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.