When acclaimed poet and memoirist Maya Angelou described the makings of a great woman in her 1995 poem “Phenomenal Woman,” she wrote of a female spirit that refuses to yield when faced with adversity in a male-dominated world.
“Phenomenal Woman” became the title of Angelou’s book of four poems celebrating women. Bill Clinton was president, and first lady Hillary Clinton was on the rise as a Washington power broker when the book was published.
The Clintons were good friends with Angelou. She recited her poem “On the Pulse of the Morning” at Bill’s inauguration in 1993.
That the lives of the Clintons and Angelou intersected was remarkable. Clearly, Angelou, who died in 2014, at age 86, possessed the spirit of the phenomenal woman she described in her poem, having risen out of a poverty-stricken, abusive childhood to become one of America’s great literary figures and a professor at Wake Forest University.
We can see the spirit of the phenomenal woman reflected in the current #MeToo movement, which coalesced and gained momentum last fall after a series of high-profile revelations that powerful men had allegedly sought sex in exchange for work or career promotion.
Now we see women, by the tens of thousands, loudly and clearly calling for an end to the centuries of misogyny to which society has too often turned a blind eye. What better time than March, Women’s History Month, to celebrate the strong women who are working every day to create a more egalitarian society?
Today’s women stand on the shoulders of giants such as Angelou. Men tried as best they could to drag her down, but she would not be caged, and as a prominent voice of the civil rights movement, she helped to transform the nation for the better.
Before her, there were the suffragists such as Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. They never gave up in their fight to give women the right to vote. When society got tough, they got tougher. We can be inspired by their triumphs in the face of terrible tribulations.
It’s easy to forget that women finally won the right to vote only a century ago. On Nov. 6, 1917, New York became the first state east of the Mississippi River to allow full women’s suffrage. The New York victory caused a domino effect, with state after state granting women voting rights. Finally, in 1918, the House of Representatives passed the 19th Amendment, giving all women who were citizens the right to vote. The measure did not, however, give women equal status in American society.
That was made clear during the women’s marches held worldwide at the time of President Trump’s inauguration last January, to protest his inflammatory remarks about women and the misogynistic policy statements he had made during his campaign.
A second round of marches, fueled largely by the #MeToo movement, were held this year, on the first anniversary of Trump’s inauguration. The events sought to spread the national conversation about the prevalence of sexual discrimination, harassment and assault — particularly in the workplace. Today’s feminist movement demands that women receive equal pay for equal work, as well as workplace protections to ensure that they are not discriminated against because of their gender.
This year’s Women’s History Month theme, “Nevertheless She Persisted: Honoring Women Who Fight All Forms of Discrimination Against Women,” is only fitting. If women are to achieve true parity, they must help elect other women who are unrelenting in their efforts to dismantle the good-ol’-boy network of establishment politics, as well as male allies who fully support equality for women in every realm of American life.
Last November, we saw women make great strides at the ballot box in Nassau County, when Legislator Laura Curran, a Democrat from Baldwin, shattered a glass ceiling to win election as county executive — Long Island’s first woman county executive. Along with her, political newcomer Laura Gillen, a Democrat from Rockville Centre who grew up in Baldwin, was elected Town of Hempstead supervisor. And Sylvia Cabana, a Democrat from Garden City, became the town clerk.
After that, Vera Fludd became the county’s first female and African-American acting sheriff. Recently, Marinela Casas was named assistant commissioner of the Nassau County Police Department. She is the first Latina to assume the role.
Clearly, phenomenal women are on the rise here. That’s progress we can all be proud of.