Maya Angelou

by Jennifer Niemela

Wearing a vibrant yellow suit that fairly glowed in the dim hall, Maya Angelou hypnotized more than 2,400 luncheon-goers Friday afternoon at the Minneapolis Convention Center.
Espousing a message of economic independence and self-determination for women, the Grammy Award-winning poet was the keynote speaker for the third annual WomenVenture Conference.
WomenVenture, a nonprofit corporation specializing in helping women become economically self-sufficient, spearheaded the day-long conference.
Reciting “On the Pulse of the Morning,” an original poem, at President Clinton’s 1993 inauguration catapulted Angelou into the national limelight.
“It is my pleasure to encourage you as adventurers and women daredevils — dare-angels — to try anything,” Angelou said to the predominantly female audience. “I don’t think you get too old, I don’t think you get too fat, I don’t think you get too plain. Women, it is your world.”
Angelou, who alternated between being a cook, waitress and madam during the 1940s in California, typifies the corporation’s mission because she has become successful against the odds, said WomenVenture president Pat Gudmestad, who stressed the importance of economic independence for women in the face of changing welfare policy.
In the beginning of 1998, the Minnesota Legislature implemented a welfare-to-work policy requiring some welfare recipients to get a job or risk losing their welfare benefits.
Jessica Morgan, coordinator of the Minnesota Women’s Center, said the policy change concerns “re-entry” women who are trying to go back to college later in life. The Women’s Center is a University office that helps women stay in college.
“It’s a whole population of people being categorically excluded from being here,” Morgan said of women who are forced to work rather than attend college because of the policy changes. She added that on scholarship applications re-entry women are citing fears of losing their welfare benefits as a reason for applying for the scholarship.
“We’ve never gotten that before,” she said. “Before, they were on it or they weren’t on it.”
However, while WomenVenture’s mission is helping low-income women achieve economic self-reliance, Friday’s conference — at $135 per person — was targeted toward women who are already in leadership positions. In her speech, Gudmestad encouraged women to patronize female-owned businesses and pay attention to how changes in welfare policies affect women.
“Take a chance and hire a woman with limited experience and train her for success,” she implored. “Women are anxious to learn from you.”
Although the theme of the conference was serious, Angelou lightly poked fun at the idea of women being economically dependent on men. In a part of her dialogue that received the most laughter from the audience, she recited a poem by her contemporary Mary Evans:
Where have you gone?
Why did you leave me?
Where have you gone with your confident walk
And your crooked smile?
Are you aware that when you left,
With you went the sun, the moon and what few stars there are?
Where have you gone with your confident
And your crooked smile,
With my heart in one pocket,
And the rent money in the other.