Maya Angelou: How the Caged Bird Sings

Enter By Clinton Library – William J. Clinton Presidential Library, Public Domain

Marguerite Johnson’s childhood was marked by the hardship of the Depression years in which she grew up. Her parents divorced and packed her off to live with her granny, “Momma” Henderson, who eked out a living in Stamps, Arkansas, running a little general store. Marguerite, known as Maya, attended church devotedly with Momma, who gave her stability and taught her the importance of values and a strong work ethic. The young girl found love and roots with her grandmother and the congregation at their church.

But tragedy struck when she visited her mother in St. Louis for eight months. Her mother had a boyfriend who spent a lot of time at her mother’s house and often touched and hugged the seven-year-old overly much, but, in her innocence, she mistook it for a father’s love. Later, he raped her, and Maya felt guilty and responsible for his jailing and subsequent death at the hands of other inmates who exacted their own brand of justice on a child molester. She became catatonic as a result of this onslaught of catastrophic violence. With the support of her family and an adult friend, Bertha Flowers, who introduced her to literature, Maya gradually reentered the world, speaking after five years and graduating first in her eighth grade class.

Maya and her mother then moved to San Francisco, where her mother ran a boardinghouse and worked as a professional gambler. Maya met many colorful characters among the boarders and threw herself into school where she flourished. She got pregnant at sixteen and took on the full responsibilities of motherhood with the birth of her son, Guy. For a few years, Maya walked on the wild side: working at a Creole restaurant, waitressing at a bar in San Diego, even an accidental and brief stint as a madam for two lesbian prostitutes. After a two-year marriage to a white man, Maya started dancing at the Purple Onion and got into show biz in the road show for “Porgy and Bess,” which toured Africa and Europe. After cowriting “Cabaret for Freedom” with Godfrey Cambridge, or the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Maya drew Martin Luther King, Jr.’s attention for her talent and contribution to the civil rights movement, and he invited her to serve as an SCLC coordinator.

Maya’s career was absolutely astonishing after this point, living in Egypt with Guy and her lover, a South African freedom fighter, and working in Ghana writing for The African Review. She remained involved with the theater, writing and performing in plays, acting in Roots, and writing several volumes of poetry as well as the script and music for the movie of her autobiography. But it is for the six best-selling volumes of her autobiography, starting with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings , that she will go down in literary history. (The New York Times called her “one of the geniuses of Afro-American serial autobiography.”) Written with captivating honesty, color, and verve, they are read by youth and adults alike for their inspirational message. Listen to this powerful passage from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings:

“If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult.”

When she was criticized for not being completely factual as a writer, Maya responded, “There’s a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure truth.” Maya Angelou, a name combined from a nickname her brother called her and a variation on her first husband’s name, truly reinvented herself. No moment in her wonderfully colorful life illustrates this as much as her reading of her beautiful poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration. She had come a long way from the scared and silent little seven-year-old to a woman come fully into her power, unafraid to share that with the world.

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

“The ability to control one’s own destiny…comes
from constant hard work and courage.”
Maya Angelou


By Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Lizzie Velasquez was born prematurely, weighing in at less than three pounds, in 1989 in Austin, Texas, and was diagnosed with a genetic disorder that leaves her unable to gain weight. To this day she has never weighed in at more 64 pounds, despite frequent and carefully timed intake of food. She is also blind in her right eye and vision-impaired in her left eye. In 2006, when she was 17, Lizzie was named the “World’s Ugliest Woman”; ever since then, she has been a spokesperson against bullying. In January 2014 she gave a TED talk titled, “How Do YOU Define Yourself”. Her YouTube channel has garnered 54 million views. Lizzie has also self-published a book with her mother called Lizzie Beautiful: The Lizzie Velasquez Story, and has also written two other books that offer personal stories and advice to teenagers. A documentary film about her life called A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story premiered at SXSW in 2015 and later aired on Lifetime. Lizzie continues to be a motivational speaker and author.

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.


