This is the second short essay by Ngozi Adichie that I have read, having listened to Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions last year. This one has been on my list since then and I was grateful for a chill Saturday today, giving me a chance to relax and read it in one sitting.
“The problem with gender is that is prescribes how we should be rather than recognizing how we are.”
Based on a TEDx talk Ngozi Adichie gave, this essay is, essentially, a summary of why feminism is important and necessary. It is basic (though not condescendingly so) in its explanations, giving lots of real-life examples to back up the straightforward statements she makes about the inequality of genders in common culture. And although this particular talk was originally given from a perspective/to an audience with the goal of making clear the lack of gender equality in African (specifically Nigerian and Igbo culture), and thus does not address the issue in an especially intersectional or gender-inclusive way, the base premise is universal: the characteristics of given genders are prescribed by societal conditioning and not through any individual consideration of ability or interest. Despite the historical need for physical prowess that has led to men being “in charge” no longer being the reality, our ideas about it have, clearly, not evolved at the same pace. And thus, the need for feminism: to counteract years of internalized inequality.
I really liked how Ngozi Adichie was able to so succinctly distill many aspects of the need for and opposition to feminism…and respond to each of them in turn. This is an issue that has existed for centuries and to boil that all down to bare bones, to get the critical points of the premise across in such a concise, accurate, way is impressive. This is exactly the same way I felt after reading Dear Ijeawele – her voice is clear, pragmatic, unpretentious, but the language is still infused with feeling and personality.
Though making this review much longer will rival the length of the essay itself, and therefore is likely unnecessary (you could just go read it yourself), I do want to mention a few points she made that struck me with particular weight. First, and probably the biggest, is the need for a full reframe. It is not just enough to raise women “stronger,” support them in flying in the face of expectations…we need to fully remove those expectations. They are a social construct, nothing more. And in order to do this, we must also raise men differently, take away the expectations that they’d be emasculated by doing “women’s work” (chores, childcare, etc.), not being the primary breadwinner, showing emotion, etc. Next, I liked her highlighting the idea of microaggressions, though she didn’t use that terminology. Even though they seem like small things, the constant things like restaurant staff only greeting the man, the assumption of valets that money from Ngozi Adichie must have been given to her by her male company, the assumption that a woman alone cannot be in a nice hotel for any reason other than prostitution, etc. add up. And though they can be seen as easily overlooked, not worth getting worked up over, they are the insidious things that contribute, almost more than the big things (which are easier to see as wrong/damaging, and therefore easier to fight), to the ingrained opinions about gender than make a culture what it is. Allowing these microaggressions to remain the norm is a major part of what truly prevents larger scale cultural change. And last, I loved that she touched on the ingrained need of women to be “liked.” Where men are taught to be strong and forceful and are praised for that, especially in the workplace, women are often considered too harsh, or cold bitches, when acting in the same way. It’s entrenched in our culture, and it has indelibly colored the way women act/respond in the workplace, how true we feel we can be to our emotions and first responses to given situations, and how much we must temper/hide our reactions, then vent and react later. It is more important for women to be liked than it is for us to be professionally tough, in the societal eye. I have so many examples of this that I could probably write my own book on it alone.
All in all, this is a fantastic primer on feminism. It makes a straightforward case for its necessity and addresses common arguments in a non-accusatory way. It clarifies common confluences, like gender vs class, and makes some great suggestions to inform the creation of the more gender-equal world of Ngozi Adichie (and all feminists’) dreams. The cognitive dissonance that her words (hopefully) inspire in doubters is invaluable. This little book packs a serious punch considering the length – absolutely worth the 15 or so minutes it takes to read (or slightly longer, if you are like me and kept having to take breaks to mark the most striking passages).
*As a small personal note, I actually liked Dear Ijeawele a bit more than this one. And I think that’s at least partially due to the order I read them. I think this is a better first read, that sets the stage for the more specific/tangible suggestions and “rules” presented in Dear Ijeawele. Just my two cents there.
Some of the aforementioned most striking passages:
“If we do something over and over again, it becomes normal. If we see the same thing over and over again, it becomes normal.”
“Gender as it functions today is a grave injustice. I am angry. We should all be angry. Anger has a long history of bringing about positive change.”
“We are all social beings. We [all] internalize ideas from our socialization.”
“And then we do a much greater disservice to girls, because we raise them to cater to the fragile egos of males. We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls: You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful but not too successful, otherwise you will threaten the man. If you are the breadwinner in your relationship with a man, pretend that you are not, especially in public, otherwise you will emasculate him.”
“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man. Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Now marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support but why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same? We raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are.”
“Masculinity is a hard, small cage, and we put boys inside this cage.”
“Some people ask: “Why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?” Because that would be dishonest. Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general—but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women.”
“My own definition is a feminist is a man or a woman who says, yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better. All of us, women and men, must do better.”