Maya Angelou – Renaissance Woman

           A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song. [Maya Angelou] 

Maya Angelou was the first African-American woman to. . .

–work as a cable car conductor in San Francisco

–have a nonfiction best-seller; her memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings set a record at The New York Times, remaining on the best-seller list for two years.

–have her screenplay produced; Georgia, Georgia was nominated for a Pulitzer.

–direct a major motion picture, Down in the Delta

Screen Shot 2014-04-07 at 3.21.47 PMThe most common description of Maya Angelou is “Renaissance woman.” Often this term is misused, meaning a person who has broad interests. The correct usage is for a person who has extended knowledge or proficiency in a number of fields, and Maya Angelou could be a poster child for the word. One need only consider the professions, endeavors, and awards of her life to see how well she fits the definition.

Her Professions when Young: Cable car conductor, waitress, cook, night-club dancer and performer, professional dancer with Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey

Her Experience as a Civil Rights Worker: helped Malcolm X build Organization of African American Union and, at Dr. Martin Luther King’s invitation, was Northern Coordinator for the Southern Leadership Conference

Her Artistic Endeavors: Off-Broadway actress, musician (wrote score for her film Georgia, Georgia), actress in television and movies, feature film director, producer of plays, movies and public television programs

Her Literary Accomplishments: editor of English language weekly (in Ghana), feature editor, The African Review, non-fiction author (seven autobiographies, three books of essays), creative writer (plays, movies, television shows), Poet

Her Role of Educator: Teacher, University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama, Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University

Her Honors and awards include over 50 honorary degrees, the Presidential Medal of Arts, the Lincoln Medal, a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her book of poetry Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Die, two Tony Award nominations, for her role in the play Look Away and another for her role in the play Roots. She received three Grammy awards for spoken word and read her poem “On the Pulse of the Morning” at the inauguration of President Clinton

The word “renaissance” means re-birth and Dr. Angelou has been re-born throughout her life. In turn, she has used her work to inspire others so that we also might be re-born through the magic of her lyricism and the import of her message.


Read the biography on her official website:

Read the poem “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings:”

Locate her books:; her films:; and some of her photographs and media work:

Mary Barra – CEO of General Motors

          “I guess you could say she broke through the steel ceiling, not the glass ceiling.” [Hillary Clinton]

Screen Shot 2014-02-02 at 1.59.19 PMMary Barra is the daughter of an autoworker. She is also the CEO of General Motors, the first woman to head a global automaker. In 2013, Fortune magazine named her one of the “50 Most Powerful Women in Business” and Forbes magazine listed her in the “World’s 100 Most Powerful Women.”

Her career began as a co-op student when she was 18, with General Motors, the same company that employed her father for 39 years as a die maker. Given the chance to attend the General Motors Institute (now re-named Kettering University), Mary Barra pursued and earned a degree in electrical engineering. General Motors later assisted her when she earned an MBA from Stanford University.

She moved up through the ranks of General Motors and, when the federal government bailed out General Motors, they approved her to run the company’s human resource division. After that position, she was promoted to Senior Vice President, second in the hierarchy at GM. Her duties included engineering, design and quality control. Much has been made of her gender, but she assures others that “my gender doesn’t really factor into my thinking when I come into the room.”

As head of the world’s second-largest automaker (after Toyota), Mary Barra brings a different style of leadership to the company. She relies on team-building and consensus, but can also make the tough decisions. One colleague said, “She’s an outstanding listener. . but when it’s not coming together, she gets concise and she’s pretty decisive.” Although one of her goals is to have 500,000 General Motors vehicles with at least some electrification by 2017, her favorite cars are the Chevrolet Camaro and the Pontiac Firebird.

Mary Barra was invited to join Michelle Obama at the State of the Union address this past week. After the speech, in which the President mentioned her (although not by name), the die maker’s daughter  said “. . .it was touching for me because it referenced my father who I’m so proud of.”


Read her biography on the General Motors website:

Read comments about Barra’s inclusion in State of the Union address in the Detriot Free Press:


          Which other women do you know who achieved something through perseverance and loyalty?

Sharon Pratt – Mayor of Washington, D.C.

SHARON PRATT          “Divisiveness has no place in our politics. . .spitefulness and hatred only erode that which is truly magnificent about our country.” [Sharon Pratt Dixon Kelly]

Sharon Pratt, like many First Women, holds several firsts:

–The First Woman To be hired as a Vice President at Potomac Electric Power Company–

–The First Woman To be selected as Treasurer of the Democratic National Committee

–The First Woman To be elected as Mayor of Washington, D.C.

