Since the birth of the American people, women held a lesser role in society than men. They were not allowed to vote or own property. They were expected to marry young, mother several children, and take care of the household. Women were not encouraged to work until the twentieth century, and even then they were discouraged from professions society decided were for men. It took decades of hard work by dedicated women’s rights activists to break the mold of the ideal woman that had been created over several centuries.
One of the most prominent figures of the Women’s Rights Movement was writer and activist Maya Angelou.
As an author, Maya Angelou wrote autobiographies, essays, and poems. She is most well- known for her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. This novel became the first nonfiction bestseller by an African American woman. It highlights upon her early life and is considered taboo because it recalls the story of her molestation.
Because of this experience, Maya Angelou’s activism was broadened. As an African American, she fought for civil rights. As a woman, she fought for women’s rights. As a person with a traumatic history, she fought against abuse by bringing awareness to it. By telling her story, Maya Angelou inspired many women to share theirs.
She also helped found the Cultural Association for Women of African Heritage. With the CAWAH, she helped organize a protest against the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, a Congolese independence leader. By gathering female activists and leading them to protest, Maya Angelou further encouraged women to speak up and fight for causes they believed in.
She inspired courage in many women, African American and whites alike.
Growing up in the southern state of Missouri, Maya Angelou faced many of the racial prejudices of the southern United States. In her 30s and 40s, Maya Angelou fought alongside of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for African American Civil Rights. She was an active member of the movement and stayed deeply involved even after witnessing the assassinations of her close friends and mentors. Throughout her life, she had to fight harder solely because of the color of her skin. Even after the African American Civil Rights movements of the 1950s through 1960s, Maya Angelou still had work to do. As a woman, she faced scrutiny as an author that a male author would not have. Even still, she became remarked as one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century and received over fifty honorary degrees for her works.
One of Maya Angelou’s contemporaries was Alice Walker. Alice Walker received the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for her novel The Color Purple. The novel is centered around women who bond over their love for one another, the abusive men in their lives, and the children they care for. In addition to writing this critically acclaimed novel, which was later turned into an Oscar-nominated film, Alice Walker was also a poet and a women’s rights activist.
Another contemporary of Maya Angelou was musician Odetta Holmes, more commonly known simply as Odetta. Odetta became known as “The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement.” In addition to being a singer, songwriter, and guitarist, Odetta was an activist for civil and human rights. Maya Angelou even spoke kindly of Odetta and her works, believing that her voice and soul could make time pass quickly and painlessly. While Maya Angelou wrote of freedom, Odetta sang of it.
The advancement of women in America cannot be attributed solely to one person, but is the result of the combined efforts of thousands of men and women, as notable as John F. Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt, all the way down to high school age boys and girls. Maya Angelou opened doors with her writings and help lead oppressed groups through influential and powerful movements. The Women’s Rights Movement would not have been the same without her.