This post was migrated from an old blog. Let’s get in the spirit of International Women’s Day and National Women’s Month early!
Maya Angelou grew up in Arkansas in a time when racism and discrimination were commonplace. She was treated as an inferior because she was black and female. When she was just seven years old, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. This experience was so traumatic for her that for five years, she stopped talking to anyone but her brother.
Most people know her today as a celebrated author, poet, and civil rights activist. She was also a screenwriter, professor, dancer, and poet. Her best-known and most influential written work is her memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
A difficult childhood in the time of racial segregation did little to slow Maya Angelou down in pursuing her goals. Her first job was street car conductor in San Francisco. In her book Mom & Me & Mom, she says “I was black, 16 and had the nerve to want the job…. I saw women on the street cars with their little changer belts. They had caps with bibs on them and form-fitting jackets. I loved their uniforms. I said that is the job I want.”
She was initially turned away because of her skin color, but at her mother’s suggestion, she sat in the office every day and waited and waited and waited. Eventually, a man came out of the office and asked her why she wanted the job. She said “Because I like the uniforms. And I like the people.” And she got the job.
Dr. Angelou has been awarded more than 30 honorary degrees and starred in numerous Broadway and off-Broadway productions. She was the first African-American woman to have her screenplay produced (with Georgia, Georgia), and has been nominated for Tony and Emmy awards. To the dismay of many friends, fans, students, and three generations of her own family, she passed away in May of 2014. Among those who mourned her was President Barack Obama, who said she “had the ability to remind us that we are all God’s children; that we all have something to offer.”
Nicki Minaj grew up with a verbally and physically abusive father who was also a cocaine addict. In an interview with MTV, she talks about how her father went so far as to burn their house down, nearly killing her mother.
Nowadays, when she speaks up on women’s rights and empowering women, these sentiments can be traced back to the role her mom played in her life. She said in her Details magazine interview, “I wanted my mother to be stronger, and she couldn’t be. I thought, ‘If I’m successful, I can change her life.'”
After she and her family moved to New York from her homeland of Trinidad, Nicki broke into the rap scene and eventually mainstream music without the help of any connections in the industry or friends in high places. She would later be named Best Hip-Hop Female at the BET Awards and become the first female solo artist to have seven singles in a row on the US Billboard Hot 100. Thus far, she has won six American Music Awards, ten BET Awards, three MTV VMAs, four Billboard Music Awards, and the Billboard’s Women in Music 2011 Rising Star Award.
Among the many things she’s doing right outside of music are making her official merchandise affordable to all of her fans and often reminding her younger listeners to stay in school.
Maya Angelou and Nicki Minaj are two very different women. They belong to two different generations and two different cultures. But they have in common the desire to empower other women, despite — or maybe partly because of — experiences in the past that were largely degrading and disempowering.
I chose to write about these women on International Women’s Day because, in their respective ways, they inspire me. Their works remind me that we have come a long way in the fight for women’s rights, but that fight is long from over. The women of today have more opportunities and are treated with more respect, but sexism is still alive (albeit typically more subtle) in mass media, in the workplace, and in society as a whole.
The Taliban still targets Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who took a bullet to the head when she refused to back down from the fight for girls’ education. Women and girls are still raped and killed in Darfur in acts of genocide that have been going on long before they were acknowledged as genocide in 2004. In my own homeland of the Philippines, the Reproductive Health Bill took 15 years of debate and deliberation to pass, and many schools and churches still refuse to see the importance of sex education and family planning.
Maya Angelou and Nicki Minaj have made their contributions, big and small, to the fight for women’s rights and women’s voices, but there is so much more to be done. This fight is on us. It’s on every educator, every politician, every leader of every kind.
It’s on the parents who teach their daughters that they are beautiful and worthy and great, and that there is no need to tear other girls down or gossip about them to prove that. It’s on the parents who teach their sons to treat everyone they meet with respect, and that chivalry does not need to be gendered, and that being kind is an act to be done out of kindness — not because gentlemen must help women, but because people must help other people. It’s on the parents who make an effort to understand their child’s gender and preference, even when it’s not something their generation widely accepted or even talked about.
It’s on the young adults that children and teenagers look up to. The ones who are working through their own struggles and slowly understanding why we have to treat our peers as equals, not inferiors, even when we disagree with their words and actions — because if we don’t support each other, big companies and oppressive systems certainly won’t, and they might not anyway.
It’s on men, as well. Men who are willing to help women but also understand that sometimes, the best way to help is not to open every door and carry every bag, but simply to support women as they find their own voice and jump through their own hoops. To let them be strong without being condescending to them or feeling threatened by them.
It’s on you and me. As friends, as employees, as members of a community, if we judge each other based on gender (or race, or appearance, or anything that shouldn’t be made to determine our worth as an individual), all we are doing is wasting time and setting limitations where there needn’t be any.
I wanted to leave this post with a quotation from one of the ladies in the title, but I couldn’t choose just one, so:
Maya Angelou is often misquoted (though I believe the sentiment is the same) “I may be changed by my past, but I refuse to be reduced by it.”
Here is Nicki Minaj with a track about reaching her dreams. She also expresses her gratitude for everyone who has been supporting her along the way: