Controversial yet respected Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie has shared a rather lengthy (9,000+ words) but insightful article providing 15 suggestions on how to raise a feminist.
It is our belief that the feminist movement is deeply fragmented, is often very confusing with its messaging and, at times, can appear to force a myopic definition of feminism on others. The Ladybrille woman is a free and independent thinker and is not limited to labels or trendy viewpoints of what feminism is or ought to be. Accordingly, our republishing of excerpts of her article does not necessarily mean we support all of Adichie’s viewpoints on feminism. We simply value and welcome diversity of opinions.
“DEAR IJEAWELE, OR A FEMINIST MANIFESTO IN FIFTEEN SUGGESTIONS”
By Chimamanda Adichie
What joy. And what lovely names: Chizalum Adaora. She is so beautiful. Only a day old and she already looks curious about the world. Your note made me cry. You know how I get foolishly emotional sometimes. Please know that I take your charge – how to raise her feminist – very seriously. And I understand what you mean by not always knowing what the feminist response to situations should be. For me, feminism is always contextual. I don’t have a set-in-stone rule; the closest I have to a formula are my two ‘Feminist Tools’ and I want to share them with you as a starting point.
The first is your premise, the solid unbending belief that you start off with. What is your premise? Your feminist premise should be: I matter. I matter equally. Not ‘if only.’ Not ‘as long as.’ I matter equally. Full stop.
The second tool is a question: can you reverse X and get the same results?
For example: many people believe that a woman’s feminist response to a husband’s infidelity should be to leave. But I think staying can also be a feminist choice, depending on the context. If Chudi sleeps with another woman and you forgive him, would the same be true if you slept with another man? If the answer is yes then your choosing to forgive him can be a feminist choice because it is not shaped by a gender inequality. Sadly, the reality in most marriages is that the answer to that question would often be no, and the reason would be gender-based – that absurd idea of ‘men will be men.’
I have some suggestions for how to raise Chizalum. But remember that you might do all the things I suggest, and she will still turn out to be different from what you hoped, because sometimes life just does its thing. What matters is that you try. And always trust your instincts, above all else, because you will be guided by your love for your child.
Here are my suggestions:
1. First Suggestion: Be a full person. Motherhood is a glorious gift, but do not define yourself solely by motherhood. Be a full person. Your child will benefit from that. The pioneering American journalist Marlene Sanders once said to a younger journalist, “Never apologize for working. You love what you do, and loving what you do is a great gift to give your child.”
You don’t even have to love your job; you can merely love what your job does for you – the confidence and self-fulfillment that come with doing and earning. Reject the idea of motherhood and work as mutually exclusive. Our mothers worked full time while we were growing up, and we turned out well – at least you did, the jury is still out on me.
It doesn’t surprise me that your sister-in-law says you should be a ‘traditional’ mother and stay home, that Chudi can afford not to have a ‘double income’ family.
People will selectively use ‘tradition’ to justify anything. Tell her that a double-income family is actually the true Igbo tradition because in pre-colonial times, mothers farmed and traded. And then please ignore her; there are more important things to think about.
In these coming weeks of early motherhood, be kind to yourself. Ask for help. Expect to be helped. There is no such thing as a Superwoman. Parenting is about practice – and love. (I do wish though that ‘parent’ had not been turned into a verb, which I think is the root of the middle-class phenomenon of ‘parenting’ as one endless, anxious journey of guilt).
Give yourself room to fail. A new mother does not necessarily know how to calm a crying baby. Don’t assume that you should know everything. Look things up on the Internet, read books, ask older parents, or just do trial and error. Let your focus be on remaining a full person. Take time for yourself. Nurture your own needs.
Please do not think of it as ‘doing it all.’ Our culture lauds the idea of women who are able to ‘do it all’ but does not question the premise of that praise. I have no interest in the debate about women ‘doing it all’ because it is a debate that assumes that care-giving and domestic work are exclusively female domains, an idea that I strongly reject. Domestic work and care-giving should be gender-neutral, and we should be asking not whether a woman can ‘do it all’ but how best to support parents in their dual duties at work and at home.
2. Second Suggestion: Do it together. Remember in primary school we learnt that a verb was a ‘doing’ word? Well, a father is as much a verb as a mother. Chudi should do everything that biology allows – which is everything but breastfeeding. Sometimes mothers, so conditioned to be all and do all, are complicit in diminishing the role of fathers. You might think that Chudi will not bathe her exactly as you’d like, that he might not wipe her bum as perfectly as you do. But so what? What is the worst that can happen? She won’t die at the hands of her father. So look away, arrest your perfectionism, still your socially-conditioned sense of duty. Share childcare equally. ‘Equally’ of course depends on you both. It does not have to mean a literal fifty-fifty or a day-by-day score-keeping but you’ll know when the child-care work is equally shared. You’ll know by your lack of resentment. Because when there is true equality, resentment does not exist.
And please reject the language of help. Chudi is not ‘helping’ you by caring for his child. He is doing what he should. When we say fathers are ‘helping,’ we are suggesting that childcare is a mother’s territory, into which fathers valiantly venture. It is not. Can you imagine how many more people today would be happier, more stable, better contributors to the world, if only their fathers had been actively present in their childhood? And never say that Chudi is ‘babysitting’ – people who babysit are people for whom the baby is not a primary responsibility.
Chudi does not deserve any special gratitude or praise, nor do you – you both made the choice to bring a child into the world, and the responsibility for that child belongs equally to you both. It would be different if you were a single mother, whether by circumstance or choice, because ‘doing it together’ would then not be an option. But you should not be a ‘single mother’ unless you are truly a single mother.
My friend Nwabu once told me that, because his wife left when his kids were young, he became ‘Mr. Mom,’ by which he meant that he did the daily care-giving. But he was not being a ‘Mr. Mom,’ he was simply being a dad.
3. Third Suggestion: Teach her that ‘gender roles’ is absolute nonsense. Do not ever tell her that she should do or not do something “because you are a girl.”
‘Because you are a girl’ is never a reason for anything. Ever.
I remember being told as a child to ‘bend down properly while sweeping, like a girl.’ Which meant that sweeping was about being female. I wish I had been told simply ‘bend down and sweep properly because you’ll clean the floor better.’ And I wish my brothers had been told the same thing.
There have been recent Nigerian social media debates about women and cooking, about how wives have to cook for husbands. It is funny, in the way that sad things are funny, that in 2016 we are still talking about cooking as some kind of ‘marriageability test’ for women.
The knowledge of cooking does not come pre-installed in a vagina. Cooking is learned. Cooking – domestic work in general – is a life skill that both men and women should ideally have. It is also a skill that can elude both men and women.
We also need to question the idea of marriage as a prize to women, because that is the basis of these absurd debates. If we stop conditioning women to see marriage as a prize, then we would have fewer debates about a wife needing to cook in order to earn that prize.
It is interesting to me how early the world starts to invent gender roles. Yesterday I went to a children’s shop to buy Chizalum an outfit. In the girls’ section were pale phenomena in washed-out shades of pink. I disliked them. The boys’ section had outfits in vibrant shades of blue. Because I think blue will be adorable against her brown skin – and photograph better – I bought one. At the check out counter, the cashier said mine was the perfect present for the new boy. I said it was for a baby girl. She looked horrified. “Blue for a girl?”
I cannot help but wonder about the clever marketing person who invented this pink-blue binary. There was also a ‘gender neutral’ section, with its array of bloodless grays. ‘Gender neutral’ is silly because it is premised on the idea of male being blue and female being pink and ‘gender neutral’ being its own category. Why not just have baby clothes organized by age and displayed in all colors? The bodies of male and female infants are similar, after all.
I looked at the toy section, also arranged by gender. Toys for boys are mostly active, and involve some sort of ‘doing’ – trains, cars – and toys for girls are mostly ‘passive’ and are overwhelmingly dolls. I was struck by how early our culture starts to form the ideas of what a boy should be and what a girl should be.
Did I ever tell you about going to a US mall with a seven-year-old Nigerian girl and her mother? She saw a toy helicopter, one of those things that fly by wireless remote control, and she was fascinated and asked for one. “No,” her mother said. “You have your dolls.” And she responded, “Mummy, is it only doll I will play with?”
I have never forgotten that. Her mother meant well, obviously. She was well-versed in the ideas of gender roles – that girls play with dolls and boys with cars. I wonder now, wistfully, if the little girl would have turned out to be a revolutionary engineer, had she been given a chance to explore that helicopter.
If we don’t place the straitjacket of gender roles on young children we give them space to reach their full potential. Please see Chizalum as an individual. Not as a girl who should be a certain way. See her weaknesses and her strengths in an individual way. Do not measure her on a scale of what a girl should be. Measure her on a scale of being the best version of herself.
A young woman once told me that she had for years behaved ‘like a boy’ – she liked football and was bored by dresses – until her mother forced her to stop her ‘boyish’ interests and she is now grateful to her mother for helping her start behaving like a girl. The story made me sad. I wondered what parts of herself she had needed to silence and stifle, and I wondered about what her spirit had lost, because what she called ‘behaving like a boy’ was simply that she was behaving like herself.
Another acquaintance once told me that when she took her one-year-old son to a baby play group, where babies had been brought by their mothers, she noticed that the mothers of baby girls were very restraining, constantly telling the girls ‘don’t touch’ or ‘stop and be nice,’ and she noticed that the baby boys were encouraged to explore more and were not restrained as much and were almost never told to ‘be nice.’ Her theory is that parents unconsciously start very early to teach girls how to be, that baby girls are given more rules and less room and baby boys more room and fewer rules.
Gender roles are so deeply conditioned in us that we will often follow them even when they chafe against our true desires, our needs, our wellbeing. They are very difficult to unlearn, and so it is important to try and make sure that Chizalum rejects them from the beginning. Instead of gender roles, teach her self-reliance. Tell her that it is important to be able to do for herself and fend for herself. Teach her to try and fix physical things when they break. We are quick to assume girls can’t do many things. Let her try. Buy her toys like blocks and trains – and dolls, too, if you want to.
4. Fourth Suggestion: Beware the danger of what I call Feminism Lite. It is the idea of conditional female equality. Reject this entirely. It is a hollow, appeasing, and bankrupt idea. Being a feminist is like being pregnant. You either are or you are not. You either believe in the full equality of women, or you do not.
Here are some examples of Feminism Lite:
A woman should be ambitious, but not too much. A woman can be successful but she should also do her domestic duties and cook for her husband. A woman should have her own but she should not forget her true role as home keeper. Of course a woman should have a job but the man is still head of the family.
Feminism Lite uses inane analogies like ‘he is the head and you are the neck.’ Or ‘he is driving but you are in the front seat.’ More troubling is the idea, in Feminism Lite, that men are naturally superior but should be expected to ‘treat women well.’ No. No. No. There must be more than male benevolence as the basis for a woman’s wellbeing.
Feminism Lite uses the language of ‘allowing.’ Theresa May is the British Prime Minister and here is how a progressive British newspaper described her husband: ‘Philip May is known in politics as a man who has taken a back seat and allowed his wife, Theresa, to shine.’
Now let us reverse it. Theresa May has allowed her husband to shine. Does it make sense? If Philip May were Prime Minister, perhaps we might hear that his wife has ‘supported’ him from the background, or that she is ‘behind’ him, but we would never hear that she had ‘allowed’ him to shine.
Allow is a troubling word. Allow is about power. Members of the society of Feminism Lite will often say, “Leave the woman alone to do what she wants as long as her husband allows.”
A husband is not a headmaster. A wife is not a schoolgirl. Permission and being allowed, when used one sided – and it is nearly only used that way – should never be the language of an equal marriage.
Another egregious example of Feminism Lite: men who say ‘Of course a wife does not always have to do the domestic work, I did domestic work when my wife travelled.’
Do you remember how we laughed and laughed at an atrociously-written piece about me some years ago? The writer – a man small in more ways than one – had accused me of being ‘angry,’ as though ‘being angry’ was something for which to be ashamed. Of course I am angry. I am angry about racism. I am angry about sexism. But I am angrier about sexism than I am about racism. Because I live among many people who easily acknowledge race injustice but not gender injustice.
I cannot tell you how often people I care about – men and women – have expected me to make a case for sexism, to ‘prove’ it, as it were, while never having the same expectation for racism (Obviously in the wider world, too many people are still expected to ‘prove’ racism, but not in my close circle). I cannot tell you how often people I care about have dismissed or diminished sexist situations.
Like Ikenga who once said ‘even though the general idea is that my father is in charge at our home, it’s my mother who is really in charge behind the scenes.’ He thought he was refuting sexism, but he was making my case. Why ‘behind the scenes?’ If a woman has power then why do we need to disguise that she has power?
