The poem Phenomenal Woman is written by civil rights activist and poet Maya Angelou (an African-American). The poem is one of the four poems in her collection Phenomenal Woman: Four Poems Celebrating Women.
The poem has been divided into four stanzas. Phenomenal Woman is a free verse poem (has no rhyme scheme). In the poem, the poet challenges the traditional concept of beauty and tells the readers how beautiful she is and she is quite proud of it.
Phenomenal Woman Meaning
The word Phenomenal means remarkable or exceptional, especially exceptionally good. Thus phenomenal woman means an extraordinary or stunning woman. Traditionally a woman is considered phenomenal only when she has fair skin and attractive figure.
The poet, who has not fair skin and the elements of beauty rejects the traditional concept of beauty. Instead, she provides a number of arguments to prove that she is a Phenomenal Woman without such elements. This is why each stanza ends with the phrase:
I am a woman
In the first stanza, the poet says Pretty women wonder. The pretty woman refers to the woman of fair skin (probably the Whites). According to the poet, the beautiful women keep wondering how the poet in spite of being not cute or build to suit a fashion model’s size, is attractive and appreciated by the people.
When she reveals her secret, they (pretty women) do not believe her because for them fairer skin is the only thing that makes a woman beautiful. For them, the reason for her beauty is quite different
The poet tells them that the secret of her beauty is her womanhood. Her way of stretching her arms, walking with long and decisive steps, stretched hips and curved lips i.e. her way of smiling are the secrets that tend to make her beautiful and attractive.
In simple words, it is the womanly body and traits which make her beautiful. This is why is she a phenomenally, phenomenal woman i.e. quite beautiful and extraordinary woman.
In stanza 2, the poet says that whenever she walks into the room (in the way described above) though in an ordinary way, the men around either stand up or bend down to their knees and start staring at her. They flock around her like a hive of honey bees (that surround the queen bee) and she becomes the cynosure of their eyes.
According to the poet, it is the fire i.e. passion in her eyes, her beautiful smiling teeth (flash of my teeth), her swinging (moving to and fro) waist and the joy in her feet (probably the way she dances) that make her attractive and thus a phenomenally, phenomenal woman.
In the 3rd stanza, the poet says that the men, like the pretty women, too wonder what is so beautiful in her and make her charming which they cannot see. They try a lot to find that secret but fail to do so as they cannot touch her inner mystery.
Here the inner mystery is something which for the poet is the secret of her beauty. Inner mystery probably refers to the inner beauty which is common to all the women and it makes any woman beautiful and charming irrespective of the color of her skin.
When the men become more curious to know the secret of her beauty, the poet tells them that it is her curved back, her shining and glorious smile, the rhyming motion (ride) of her breasts and the elegance of her style which make her phenomenally, phenomenal woman.
In the final stanza, the poet concludes that now the pretty women would have understood why her head’s not bowed i.e. she walks with full confidence. She doesn’t need to make noise or jump around or talk loud in order to make her presence felt before the men.
Whenever she would pass the pretty women, it will really make them feel proud of her because of the sound of her heels, the style of her hair, the palm of her hand and their desire to care for her (a man desires to be caring for a woman).
Thus all these qualities make her phenomenally, phenomenal woman. This is the secret of her beauty, her confidence, and her attractive figure though she lacks fair skin.
The poem thus challenges the traditional concept of beauty which is totally dependent on the fairness of skin. The poet presents ample qualities that make her a more attractive, beautiful and desired woman.
The poem can also be considered an attack on the Whites who consider themselves superior and discriminate against the people on the basis of their color.