From the Stone and Stars Instagram

Lee Tai-Young was the first Korean woman ever to become a lawyer and a judge as well as the founder of the first Korean legal aid center. She was born in what is now North Korea in 1914, the daughter of a gold miner. She received a degree in home economics from Ewha Womans University, a Methodist college, and married a Methodist minister in 1936. Lee had dreams of becoming a lawyer when she came to Seoul to study at Ewha, but when her husband fell under suspicion of being a spy for the U.S. and was jailed for sedition by the Japanese colonial government in the early 1940s, she had to go to work to
maintain her family. She took jobs as a school teacher and a radio singer, and took in sewing and washing as well.

After the war, Lee continued her studies with the support of her husband. In 1946, she became the first woman to attend Seoul National University and earned her law degree in 1949. She was the first woman ever to pass the National Judicial Examination in 1952. Five years later she founded the Women’s Legal Counseling Center, a law practice that provided services to poor women. Lee, along with her husband, were participants in the 1976 Myongdong Declaration, which called for the return of civil liberties to Korean citizens. Because of her political views, she was arrested as an enemy of President Park Chung-hee, and in 1977 received a three-year suspended sentence along with a loss of civil liberties including being automatically disbarred for ten years.

Her law practice evolved into the Korea Legal Aid Center for Family Relations and served more than 10,000 clients per year. She authored 15 books on women’s issues, beginning with a 1957 guide to Korea’s divorce system. In 1972, she published Commonsense in Law for Women; other notable titles include Born A Woman and The Woman of North Korea. She also translated Eleanor Roosevelt’s book On My Own into Korean. In 1975, the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation chose her as the recipient of their Community Leadership Award; she was given an award by the International Legal Aid Association in 1978. She received international recognition from many quarters, including an honorary law doctorate from Drew University in Madison, NJ in 1981. In 1984, she published a memoir, Dipping the Han River Out with a Gourd, four years before she passed away at the ripe old age of 84.

“No society can or will prosper without
the cooperation of women.”
— Lee Tai-Young


By Carl Van VechtenVan Vechten Collection at Library of Congress, Public Domain, Link

Clare Boothe Luce, “the woman with the serpent’s tongue,” was the anti-Eleanor Roosevelt, a sort of alternate universe doppelganger who used her razorsharp wit to oppose while “faintly praising” the First Lady and other unrepentant New Dealers. A virulent Republican and FDR basher, Clare was both a smart and tough cookie, albeit not to everyone’s taste. Clare, however, had a wholly unique way of asserting her woman power. As a young woman, one of her summer jobs during college was dropping feminist tracts out of an airplane for some elderly but unstoppable suffragists.

Her next job was writing photo captions for Vogue; there the renowned beauty quickly ascended to the position as Vanity Fair’s managing editor. She was the first woman to hold this post for the glamour glossy and soon proved she could hold her own with the boys, even managing to be welcomed in to their cigarettes and brandy ritual. Then she met Time and Fortune magnate Henry R. Luce, married, and quit the day job to write plays, starting with the stinker Abide with Me and then surprising everyone with the all-female To the Women, a take-noprisoners satire of snooty society ladies, which went on to become a very successful movie. Clare became an international cause celeb with the success of To the Women, penning a few more stage plays including Kiss the Boys Goodbye before she pulled another switcheroo: war correspondent for Life magazine on the battle fronts of Burma, India, and China during the early years of World
War II. She even interviewed Madame Chiang Kai-shek and Prime Minister Nehru.

Clare’s next incarnation was politician and she went on the stump, dissing FDR, Winston Churchill, and a herd of other such sacred cows. She stunned everyone with her gift for rhetoric of the biting, stinging sort. Her next move was to run for a seat in Connecticut’s Congress with a very hawkish platform—her slogan was “Let’s Fight a Hard War Instead of a Soft War”—and she campaigned for the rights of women, blacks, and workers. Easily winning a seat, she served for four years and then retired while she was ahead. Clare then took her domestic campaigns abroad, convincing the Italian Prime Minister to give Italian women the vote! Her good relations with Italy garnered a post for Clare as the ambassador to Italy in 1953, becoming the United States’ second woman ambassador and the first woman chief of mission to a major European power. In 1953, she was fourth in the Gallup poll of the most admired women in the world.