But here is a sad truth – our world is full of men and women who do not like powerful women. We have been so conditioned to think of power as male, that a powerful woman is an aberration. And so she is policed. We ask of powerful women – is she humble? Does she smile? Is she grateful enough? Does she have a domestic side? We judge powerful women more harshly than we judge powerful men. And Feminism Lite enables this.
5. Fifth Suggestion: Teach Chizalum to read. Teach her to love books. The best way is by casual example. If she sees you reading, she will understand that reading is valuable. If she were not to go to school, and merely just read books, she would arguably become more knowledgeable than a conventionally educated child. Books will help her understand and question the world, help her express herself, and help her in whatever she wants to become – a chef, a scientist, a singer all benefit from the skills that reading brings. I do not mean school books. I mean books that have nothing to do with school, autobiographies and novels and histories. If all else fails, pay her to read. Reward her. I know of this incredible Nigerian woman who was raising her child in the US; her child did not take to reading so she decided to pay her 5 cents per page. An expensive endeavor, she later joked, but a worthy investment.
6. Sixth Suggestion: Teach her to question language. Language is the repository of our prejudices, our beliefs, our assumptions. But to teach her that, you will have to question your own language. A friend of mine says she will never call her daughter ‘Princess.’ People mean well when they say this, but ‘princess’ is loaded with assumptions, of her delicacy, of the prince who will come to save her, etc. This friend prefers ‘angel’ and ‘star.’
So decide for yourself the things you will not say to your child. Because what you say to your child matters. It teaches her what she should value. You know that Igbo joke, used to tease girls who are being childish – “What are you doing? Don’t you know you are old enough to find a husband?” I used to say that often. But now I choose not to. I say ‘you are old enough to find a job.’ Because I do not believe that marriage is something we should teach young girls to aspire to.
I no longer say ‘she had a child FOR him.’ I say ‘she had a child WITH him.’ And I bristle when I hear a man say ‘she is carrying my child.’ ‘Our child’ just sounds better, more accurate too.
Try not to use words like ‘misogyny’ and ‘patriarchy’ too often with Chizalum. We Feminists can sometimes be too jargony, and jargon can sometimes feel too abstract. Don’t just label something misogynistic, tell her why it is, and tell her what would make it not be.
Use examples. Teach her that if you criticize X in women but do not criticize X in men, then you do not have a problem with X, you have a problem with women. For X please insert inter alia: anger, loudness, stubbornness, coldness, ruthlessness.
Teach her to ask questions like: What are the things that women cannot do because they are women? Do these things have cultural prestige? If so why are only men allowed to do the things that have cultural prestige?
Use examples from the news. Two Nigerian senators quarrel publicly. The woman calls the man a bastard, and the man tells the woman that he will rape her. The man is sexist because he has not insulted her as an individual, but as a generic female and this is dehumanizing. He should have called her a bastard too. Or an asshole. Or so many other things that are not about her being a generic woman.
Remember that television commercial we watched in Lagos, where a man cooks and his wife claps for him? True progress is when she doesn’t clap for him but just reacts to the food itself – she can either praise the food or not praise the food, just as he can praise hers or not praise hers, but what is sexist is that she is praising the fact that he has undertaken the act of cooking, praise that implies that cooking is an inherently female act.
Remember the mechanic in Lagos who was described as a ‘lady mechanic?’ Teach Chizalum that the woman is a mechanic not a ‘lady mechanic.’
Point out to her how wrong it is that a man who hits your car, gets out and tells you to go and bring your husband because he can’t “deal with a woman”.
Instead of merely telling her, show her with examples that misogyny can be overt and misogyny can be subtle and that both are abhorrent.
Teach her to question men who can have empathy for women only if they see them as relational rather than as individual equal humans. Men who, when discussing rape, will always say something like ‘if it were my daughter or wife or sister.’ Yet such men do not need to imagine a male victim of crime ‘as a brother or son’ in order to feel empathy. Teach her, too, to question the idea of women as a special species. The American House Speaker Paul Ryan who was recently reacting to the Republican presidential nominee’s boast about assaulting women, said, “Women are to be championed and revered, not objectified.”
Tell Chizalum that women actually don’t need to be championed and revered; they just need to be treated as equal human beings. There is a patronizing undertone to the idea of women needing to be ‘championed and revered’ because they are women. It makes me think of chivalry, and the premise of chivalry is female weakness.
