“Woman Me” is a short poem consisting of three stanzas and twenty-two lines; it is written in free verse. The title is significant in that there is an absence of punctuation between the noun and the pronoun. That the words “woman” and “me” are not separated by a comma indicates that the poet wishes to underscore the fact that her gender is inseparable from her identity as woman. In addition, the poet identifies herself with the female gender as a whole; she is everywoman.
In the first verse, the unidentified speaker of the poem addresses one woman, although the woman addressed represents all women. Cataloging the physical geography of woman/women in history, the speaker begins with a description of her smile. In this feature is discerned a “delicate/ rumor of peace.” Unlike the passive smile of the stereotypical woman as portrayed in American literature written by males, however, the smile of the woman in Maya Angelou’s poem represents anything but passivity. Instead, it is an external reflection of a peace found within. Yet in the next line, paradoxically, this peace is mingled with “deafening revolutions” that also lie within. The images of male power and authority that follow, “Beggar-Kings and red-ringed priests,” depict men who are powerful in themselves but who also seek woman’s power—specifically, woman’s sexual power. Woman is portrayed as being in the “grasp of Lions,” yet these lions rest in her “lap of Lambs.”
In the second stanza, the woman’s tears are compared to jewels in a crown. These tears, which caused “Pharaohs to ride/ deep in the bosom of the/ Nile,” most likely allude to those of the powerful queen of Egypt, Cleopatra. Woman is represented as a force so monolithic and intense that doors must be bolted shut in order to keep the “winds of death” from taking her.
Woman’s laughter, her joy, rings out in the final stanza. Like her tears in the previous stanza, her laughter is so strong and deafening that it overpowers even “the bells of ruined cathedrals.” Woman is portrayed as a being who is capable of strong yet contrary emotions. She contains multitudes. In the final image of the poem, children look to the woman for strength and guidance. She provides the model, the “chart” by which they learn “to live their lives.”
Images of power abound in “Woman Me.” The images cluster around traditional male power figures and female representations of power. These powers are not pitted against one another in the poem but coexist with some degree of harmony because of woman’s wisdom.
The powerful male authority figures of the day, the “Beggar-Kings,” “red-ringed Priests” as well as the Pharaohs, are all embroiled in political struggles or revolutions. In the poem, the kings and priests are represented in the violent image of the lion, the king of the jungle. The woman is represented as the lamb in whose lap the lion rests. Yet it is not the females in the poem who seek shelter from these seemingly powerful males, but the males who seek comfort and solace in women. More than in the revolutions they fight, these men seek “glory” by “conquering” a woman sexually. This kind of victory, a sexual one, is more potent than any military victory for these men. In the poem, all traditional symbols of power—both political and religious—are overturned. The poem represents women as the true sources of power.
The power of woman is not manifested only in her ability to comfort kings. She also has the power to mold the lives of children. The image of traditional male power in the final stanza of the poem is the church. The power of the mother to guide the lives of those around her, however, is portrayed as being stronger than the power of the church to guide its flock. The cathedrals depicted in this last stanza are “ruined,” powerless. It is woman to whom the children must look to lead the way.