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photo courtesy of Julia Noni / Trunk Archive

On Raising a Feminist

“I have no interest in the debate about women ‘doing it all,’” writes author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions. “Because it is a debate that assumes that caregiving and domestic work are singularly female domains, an idea that I strongly reject.”

Constructed as a letter to a childhood friend, the book is a collection of Adichie’s observations on gender, her advice on how to raise a child to be a feminist, and her ideas for evolving the conversation. Adichie’s suggestions are both specific: “Never speak of marriage as an achievement” and overarching: “Teach her that if you criticise X in women but do not criticise X in men, you do not have a problem with X, you have a problem with women. For X please insert words like anger, ambition, loudness, stubbornness, coldness, ruthlessness.”

But that is certainly not to suggest that Adichie, the bestselling author of We Should All be Feminists (based on her popular Ted talk), Americanah, and Half of a Yellow Sun (which won the Orange Prize), is maligning the feminine archetype. In fact, much has been written about Adichie’s love of fashion and her clothing and makeup collaborations (also see her Instagram, which documents her affair with Nigerian fashion). And it’s disheartening that in 2018, multiplicity in women is considered news (something we mulled over at this edition of #goopbookclub). Which is why we can’t read or listen to Adichie without being inspired by a coming shift in how we value both the feminine and the masculine—for the benefit of boys and girls and all of us.

A Q&A with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Q

People are still pigeonholed for being feminine or showing an interest in the feminine. What do you make of the compulsion and how do you navigate this?

A

The inimitable Michelle Obama, in an interview with Oprah, said, “I like me.” I cheered and cheered. I wanted to show it to every young woman. The words “I like me” can be almost radical coming from a woman, while most men are socialized to so take this idea for granted that the need to verbalize it does not occur to them.

There is something about the idea of a confident woman, a woman who likes herself, that causes both men and women to erupt in flaming, irritable, enveloping misogyny. There are mixed messages to young girls today: On the one hand, they are raised according to the gospel of positive self-esteem; and on the other hand, they receive societal messages telling them that to be likeable, they must reduce themselves, disavow their success and their ambition.

I like me, too. This doesn’t mean that I don’t have moments of doubt, which I think every human being should have, but it means that I matter equally and consider myself worthy of the space I occupy in the world.

I know that I don’t necessarily like what everyone else likes, but that is who I am. And I find comfort in reading about women who live or lived their lives in ways I admire—women like Ama Ata Aidoo, like Rebecca West, like Florynce Kennedy.

“There is something about the idea of a confident woman, a woman who likes herself, that causes both men and women to erupt in flaming, irritable, enveloping misogyny.”

And so I don’t think of “femininity” as a separate thing and I also don’t see it as somehow separate from being true to myself. I like the things I like and I dislike the things I dislike and some of the things I like happen to be what the world labels “femininity.”

Being pigeonholed is really something one doesn’t have full control over. I still bristle when I see that there are people who cannot see me beyond the “feminist” box or the “African” box. But there are also people who are not as limited in their thinking. I do hope that it will be easier for women coming after me, who also insist on being their many-sided selves.

When I was younger and starting out as a writer, I made the conscious decision to be false because I wanted to be taken seriously. I didn’t wear what I wanted to wear; I wore what I believed a serious writer should wear. But that has changed. One of the lovely things about becoming older (I’m forty now) is that you wake up one day and look in your bag of “fucks to give” and realize it’s empty. Being yourself becomes easier and more rewarding and more comfortable. And your skin begins to feel fully like your own.

Q

Why do you think there’s still so much discomfort around women being multifaceted?

A

Because we live in a world that accords more respect to boys and men than it does to women and girls. To be complex and multifaceted is to be fully human, and it is more difficult to dehumanize a multifaceted person, and so for the project of misogyny to thrive, women have to be seen as flat characters, as simpler, lesser beings who can be one thing or another but not one thing AND another.

Q

We agree with your callout: It’s so important to show girls that they don’t need to be liked—but it can be difficult to keep that message from becoming ingrained. How can we undo this kind of thinking?

A

All humans like to be liked, because it appeals to our primal sense of self-preservation. However, it is girls who are raised to believe they NEED to be liked. Men like to be liked but they have not been socialized to change themselves in order to be liked by people they hardly even know. So I think it might be helpful to emphasize to girls that when you twist yourself into alien shapes in order to be liked, the people for whom you are performing don’t actually like you, they just like a twisted form that isn’t really you, and that is both tenuous and sad.

“Men like to be liked but they have not been socialized to change themselves in order to be liked by people they hardly even know.”

We live in a world that does not value women as much as it values men and so obviously we all internalize these dangerous ideas because we are socialized to do so. I think of it as a long process of unlearning. We need to reiterate the message to girls. We need to use examples that are easy to understand. Above all else, we need to frame it as the positive that it is: It is about living a full and authentic life, about being who you truly are. Brad Pitt said in an interview with GQ, when asked about the public’s opinion of him, that the people who know you know who you really are. I found that to be true and lovely. It is so much better to be truly known by a few than to pretend to be what you’re not in order to be liked by the many.

Q

It seems like a lot more space is given to what women shouldn’t say/do—i.e. censoring our language to say “sorry” less, not being the first one to volunteer to take notes at the office meeting. Do you think there is merit in considering how men might speak/act in ways that have traditionally been considered more feminine?

A

I’ve always believed that we need to borrow a bit from the “How We Raise Girls” book and apply it to boys, and borrow a bit from the “How We Raise Boys” book and apply it to girls. Boys would benefit more from being more vulnerable, more attuned to others. There are obviously women who do not have these qualities and men who do, and so these things can be learned. In the nature vs. nurture debate, we can’t control nature and so I prefer to focus on what we can control. That said, I do think that more space SHOULD be given to what women shouldn’t do or say because to be raised a girl is to internalize so much that is harmful to you.

Q

How would you have written Dear Ijeawele if it was about raising a feminist boy? What messages we should be sharing with our boys?

A

The most important thing I think is for all caregivers of little boys to deliberately set about on a project of re-making masculinity. What does masculinity mean? Right now it is a tiny terrible cage in which boys and men are trapped by socialization. Caregivers should raise boys from very early on to embrace vulnerability. Teach them that vulnerability is human and normal. Let them cry. Give them the language to talk about emotions. Expect them to have domestic skills—to do their laundry, to clean up after themselves. Teach them about the full autonomy of women—that it is not their job to expect to be cared for by women, that they do not own women’s bodies, and that it is also not their job to protect women because they are women. (Protecting people is a good thing but we should teach boys to protect anyone that needs protecting, regardless of gender, because that way they are less likely to grow up to think of their job as “protector of women,” which inevitably comes with the assumption that they can also think for, and decide for, women.)

“Teach them about the full autonomy of women—that it is not their job to expect to be cared for by women, that they do not own women’s bodies, and that it is also not their job to protect women because they are women.”

Finally, we should teach boys that women are not “special.” That women are not another species of angels. (And maybe we should also teach girls this.) Women are human. Which means they are good and bad and kind and unkind. Which means that the moral standards for them should not be any higher than for men.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s work has been translated into over thirty languages and has appeared in various publications, including The New Yorker and Granta. She is the author of the novels Purple Hibiscus; Half of a Yellow Sun, which won the Orange Prize; Americanah, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award; and the story collection The Thing Around Your Neck. Her 2009 TED Talk is called The Danger of A Single Story, and her 2012 talk We Should All Be Feminists was published as a book in 2014. Her most recent book, Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, was published in March 2017. A recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, Adichie divides her time between the United States and Nigeria. You can follow her love affair with Nigerian fashion on Instagram.

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