Clare became the grande dame of the Grand Old Party from the Goldwater sixties until her death of cancer in 1987. Clare will be best remembered for her quick wit and verbal virtuosity. She was absolutely one of a kind; she never luxuriated in her husband’s great wealth, but instead worked her behind off for many causes and made great strides for women in her wake.

“Because I am a woman, I must make unusual
efforts to succeed. If I fail, no one will say ‘She
doesn’t have what it takes.’ They will say, ‘Women
don’t have what it takes.’”
— Clare Boothe Luce

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.


By Unknown – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s digital ID cph.3c08091. Public Domain, Link

No book on awesome women would be complete without a profile of Eleanor Roosevelt, named by historian Deborah G. Felder as the most influential woman in history.

Though she was born to the privileged class, Eleanor reached out to all women, regardless of economic status, and they responded, knowing she was a kindred soul.
Eleanor was born Anne Eleanor Roosevelt and came from colonial Roosevelt stock on both sides of her family. Eleanor remembered being “like a little old woman” and all her life was keenly aware of what she called “a lack of beauty.” She seems to have survived the pre-Reviving Ophelia batterings to her self-esteem fairly well, despite a vain and selfish mother who nicknamed Eleanor “Granny” and never passed up the opportunity to remind her that she didn’t inherit her mother’s beauty. Fortunately, her dashing humanitarian father, Elliott, loved her dearly and instilled in his “little Nell” a strong
sense of the importance of giving to others.

By the age of ten, Eleanor was an orphan and was made to live with her stern matriarch of a grandmother, then sent to the very exclusive Allenswood girls school in London. Allenswood was run by a forthright liberal activist, Marie Souvestre, who took Eleanor under her wing and lavished affection and attention on her. Eleanor recalled these days
as the best of her life.

Returning home in 1902, she had the obligatory debutante ball, but preferred doing good works at the settlement houses among the working class to partying at snooty, upper-class salons. She also sneaked in an engagement to her fifth cousin, political aspirant Franklin Delano Roosevelt; the blushing Eleanor’s hand was given in marriage by then-President Roosevelt, otherwise known as “Uncle Teddy.” Eleanor and Franklin quickly had six children, losing one baby shortly after birth. Eleanor was painfully shy, a terrible issue to deal with when she had to constantly entertain to advance her husband’s political career, even harder to do with a bossy mother in-law hovering over the children and trying to take over the household.

The burgeoning young Roosevelt clan soon found themselves in the District of Columbia while FDR served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. It is there that Eleanor found out about his affair with Lucy Mercer, Eleanor’s social secretary. Eleanor was devastated, but found an inner resolve to withstand the pain and became even more dedicated to positive social change. She joined the League of Women’s Voters and the Women’s Trade Union League, working toward reform for women’s pay and limiting the hours of the working day. In 1921, FDR fell ill with polio. Leaving the tending of him to others, Eleanor served as FDR’s eyes and ears out in the world, traveling all over the country listening to people, discerning what Americans of all walks of life wanted and needed.

For the rest of her life, she strove tirelessly to advance the cause of getting more women into government office and was deeply concerned with unemployment, poverty, education, housing, day care, health care, and civil rights. (Of her, Franklin once prayed, “Dear God, make Eleanor a little tired.” But he never ceased relying on her sage advice.)

When FDR was elected president, Eleanor was less than thrilled with her status as First
Lady: “Now I’ll have no identity,” she proclaimed. But she took on the job and made it
her own. She held a press conference, the first First Lady to do so, and regularly spoke
with a corp of women reporters. While FDR had his fireside chats, Eleanor had “My Day,” a newspaper column and radio show that she used as a pulpit for many social justice issues, including the time Marian Anderson was blocked from singing in D.C. by the Daughters of the American Revolution because she was black. When Eleanor announced her resignation from the DAR in protest, their ranks dwindled in shame.

