In honor of the Women’s Marches all across the country this week, I’d like to share about a little book called We Should All Be Feminists. (It’s amazing to me how this is still debated…)
This quippy book (well, essay adapted from a Ted Talk) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie employs both personal anecdotes and analysis on the subject of socially constructed gender expectations and inequities. Adichie begins by trying to debunk her friend Louis’ view that gender discrimination was an issue “in the past but not now. Everything is fine now for women.” (Raise your hand if you’ve heard that one!)
Adichie then recounts experiences from her childhood in Nigeria and her adult life. She illustrates the ways she was often treated like a “second-class citizen,” to quote Buchi Emecheta’s powerful 1974 novel. The inequalities ranged from micro-aggressions to the social ghettoization of women: from walking into a hotel and being mistaken for a sex worker, to being ignored by waiters and valet parkers, to being denied access to heritage meetings open only to men.
One of the most poignant examples was from her early childhood education, when a teacher announced she would award the title of “class monitor” to the student with the highest test score. Though Adichie scored the highest marks, she was denied this distinction, as the teacher insisted the rank was for boys only: “She had forgotten to make that clear earlier; she assumed it was obvious.” From this example, Adichie makes the observation that such regular patterns of social behavior create normative structures that, over time, appear unquestionable: “If we keep seeing only men as heads of corporations, it starts to seem ‘natural’ that only men should be heads of corporations.” Over time, we accept the status quo and ignore the blaring need for reform. (How true is this?!)
Adichie’s recommendations for change are really quite simple. So simple in fact, that we can employ this change in our homes. She recommends establishing counter-normative modes of socialization to ease the gender divide, such as teaching both boys and girls to cook, instead of only girls. (I know I’ll do this for my kids!) In addition, she identifies the double standards of gender expectations in the sociological concept of a woman’s second shift, among other inequities. (Second shift refers to the way women are expected to do a disproportionate amount housework and childcare when both they and their husbands have full time jobs as well.)
But she does concede that “feminism” has become associated with any number of agenda-driven propaganda: “you hate men, you hate bras, you hate African culture, you think women should always be in charge, you don’t wear make-up, you don’t shave, you’re always angry…” It’s true that feminism has become identified with stereotyped negative connotations, and Adichie addresses these issues.
Many of us have probably encountered friends and family members who espouse similar viewpoints. However, we do everyone a disservice if we simply say “I’m not a feminist, but I just believe in human rights.” Because feminism is a human rights issue. We should adopt the term “feminist” because to simply say one values human rights, “would be dishonest…It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded.”
It requires acknowledging that it was women who, for millennia, felt the effects of patriarchy, were marginalized from society—who have been kept from higher education, running for public office, holding religious leadership positions, being leaders in business and industry. And quite frankly, it’s embarrassing how I’ll have to teach my daughters about the presidents of our country and explain that, yes, there have been 45 men and 0 women. Why? Because women couldn’t vote until 1920, nonetheless win a presidential ticket.
This is what it means when protestors say #FutureIsFemale. It doesn’t mean women are greater than men. It doesn’t mean men shouldn’t be leaders. It means that, for most of history, men have been the leaders. (Again, review all U.S. presidents.) But recent generations have been changing that—we are changing that day by day! The Future is Female because my daughters will grow up knowing that they can aspire to anything: Congresswoman, Lawyer, Scientist, Writer, Engineer, President. Because they will know that their worth is not determined by what gender they’re assigned at birth.
I’m reminded of a childhood memory when I proudly told a friend I wanted to be the first Female President. The friend’s mother then told me, “Well, you’d be a great First Lady.”
If this is what little girls hear, then this becomes normative for them.
This is why these conversations still matter.
So, to quote Adichie, “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.”
Here’s to doing better in 2018.