–The First African American Woman To be elected Mayor of a Major American City

Sharon Pratt’s biography reflects some consistent patterns in the lives of women born in mid twentieth-century who rose to prominence. The first, and more mundane, issue is her name. Currently she manages a consulting firm she founded, Pratt Consulting, and uses her maiden name Sharon Pratt. When she ran for mayor of Washington, D.C., she carried her husband’s name, Sharon Pratt Dixon. Shortly after her election, however, she married a second time and became Sharon Pratt Kelly. Knowing how to report her name as mayor presented a bit of a conundrum to me and I am certain many of us who changed our names will present future problems for historians and genealogists.

The second commonality with other women that we witness in her life is the issues on which she chose to focus. As a lawyer, executive and politician, her focus, like many women of that era, was on issues more often considered “women’s issues.”

Her first job was as a lawyer in her father’s firm, Pratt and Dixon. Although she had wanted to be an actress, her father, a Superior Court Judge, persuaded her to attend Howard where she majored in political science and then attended law school. In her practice she supported the rights of children in the middle of custodial battles, provided juveniles with representation and practiced family rights law, a new area of the law at that time.

After a stint as a law professor, she was hired by the Potomac Electric Power Company (PEPCO) and became their Vice President for Public Policy, not only the first woman, but also the first African American, to serve as vice president for the utility. During her tenure, she created programs focused on low-income residents and senior citizens in Washington, D.C.

She was also active in politics, serving first as committee representative to the Democratic Party from Washington, D.C. and then from the country’s Eastern region. She was the first woman to serve as Treasurer of the party.

When she ran for Mayor of Washington, D.C., it was after the implosion of Marion Barry, arrested on charges involving cocaine use. She wore a pin shaped like a shovel and promised to “clean house with a shovel, not a broom.” She vowed to overhaul city government and took a slogan that feels familiar today, “Yes We Will.” She won with 86% of the vote.

Her efforts to overhaul government and remove corruption were largely unsuccessful, but during her tenure, infant mortality was reduced, services for families increased and emergency ambulance service improved. An initiative to increase black and Hispanic business ownership was also a focus of her efforts. During her one-term tenure she led an initiative to increase black and Hispanic business ownership. She also petitioned Congress for statehood status for Washington, D.C., a fight continued today by Eleanor Holmes Norton (see my blog of August 26, 2013).

Sharon Pratt Kelly was voted out of office when Marion Barry resurrected himself, after serving prison time, and was re-elected by Washington, D.C. citizens. Although Sharon Pratt believed that divisiveness does not belong in politics, it was divisiveness that eventually led to her defeat as Mayor and to her retirement from politics. In today’s political environment her words would be well taken to heart.


Jessie Carnie Smith, Epic Lives: One Hundred Black Women Who Made a Difference (Detroit, Michigan: Visible Ink Press, 1993)

See more at: 1944#sthash.2eU1HiXS.dpuf


Do women today still focus on “women’s issues” or are they free to work on issues that were previously dominated by men?

Fall 2013’s First Women To. . .

THE MUSESI received the lovely grace of being able to spend the fall in Southern Europe. I enjoyed the quality of life and the freedom from the usual daily responsibilities, but I missed out on being in touch with the news from the United States. When I returned to a pile of magazines and newspapers that I had not read, I began to plow through them and discovered that there had been several firsts for women of which I had been unaware:

**In September, Nancy Gibbs, a best-selling author and essayist who comments on politics and values in the United States, became the first woman to hold the position of Managing Editor at Time magazine.

** Mylène Paquette of Montreal was the first women to row a one-person boat across the North Atlantic. Literally, this one doesn’t fit my listing of first women from the United States, but Time magazine said she was the “first North American woman to” and that certainly makes her American:

**Janet Napolitano has already appeared in the daily Women of Note twice: on November 6th, as the first woman governor to succeed another woman governor and on November 29th, her birthday, as the first Secretary of Homeland Security. Now she has another distinction: the first woman to head the University of California’s 10-campus system.

**Susan Westerberg Prager is the first dean and chief executive of Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles. Earlier in her career she was the first woman to hold the position of dean of the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law.

**Three women share the “First Woman To. . .” honors for being the first to pass the Marine Corps’ combat training course: Pfcs Julia Carroll, Christina Fuentes Montenegro and Katie Gorz.

***And now, Mary Barra has been named the first female CEO of General Motors. She is the first CEO of any major auto company and General Motors is now the biggest company in America headed by a woman.

***Janet Yellen still waits in the wings for Senate confirmation of her appointment to chief of the Federal Reserve. The word is her appointment will be approved before the end of the year. At that time she joins Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, as one of the two most powerful economic leaders in the free world.

If you know of any more firsts from the fall of 2013, please add them here, by clicking on the comments section.

First Woman to Head a Central Bank?

Janet Yellen, Federal Reserve Vice Chair, was selected by President Obama to lead the U.S. central bank. Her priorities are to strengthen the economic recovery and boost employment. If approved by the Senate, she will become the first woman to head a central bank in any of the Group of Seven industrial nations.