I was in a custom framing shop running errands for work when I saw a push message on my phone from my New York Times app, informing me of Maya Angelou’s death today. I was in the middle of discussing pricing with the young woman behind the counter, who looked to be about my age, when I stopped short and said, “Holy shit, Maya Angelou died.” She just looked at me, and I swear we both nearly started crying.
Maya Angelou’s death hit me very hard, and by the looks of my Facebook and Twitter feeds I wasn’t alone in that. So many of my friends of all genders posted condolences and shared links to powerful stories about the great woman, but it was my female friends who overwhelmingly shared how Angelou’s words SAVED them. I had one friend who talked about how Angelou’s poems helped her battle self-doubt and depression. Several talked about how her words pushed them to finish high school and live better lives. And another talked about how Maya Angelou’s words stopped her from killing herself. They SAVED her.
For me, Angelou was a reminder that hope is never dead and that there is always something to fight for. She taught me, and I think a lot of girls, what it means to be a strong woman. Two things happened when I first heard of her passing. The first was extreme sadness. In a way, I felt like all hope and all strength had died with her. The next was a moment of self-reflection where I thought about how I internalized her words and messages, and how they wouldn’t die with her because they had a place in me. Then I thought about how I could best embody those ideas she spread. A very similar thing happened to me when Nora Ephron died two years ago.
So what I started thinking about was what happens when great women die? Being a great woman on a scale as grand as Angelou’s is hard work. It’s hard enough just being a woman with so many things stacked against us. It’s hard to do even the simplest tasks, like go for a fucking jog. But that is why we need great women so badly, and when we lose one I get a little scared. Who will take her place? Honestly, it should be you and me.
We don’t all need to be Angelou or Susan B. Anthony or Marie Curie, but we can always strive to be strong and kind and great. We can keep our standards high, work hard, and always improve ourselves and the world we live in. The bottom line is, we should all strive to be worthy to take their place, because the world needs more great women on every level. Sometimes I get nervous that my generation isn’t working hard enough, or that we’re too scared to be great, but I’m proven wrong every day by my friends. There are so many women fighting hard for greatness as creatives and intellectuals and doctors and scientists and lawyers and mothers and politicians and feminists. But I know more of us can join them. We need to take what our lives have given us and push it harder and harder. The world is full of areas that need great and important women. Illiteracy, starvation, poverty, war, environmental causes…it goes on.
Greatness, to me, doesn’t need to mean success in your given field. It can mean strong character or devotion to your family. It can mean that you rabidly volunteer for a cause you care about, or are working toward self-love, or are infectiously passionate, or decided to become a Foster Parent. We as women need to cultivate this. We need to respect each other, and sit and talk and help each other. We need to tell our daughters and nieces about the broad definition of greatness and what is truly important in life. We need to give them Angelou’s work, and Harper Lee’s work, and Beyoncé’s work, and Gloria Steinem’s work, and Stevie Nicks’ work, and teach them about the women who advanced science and space exploration and mathematics and physics. And we need to just be great Moms (if motherhood is your path). I was lucky enough to have a Mother who showed me and my siblings every day what female greatness was. She showed everyone.
I’ve been thinking of this a lot lately, because I’m going through one of those re-evaluations of my life as I work through my quarter-life crisis. I realized that most of my life has been lived selfishly and cautiously. I worry all the time about how to be successful, but recently I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t like my definition of “successful” anymore. It didn’t include helping others. So I threw it out and am currently going down a different path that emphasizes “greatness”. While I know I will never be as important or visible as Maya Angelou, I also know that there are ways that I can make another person’s life better while enriching my own, and I’m going to work really hard to do that.
Take a long time to remember Maya Angelou. Read everything you can of hers, and take it to heart. Cry a little, and think about who you are and who you want to be and how you want to contribute to the world. Think about how you can help fill the gap that she is leaving behind. When great women die, we need to be ready to step into their shoes in any way we can. You should work to be a great woman and help other women be great. We can’t hind behind Mom’s leg anymore.