The following is an excerpt from What Will It Take to Make a Woman President? Conversations About Women, Leadership and Power [Seal Press, $17.00], a collection of interviews conducted by Marianne Schnall. Below is her interview with writer Maya Angelou:
“We need to be seen as well as heard. It’s not sufficient to say, ‘Well, we are here, and we deserve.’ Because if we really think that the majority of women in the world are also always in the kitchen and in the kindergarten and in the places just to look after the young and men, then we do ourselves and everybody a disservice. . . The whole country needs to know that women are much smarter—we’re more than that.”
Dr. Maya Angelou is one of the most renowned and influential voices of our time. Hailed as a global renaissance woman, she is a celebrated poet, writer, performer, teacher, director, and civil rights activist. In addition to her groundbreaking autobiographies, beginning with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou has written two cookbooks; five poetry collections, including I Shall Not Be Moved; three books of essays, including Letter to My Daughter; and six long-form poems, including “Mother.” The list of her published verse, nonfiction, and fiction now includes more than thirty best-selling titles. In her most recent work, a memoir titled Mom & Me & Mom, she shares the deepest personal story of her life: her relationship with her mother. A trailblazer in film and television, Angelou wrote the screenplay and composed the score for the 1972 film Georgia, Georgia. Her script, the first by an African American woman ever to be filmed, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. In 1996, she directed her first feature film, Down in the Delta.
Angelou has served on two presidential committees, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Arts in 2000 and the Lincoln Medal in 2008, and has received three Grammy Awards. President Clinton requested that she compose a poem to read at his inauguration in 1993. Angelou’s reading of her poem “On the Pulse of the Morning” was broadcast live around the world. In 2012 she founded the Maya Angelou Center for Women’s Health and Wellness in her adopted hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
MARIANNE SCHNALL: Why do you think we haven’t had a woman president? And do you feel our consciousness is ready to have that happen?
MAYA ANGELOU: Well, I think we are more ready for it than we think we are. I mean, if anyone had asked you five years ago, “Do you think we’re ready for a black president?” it’s very likely that the wagging of the head would have been, “No, no, no—not yet.” However, we’re readier than we thought we were. And I think that’s true about women. I supported Hillary Clinton in her bid for the White House. After a while, some of the top Democrats phoned me and asked me to ask Mrs. Clinton to step down because it seemed certain that Senator Obama was going to be the choice. So I said, “I told her twenty years ago that if she ran for anything, I had her back and would support her. When she steps down, I will step down.” I think that she would make a wonderful president. But when she decided that Senator Obama was a likely candidate that she could support, she stepped down and I stepped down with her. And I went over to the Obama camp and said, “If I can be of any use, please use me.”
MS: Sometimes this gets framed as just about equality—women are still such a minority, not only in Washington, but in corporate leadership. Why is it important that we have women’s voices equally represented?
MA: Well, we need to be seen, all over the place. We need to be seen as well as heard. It’s not sufficient to say, “Well, we are here, and we deserve.” If we really think that the majority of women in the world are also always in the kitchen and in the kindergarten and in the places just to look after the young and men, then we do ourselves and everybody a disservice. Because women offer so much more than it would seem we offer. It would seem we offer kindness and the chance to be cared for and nursed in more ways than just medical. And I think that the whole country needs to know that women are much smarter—we’re more than that. We’re that and more than that.
MS: If you could speak to the world community, what message would you most want to deliver to humanity?
MA: I would encourage us to try our best to develop courage. It’s the most important of all the virtues, because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can be anything erratically—kind, fair, true, generous, all that. But to be that thing time after time, you need courage. We need to develop courage, and we need to develop it in small ways first. Because we wouldn’t go and say, “I’ll pick up this hundred-pound weight” without knowing our capacity. So we need to say, “Oh, I’ll start by picking up a five-pound weight, then a ten-pound weight, then a twenty-five-pound, and sooner or later I’ll be able to pick up a one-hundred-pound weight.” And I think that’s true with courage. You develop a little courage, so that if you decide, “I will not stay in rooms where women are belittled; I will not stay in company where races, no matter who they are, are belittled; I will not take it; I will not sit around and accept dehumanizing other human beings”—if you decide to do that in small ways, and you continue to do it—finally you realize you’ve got so much courage. Imagine it—you’ve got so much courage that people want to be around you. They get a feeling that they will be protected in your company.
MS: What message would you most want to instill in young girls? What do you wish you had known as a child?
