angelou’s poem consists of several elements of feminism. It presents a woman who is extraordinary and remarkable among others. The speaker celebrates the pride in being a woman. By repeating her identity, she makes it clear each individual is beautiful in their own way. Besides, the diction and style of the text do not conform to the conventional forms created by the male writers. That’s why it is a gyno text and it is one of the “Écriture féminine”.
Here is a list of a few poems that similarly tao on the themes present in Maya Angelou’s poem, ‘Phenomenal Woman’.
- ‘On Being a Woman’ by Dorothy Parker – This short and humorous poem describes a fickle-minded lady’s failure in love for being true to her emotions. Read more poems by Dorothy Parker.
- ‘A Woman’s Hands’ by Eva Bezwoda – In this poem, a wife (or a mother) proclaims her distress in the number of tasks she does for her family. Explore more Eva Bezwoda poems.
- ‘Black Woman’ by Georgia Douglas Johnson – This poem contains the words of a woman, desperate to have a child but unwilling to bring one into the world. Read more poems from Georgia Douglas Johnson.
- ‘A Woman Speaks’ by Audre Lorde – This poem is both a warrior’s song for the invisible and a conversation between women of different cultures. Explore more Audre Lorde poems.