Poems for Historical Female Figures
March is Women’s History Month, which means we can look forward to 31 days of celebrating the vital role of women in American history, culture, and society. And what better way is there to celebrate their contributions than through poetry? To highlight some of the most prolific female figures in American history—not just this month, but all year long—we’ve selected five poems that celebrate historical women.
“An Issue of Mercy #1” by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
Phillis Wheatley changed the world when she published her first book of poetry in 1773. Today, award-winning writer Honorée Fanonne Jeffers invites us to reexamine her past in her latest poetry collection, The Age of Phillis. “An Issue of Mercy #1,” which appears on page three of the collection, considers how the words mercy and journey reframe—and falsely soften—Phillis Wheatley’s traumatic experience of being sold into slavery.
“Harriet Tubman” by Eloise Greenfield
A prolific children’s author and poet, Eloise Greenfield is known for conveying the African American experience in her work. Her debut poetry collection, Honey, I Love and Other Poems (1978) won the Recognition of Merit Award from the George G. Stone Center for Children’s Books. The poem “Harriet Tubman” from this collection briefly and rhythmically tells of the strength and bravery Harriet Tubman had to free herself and her brothers and sisters.
“Rosa Parks” by Nikki Giovanni
While the poems on this list are about historical women, we must acknowledge that the authors of these poems are history-making women themselves. Nikki Giovanni is no exception. In her 2010 poetry collection Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea, Giovanni writes a tribute to Rosa Parks and the Pullman Porters who played central roles in the Civil Rights Movement. But this powerful poem is more than a tribute to those key figures; it’s also a tribute to the many compounding moments that built the movement.
“For Marsha P. Johnson” by Edwin Bodney
A central figure in the Stonewall Riots, Marsha P. Johnson was an African American transgender woman and LGBTQ rights activist. In addition to spearheading the Stonewall Riots, she co-founded the Street Transvestite (now Transgender) Action Revolutionaries (STAR) group, which is dedicated to helping homeless transgender youth in New York City. Spoken word poet Edwin Bodney dedicates the poem “For Marsha P. Johnson” to her, with references to the year of the riot, the bricks thrown, and the violence inflicted upon Johnson and many others in the trans community.
“Quality: Gwendolyn Brooks at 73” by Haki R. Madhubuti
Poet Haki R. Madhubuti is known as a key figure in the Black Arts Movement, and his appreciation for the first Black Pulitzer Prize winner, Gwendolyn Brooks, is well documented. He’s written multiple poems in her honor, including “Gwendolyn Brooks,” “Gwendolyn Brooks: America in the Wintertime,” and “Quality: Gwendolyn Brooks at 73.” The latter poem pays homage to the beauty of her work and her influence in the black community and across the country. He writes, “how do we celebrate a poet who has created / music with words for over fifty years, who has / showered magic on her people, who has redefined / poetry into a black world exactness / thereby giving the universe an insight into / darkroads?” Brooks’s impact on the poetry community has stood the test of time, without a doubt.