MA: Courage. Also, I encourage courtesy—to accept nothing less than courtesy and to give nothing less than courtesy. If we accept being talked to any kind of way, then we are telling ourselves we are not quite worth the best. And if we have the effrontery to talk to anybody with less than courtesy, we tell ourselves and the world we are not very intelligent.
MS: I saw some of your emotional appearances after Barack Obama’s first win, in 2008. Did you ever imagine that you would live long enough to witness that?
MA: Never. Never. And yet somewhere, obviously, I must have known. I know that my people did, because they couldn’t have survived slavery without having hope that it would get better. There are some songs from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that say [sings], “By and by, by and by, I will lay down this heavy load.” I mean, so many songs that spoke of hope—amazing songs. The slaves knew that they did not have the right legally to walk within one inch away from where the slave owner dictated, and yet the same people wrote and sang with fervor, “If the Lord wants somebody, here am I, send me.” It’s amazing.
MS: There seems to be a growing movement around issues such as antiwar sentiment, awareness about global warming, violence against women, and world poverty—a growth in awareness and compassion and a sense of responsibility. Do you think humanity is experiencing an evolutionary shift to a new paradigm?
MA: I think so. I think we are making it very clear to people, whether they want to hear it or not, or whether they would like to think of this as some fluke of history—wrong, wrong. People are saying, “This is what I will stand for. And I will not stand for any less than this.” It’s amazing. We are growing up! We are growing up out of the idiocies—racism and sexism and ageism and all those ignorances.
MS: What do you think is the root cause of all the problems we have in the world today?
MA: Ignorance, of course, but mostly polarization. You see, it’s a long time arranging this sort of condition. And it will not be over in one term, or even two. But we are on the right road. If you have a person enslaved, the first thing you must do is to convince yourself that the person is subhuman and won’t mind the enslavement. The second thing you must do is convince your allies that the person is subhuman, so that you have some support. But the third and the unkindest cut of all is to convince that person that he or she is not quite a first-class citizen. When the complete job has been done, the initiator can go back years later and ask, “Why don’t you people like yourselves more?” You see? It’s been true for women, it’s been true for immigrants, it’s been true for Asians, it’s been true for Spanish-speaking people. So now we have to undo. We can learn to see each other and see ourselves in each other and recognize that human beings are more alike than we are unalike.
MS: There are still so many ways in which we divide ourselves—by religion, race, gender, sexuality, nationality. Are you hopeful that humanity will ever come to see itself as one family?
MA: Yes, but it will be a long time. But that’s all right; it’s a wonderful goal to be working toward.
MS: Do you feel like women around the world are awakening to a sense of their own power and a need in the world for their influence?
MA: Yes, I think so. We can see—from California to New York, from Maine to Florida, Seattle to New Mexico—everywhere there are women’s groups. Everywhere there are women who have gotten together to examine global warming and women who have gotten together to prepare each other for single parenting, women who have come together to be supportive—all sorts of gatherings of women. I mean, I look back fifty years ago and there was nothing like that, nothing.
MS: I know you have gone through some dark times in your life, but you have accomplished so much and are such a beacon of light and inspiration. Where do your own strength and courage come from?
MA: Well, I had a fabulous grandmother. And my mother. I have some sister friends. . . . They have influenced and strengthened my life. And when I want to think about what would be the right thing to do, the fair thing to do, the wise thing to do, I can just think of my grandmother. I can always hear her say, “Now, sister, you know what’s right. Just do right!”
MS: Do you have a spiritual philosophy or way of looking at life that guides you?
MA: Yes. All of us know not what is expedient, not what is going to make us popular, not what the policy is—but in truth each of us knows what is the right thing to do. And that’s how I am guided.
MS: What advice would you give to people who are going through something painful or are feeling frustrated or depressed? What would you say to give them hope?
MA: Well, I would say, “Look what you’ve already come through! Don’t deny it. You’ve already come through some things, which are very painful. If you’ve been alive until you’re thirty-five, you have gone through some pain. It cost you something. And you’ve come through it. So at least look at that. Have the sense to look at yourself and say, ‘Well, wait a minute. I’m stronger than I thought I was.’” So we need to not be in denial about what we’ve done, what we’ve come through. It will help us if we all do that.
Excerpt from What Will It Take to Make a Woman President? Conversations About Women, Leadership and Power, by Marianne Schnall. With permission from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2013.