Celebrating Our She-roes

Writer, actor, and activist Maya Angelou inspired generations of women with her efforts to overcome discrimination, prejudice and abuse. A woman, who didn't speak for years in her youth, became a voice for millions in her adult life; and that voice was quite lyrical. We mourn her death but celebrate her life by learning about women writers and poets throughout American history.

Let's test your knowledge about American women writers and poets, first. Match the woman with her accomplishment (answers at the end):

____ 1. First African-American woman to publish a book
____ 2. Considered the greatest woman poet in the English language
____ 3. Wrote the poem shown on the base of the Statue of Liberty
____ 4. One of the first Native American women to have a book published
____ 5. Her book about growing up in the Chinese culture in San Francisco selected as a Book of the Month Club selection

A. Mourning Dove
B. Jade Snow Wong
C. Phillis Wheatley
D. Emma Lazarus
E. Emily Dickinson

Maya Angleou said "How important it is for us to recognize and celebrate our heroes and she-roes!" The following women are just a handful of our many she-roes.

We start with Phillis Wheatley. The first African-American woman to publish a book, Wheatley was brought to America and sold into slavery when she was about seven. Although a slave, she learned to read and write while living in the Wheatley household in Boston. Her first poem was published in 1767. Wheatley traveled to England in 1773 where her book of poetry was published. She was released from slavery when she returned to America.

Emily Dickinson was also a poet in Massachusetts. Dickinson was such a recluse that only seven of her thousands of poems were published during her lifetime. Her first poem was published in the local newspaper in 1852. Some consider her the greatest women poet in the English language. One of her most famous poems reads:

Because I could not stop for Death -
He kindly stopped for me -
The Carriage held but just Ourselves -
And Immortality.

Dickinson has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

Emma Lazarus was also a poet. I am pretty sure that you are familiar with her most famous work:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

These words from Lazarus' poem The New Colossus are emblazoned on the bronze at the Statue of Liberty and known by most of the American public. Lazarus wrote novels and plays in addition to poetry. The New Colossus was written for an auction used to raise money for the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. Much of her work advocated against anti-Semitism and for a Jewish homeland in the Middle East. Lazarus has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

From poetry, we now turn to novels and memoirs. One of the first Native American women to publish a book, Okanogan Mourning Dove wrote novels and short stories. Her novel Cogewea: The Half-Blood was published in 1927 and featured a female protagonist, a rarity in Native American literature at that time. She later published Coyote Stories; stories that she categorized as folklore of Native Americans.

Jade Snow Wong, both an author and a ceramic artist, wrote about Chinese culture in the U.S. Her autobiographical novel, Fifth Chinese Daughter, was published in 1945, reprinted in several languages, selected for the Book of the Month Club in 1950, and ran as a half-hour special on PBS in 1976. Her tales of growing up Chinese in San Francisco resonated across cultures. Her ceramic art is in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Now, let us learn more about Maya Angelou. The first African-American woman to have a feature film developed from her work (the screenplay and musical score Georgia, Georgia), this poet, author, dancer, streetcar conductor, single mother, and much more, became best known for reading her poem On the Pulse of the Morning during the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993, part of which reads:

A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Marked the mastodon,
The dinosaur, who left dried tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.

Previously, she had come to the attention of readers with the publication of the first volume of her autobiographical memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I had the opportunity to hear her speak about 10 years ago. What I was most impressed about was that she spoke lyrically. The recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Angelou has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

Learn about more she-roes and celebrate amazing women like Maya Angelou. These outstanding women are among the more than 850 profiled in the book Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America. We are educated by their art, celebrate their accomplishments, and are proud to stand on their shoulders.

(Answers: 1-C, 2-E, 3-D, 4-A, 5-B)