How do you raise a feminist when you aren’t a master of feminism—or motherhood—yourself? Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s latest book, Dear Ijeawele, Or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, perfectly frames this difficult task.
Adichie confesses that she was motivated by a challenge from her good friend Ijeawele, who asked for concrete ways to raise her (at the time, unborn) daughter as a feminist. So Adichie, a self-proclaimed feminist and bestselling author, began working on the project that would eventually become this manifesto. By the time she had completed it, she was a new mother as well.
“Now that I, too, am the mother of a delightful baby girl,” Adichie writes in the introduction, “I realize how easy it is to dispense advice about raising a child when you are not facing the enormously complex reality of it yourself.”
And so the piece became a message to her friend Ijeawele, to Ijeawele’s daughter Chizalum, to the world, to herself and to her own child. Dear Ijeawele is indeed a letter to a friend preparing to take on the difficult task of raising a girl in a world where gender is, as Adichie describes it, “a straitjacket” of damaging rules and restrictions for women. But it’s also a love letter to our younger selves (Adichie’s included), because most of us were conditioned to think of girlhood and womanhood as something to be survived. The survival techniques we were taught—even by mothers who identified as feminists, womanists and believers of equal rights for all—we are likely to pass on to our own children, even when we think we know better than to perpetuate ideas that support and enforce the patriarchy.
Dear Ijeawele is powerful because it’s short and sweet—the perfect disguise for a collection of ideas that attempt to set the world on fire. Some may wonder (yes, even after Trump) why setting the world as we know it on fire is a desirable action. Adichie’s work encourages you to look around and inward to see where gender binaries—pink vs. blue, doll vs. truck, mother vs. earner, giver vs. taker—have gotten us. The proof is in the pudding, in the violence against women, in Brock Turner, Casey Affleck, Nate Parker, Donald Trump. We have failed at creating a world where men and women are equal. And Adichie argues that to address this failure, we cannot start looking at what people are taught in middle school sex ed courses. The genesis of this failure won’t be found in college campus rape crises or in oval offices where groups of men sign legislation to control entire societies of women.
It starts from birth.
And really, from before then.
Adichie’s work speaks against those voices that parents are listening to before they’ve even given birth—before they’ve even started to wonder if and how they will raise feminist children. Those other women and men offering up practical—and damaging—advice are not to be underestimated in the struggle for equality. Well-meaning individuals, it seems, might be the death of the movement.
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.
“Sweep like a girl” seems like a small critique (and every girl/woman has her own collection of these), but embedded in the psyche with a million others like it, it has a lasting impact. In the same way that Ijeawele will need to put aside some of these messages to raise Chizalum, Adichie knows that raising a feminist daughter means refusing to mimic some of the lessons of her youth. No matter how minor some of these offensives seem, actual lives are at stake here.
For this reason, audiences currently raving about Jordan Peele’s Get Out will be equally taken with Adichie’s manifesto. So much of the damaging sexism we grow up accepting as just the way things are for girls is far more terrifying than we acknowledge. In the same way that Get Out insists we stop writing off micro-aggressions as behavior that is merely “racial” or “prejudiced” (and not on par, with say, churches being bombed or vicious acts of police brutality), Dear Ijeawele sees every enforcement of gender roles as a matter of life and death.
In her third suggestion on how to raise a feminist (“teach her that the idea of ‘gender roles’ is absolute nonsense”), Adichie offers the example of a friend who does not want to buy her daughter a toy helicopter from the “boys” section of a store. For Adichie, the seemingly innocuous interactions we have with our children speak volumes. She is concerned with those parts of our children that we, in a very real sense, kill off so that they can fit into the mold of a boy or a girl. And what great losses our societies have suffered as a result of these killings. How many more female helicopter pilots, engineers, truck drivers, architects, doctors, filmmakers or scientists would we have if we eliminated the concept of “boys” toys? How many more nurturing, hands-on and affectionate dads would we have if boys were allowed to—gasp!—play with dolls?
Adichie doesn’t shy away from interrogating some of the biggest societal issues either. Her seventh suggestion to Ijeawele is “never speak of marriage as an achievement.” She explains the dangerous game we have been playing (since the institution of marriage was invented) wherein we condition girls to aspire to get married but do not do the same for boys. It’s a devastatingly “uneven exchange” that has come to define our society, and it speaks to the difficulties of heterosexual relationships.
Adichie is also concerned with the “catastrophic consequences of likeability.” She advises her friend (and us) to be completely unconcerned with raising girls who are likeable, and instead to focus on teaching our daughters to be their full, honest and aware selves.
We teach girls to be likeable, to be nice, to be false. And we do not teach boys the same. Many sexual predators have capitalized on this. Many girls remain silent when abused because they want to be nice…We have a world full of women who are unable to exhale fully because they have for so long been conditioned to fold themselves into shapes to make themselves likeable.
This passage is one of the many reasons we cannot have a feminist movement in 2017 without Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In just a few sentences, she has zeroed in on an aspect of rape culture that we do not scrutinize enough. So much of the embarrassment, shame and fear that many women experience after a sexual assault or rape might be linked to this very question of “likeability.” It’s true that a justice system that continuously fails survivors is reason enough not to speak up. But Adichie’s argument asks us to wonder how many girls and women do not speak up out of fear of rattling cages? If all girls and women must be concerned with likeability, doesn’t it make sense that girls and women who survive rape are still plagued with those concerns? This incredible manifesto gives us the tools to start setting fire to an institution that tells women, every day, they must try to be nice—even to their abusers, attackers and oppressors.
For Adichie, gender roles rob us of our individuality, and it’s a robbery that happens well before we even know it’s happening. She pleads with Ijeawele to “see Chizalum as an individual” rather than “as a girl, who should be a certain way.” This is no small plea. How many of us can say that when we see our children, we don’t think about who they should be as “boys” or “girls.” In this sense, Dear Ijeawele also functions as the parenting manual that still hasn’t quite made it to the bookshelves. But it’s exciting to think about how things might change—how nonfiction literature on raising children might dare to embrace Adichie’s messages about the ways we cripple our children when we raise them with so much emphasis on gender. If more of us were encouraged to parent from a place of love for the whole child—not the child as we understand him or her through the lens of prescriptive gender roles—where would we find ourselves?
We do ourselves and our feminist future a disservice if we look at Dear Ijeawele, Or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions as the beginning and end of a conversation. It’s an invitation, a call to arms. Adichie cannot light these fires alone. This particular love letter begs a response from those readers and writers who needed a jumping off point for their own manifestos. We feminists are not done with becoming feminists. And for those of us enjoying this ride, that’s certainly not a bad thing.
Some revolutions are stronger when they’re embraced as evolutions with no particular endpoint. This requires a futuristic sort of thinking and demands that, for the sake of our own survival and the survival of coming generations, we never stop becoming and we never stop fighting.
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer on Hulu’s upcoming series The Looming Tower. She is the former TV Editor of Paste Magazine, and her work has appeared in Salon, Indiewire’s Shadow and Act and Heart&Soul. She currently has more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.