After her husband’s death, she continued on with her work, including becoming a delegate to the United Nations, where she is credited with drafting and pushing through to adoption the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and launching UNICEF. For all the good she did, this humanitarian whom Harry Truman dubbed “The First
Lady of the World” is still, nearly fifty years after her death, one of the most cherished figures in herstory.

“You get more joy out of the giving to others,
and should put a good deal of thought into the
happiness you are able to give.”
— Eleanor Roosevelt

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.


By Mathew Brady – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection. Public Domain, Link

Belva Lockwood was the first woman to plead before the U.S. Supreme Court and the first woman to run for president of the United States. After being blocked from the law department of Columbian College (Now George Washington University) for fear that her presence would distract the male students, this widow and former school teacher applied to the brand new National Law School. Upon her graduation in 1869 at the age of forty-three, Belva was refused her degree and took this affront to the attention of President Ulysses S. Grant, who arranged for the due delivery of Belva’s diploma.

This was just the beginning of her struggles to be allowed to practice law. Admitted to the District of Columbia bar, Belva was barred from speaking to federal courts due to her gender. Not willing to take the exclusion lying down, she then rammed a bill through Congress allowing women lawyers in the federal courts, becoming in 1879 the first woman admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court. Proving that Belva wasn’t just in it for herself, she took up many cases for the underdog—championing, for example, the first southern black lawyer to argue before the Supreme Court.

And in her most spectacular case, she won a famous $5 million judgment (an unheard of amount in the nineteenth century) for the Cherokee Indians, forcing the U.S. government to pay them for their land. This spectacular victory prompted opposing lawyer Assistant Attorney General Louis A. Pratt to designate her “decidedly the most noted attorney in this country, if not in the world.” With her brilliant legal mind, Belva figured that, “If women in the states are not permitted to vote, there is no law against their being voted for, and if elected, filling the highest office in the gift of the people” and decided to run for president as the candidate of the Equal Rights Party in 1884 and 1888, with a hefty platform espousing rights for all minorities (including voting rights for women) along with temperance, peace, and universal education.

Interestingly, she was opposed by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who urged her to endorse the Republican candidate, James Blaine (he was in favor of women’s rights). Both Blaine and Lockwood lost out to Grover Cleveland, but Lockwood surprised everyone by getting thousands of votes! Throughout her life, she continued to work and speak on behalf of her favored causes—women, peace, and minority rights—attaining a national reputation as a brilliant and powerful speaker. In her later years, she threw her energies into the Universal Peace Union, a precursor to the United Nations that advocated arbitration as a solution to internal conflicts.

In 1912, she reflected back on her lengthy career and remarked, “I never stopped fighting. My cause was the cause of thousands of women.”

“Were I a voice—a still small voice—an eloquent
voice, I would whisper into the ear of every
young woman, improve and exercise every
talent that has been given to you; improve every
opportunity, obey your inspiration, give no heed
to the croakings of those narrow minds who take
old hide bound and musty customs for religion
and law, with which they have no affiliation, and
who tell you with remarkable ease that these
professions were never intended for women.”

— Belva Ann Bennett McNall Lockwood

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media

Ten Nobel Women: Sheroes of Peace Pt. 1

By, Public Domain,

In 1982’s Nobel Peace Prize went to Alvar Myrdal of Mexico who shared it with her countryman Alfonso Garcia Robles, both of whose work in the disarmament movement has gone far to lessen the treat of global destruction. Myrdal has worked with peace and social justice since the thirties, and she has written one of the most important books on the subject. She has been passed over (along with many other peaceful sheroes) by the Nobel Committee for mostly male choices until such a hue and cry arose that the prize pickers listened! Alva described her Nobel moment as her “peak” but said the “Norwegian People’s Prize” was “dear to her heart.”

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.