7. Seventh Suggestion: Never speak of marriage as an achievement. Find ways to make clear to her that marriage is not an achievement nor is it what she should aspire to. A marriage can be happy or unhappy but it is not an achievement.
We condition girls to aspire to marriage and we do not condition boys to aspire to marriage, and so there is already a terrible imbalance at the start. The girls will grow up to be women obsessed with marriage. The boys will grow up to be men who are not obsessed with marriage. The women marry those men. The relationship is automatically uneven because the institution matters more to one than the other. Is it any wonder that, in so many marriages, women sacrifice more, at a loss to themselves, because they have to constantly maintain an uneven exchange? (One consequence of this imbalance is the very shabby and very familiar phenomenon of two women publicly fighting over a man, while the man remains silent.)
Hillary Clinton will be the next president of the United States. On her Twitter account, the first descriptor is ‘Wife.’ The first descriptor on her husband Bill Clinton’s Twitter account is not ‘Husband.’ (Because of this, I have an unreasonable respect for the very few men who use ‘husband’ as their first descriptor)
My sense is that this is not a reflection on Hillary Clinton personally but on the world in which we live, a world that still largely values a woman’s marital and maternal roles more than anything else.
After she married Bill Clinton in 1975, Hillary Clinton kept her name, Hillary Rodham. Eventually she began to add his name ‘Clinton’ to hers and then after a while she dropped ‘Rodham’ because of political pressure – because her husband would lose voters who were offended that his wife had kept her name. American voters apparently place retrograde marital expectations on women.
Do you remember all the noise that was made after a newspaper journalist decided to give me a new name and call ‘Mrs. Husband’s Surname’ and I promptly told him never to do that again?
I remember how some members of the Society of Ill-Willed Nigerian Commenters insisted on calling me Mrs. Husband’s Name even after I had made clear that it was not my name. Many more women than men did this, by the way. And there was a smoldering hostility from women in particular. I wondered about that, and thought that perhaps for many of them, my choice represented a challenge to their largely-unquestioned idea of what is the norm. Even some friends made statements like ‘you are successful and so it is okay to keep your name.’
Which made me wonder – why does a woman have to be successful at work in order to justify keeping her name?
The truth is that I have not kept my name because I am successful. Had I not had the good fortune to be published and widely-read, I would still have kept my name. I have kept my name because it is my name. I have kept my name because I like my name.
There are people who say – well your name is also about patriarchy because it is your father’s name. Indeed. But the point is simply this: whether it came from my father or from the moon, it is the name that I have had since I was born, the name with which I travelled my life’s milestones, the name I have answered to since that first day I went to kindergarten on a hazy morning and my teacher said ‘answer ‘present’ if you hear your name. Number one: Adichie!’
I like it and will not change it. More importantly, every woman should have that choice. How many men do you think would be willing to change their name on getting married?
As for titles, I dislike the title of ‘Mrs.’ because I think Nigerian society gives it too much value – I have observed too many cases of men and women who loudly and proudly speak of the title of Mrs. as though those who are not Mrs have somehow failed at something. Mrs can be a choice, but to infuse it with so much value as our culture does is disturbing. The value we give to Mrs. means that marriage changes the social status of a woman but not of a man. (Is that perhaps why many women complain of married men still ‘acting’ as though they were single? Perhaps if our society asked married men to change their names and take on a new title, different from MR, their behavior might change as well? Ha!) But more seriously, if you, a 28-year-old Masters degree holder, go overnight from Ijeawele Ude to Mrs. Ijeawele Onyekailodibe, surely it requires not just the mental energy of changing passports and licenses but also a psychic change, a new ‘becoming?’ This new ‘becoming’ would not matter so much if men, too, had to undergo it.
Still on titles, I like Ms because it is similar to Mr. A man is Mr whether married or not, a woman is Ms whether married or not. So please teach Chizalum that in a truly just society, women should not be expected to make marriage-based changes that men are not expected to make. Here’s a nifty solution – each couple that marries should take on an entirely new surname, chosen however they want to as long as both agree to it, so that a day after the wedding, both husband and wife can hold hands and joyfully journey off to the municipal offices to change their passports, drivers licenses, signatures, initials, bank accounts, etc.
Read the full story on Chimamanda Adichie’s Facebook page.
Photocredit: Chimamanda Adichie Facebook fan page.