We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a powerful and articulate essay that was adapted from the author’s December 2012 TEDx Talk. It serves as both a personal investigation and interpretation of what it means to be a woman today, but also a call to action for men and women around the world, all of whom, in Adichie’s opinion, should favor and support feminism.
The essay revolves around a single question: “What does feminism mean today?” It is developed out of an earlier TEDx talk titled “The Dangers of a Single Story,” which recounts the risks of succumbing to or perpetuating stereotypes. The expansion is logical because, as Adichie suggests, the word “feminism” has been damagingly stereotyped over many years and by many groups, some of whom simply respond to the word without knowing what it means and others of whom are fully aware, and know better, but attack the idea because it is an assault against their own privileged place in society.
What I found truly compelling about this reflection on feminism is that it is steeped in the culture and society of Nigeria, a country that still rigidly clings to the concepts of “gender roles.” Adichie provides a number of anecdotes that illustrate just how deeply rooted are these stereotypes and prejudices, such as the fact that restaurant hosts and servers will refuse to acknowledge a female customer if a man is with her, even if she is paying, because women are not supposed to have money and if they do, it must have been provided by the male (and never mind the idea that a woman might go out to a bar or club without a male chaperone). These examples might ring hyperbolic in the United States, but the reality is that this was our cultural response to gender not very long ago, as it was in Europe. The evidence that many countries are still oppressed by such stereotypes is a prescient reminder that our own society’s rules are new and thus relatively insecure, but also that we too still have far to go in seeking gender equity right here.
An interesting point that Adichie makes throughout the essay is that the “word feminist is so heavy with baggage, negative baggage” (11). She explains how pervasively peoples’ negative attitudes about feminism (or feminists) have spread, so much so that those prejudices often dominate the conversation and deny us room for reasoned discussion. How can we have a conversation about gender equality with someone who “turns off” at the first mention of just one word? It might be helpful to come up with a new phrase to help jumpstart and re-appropriate the conversation, bringing it back to a simple discussion about equity rather than the deafening, emotionally fueled debates about “man hating” and “angry women,” sort of like turning the conversation from “global warming” to “climate change” when it became clear that people easily conflated “warming” with weather and thus misunderstood the complexity of the systems involved and because it became apparent that people who wanted to mislead others about the topic could undermine the facts of the argument by making the word/situation seem ridiculous (“Oh, look at all that snow, we could sure use some global warming!”).
But feminism is what it is: a belief that men and women should be treated equally in all elements of society, economics, politics, etc. When taken this way, as Adichie suggests, few people think of this as a radical concept. So, how do we move past the word? Adichie believes that it has to start with all of us:
“I would like today to ask that we should begin to dream about and plan for a different world. A fairer world. A world of happier men and happier women who are truer to themselves. And this is how to start: we must raise our daughters differently. We must also raise our sons differently” (25).
In other words, we need to take responsibility for the way that we see the world and perpetuate its injustices; we need to teach our children the benefit of seeing and being and creating a world that is better.
Adichie is clear that this means men and women must be equal partners in creating change, and that is in large part because anti-feminism hurts men, too. It oppresses men by prescribing their roles, too. Men cannot be free to be themselves, to truly think, act, and respond the way that they want to, if they are being conditioned to respond, always, in the “masculine role.” If a man is sad, why shouldn’t he cry? And why is that considered “un-masculine”? If a man loves his spouse or children or pets, why shouldn’t he express it? And why is doing so often considered “un-manly”? If a man finds relaxation in cooking or cleaning, why shouldn’t he do these things?
And the same goes for women. Feminism does not tell women not to enjoy cleaning the house, sewing clothes, or making crafts. It simply tells men and women to be who they are, regardless. Imagine the stress and anxiety that would be relieved and the freedom that would come to all of us if we weren’t being forced into predetermined roles that supposedly guide our every single response and our every single interest or ability.
“We teach girls shame,” Adichie writes. “We make them feel as though by being born female, they are already guilty of something” (33). Likewise, we teach boys to be in control and to crave competition, but we teach girls to be conciliatory and to apologize for having opinions. But “what if . . . we focus on ability instead of gender? What if we focus on interest instead of gender” (36). For Adichie, it is clear that this is all feminism asks of us: allow a person to be him/herself. Teach everything we can, so that our children can learn and try everything they want, and then let them decide what to do and how to act from all available knowledge, opportunity, and experience. Personally, I think that’s a world worth building.
Ultimately, I found Why We Should All Be Feminists thoughtful, relevant, and relatable. Although it is based on an oral lecture, it reads well as a written piece. Despite repeating some of the typical supportive arguments about feminism, Adichie adds crucial context by relaying her personal experiences as a woman and a Nigerian. I read this one in close succession to Reni Eddo-Lode’s Why I’m No Longer Talking (to White People) About Race, which also deals with issues of intersectional feminism (as well as structural racism) but in the United Kingdom. I think the fact that these conversations about race and gender are happening on such a large scale, and happening all over the world, is promising.
I might ask if 100% of the culpability for feminism’s negative stereotypes lies with outside actors who are either hostile or ignorant (as implied near the beginning). It’s understandable that people think of third-wave feminism as trivial if they are bombarded by Buzzfeed, Salon, etc. headlines about manspreading and the empowerment in free bleeding.
I see your point that not every iteration of a feminist argument is going to work for or appeal to all people, or even a majority. That might sometimes be the fault of the arguer; however, I’m not sure I can accept those particular examples. In the first place, I don’t know that “click bait” headlines and social commentary from Buzzfeed and Salon constitute genuine feminist arguments, though they might masquerade as such. Do these turn off a lot of people? Probably, but I would return to my original point that the underlying principals about feminism are not at the forefront in this case and there are other motives at stake, whether from the writer or the publication. That’s not really an honest debate, then. In the second case, I don’t think I can agree that over-saturation of a topic in the media is valid grounds for dismissing it, even though we do that all the time on many topics. It rings to me like the argument people make against protests for racial equality that always suggests there’s “another way” to do it, but no alternative that is tried is ever accepted by some as a “right way.”
I agree. Since most people don’t do history, your examples of where people see third wave feminism would make it seem trivial. Or if they DO do history, what would they think of second wave if this is all they know of feminism?
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This was the first of Adichie’s works I read a few years ago and I was immediately hooked. She’s so articulate and always gets her ideas across so well. Have you read any of her other books?
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I haven’t but she has been a regular appearance on the various Barnes & Noble “must read” tables. I hope to pick up another one of her books soon.
I’ve read all of her books and love them. I’d recommend starting with either Half of a Yellow Sun (my favorite) or Americanah.
It sounds like this book makes some good points. It’s a shame that the word ‘feminist’ has such negative connotations, some people close off completely as soon as they hear the word, blocking any opportunity for meaningful dialogue. There is a misunderstanding that because the term starts with ‘fem’ it must only be about women’s issues, or worse, about elevating the status of women above men. They don’t realise that it’s about equality; it focuses on improving the lot of women because they have generally suffered most from the patriarchal system. But men and those who identify as non-binary can also benefit from discarding some of the traditional gender roles. I admire women like Emma Watson who try to bring men into the discussion.
I loved this one. As you mentioned, I thought hearing a perspective on feminism from a different culture gave the book an added depth.
I really enjoyed this one, too. As someone who really hasn’t read a lot of feminist literature, it was a great starting point.
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