I have struggled for the past few days to decide what to post about on International Women’s Day. It seems as apropos a day as any to be writing for my feminist book blog, and I have a backlog of books to discuss, but I couldn’t make up my mind.
Luckily, when I arrived at work yesterday morning—an opening shift at a bookstore on New Release Tuesday—the answer was waiting for me on the bestseller table. Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It ticked a lot of boxes. A book with “feminist” in the title, by a known feminist author, and one short enough to read in a day. I’m choosing to call it an International Women’s Day Eve miracle.
Much like her oft-cited We Should All Be Feminists (which I discuss here), Dear Ijeawele is a short nonfiction work introducing feminism from square one. In a way, this makes sense, particularly for the latter. In Dear Ijeawele, Adichie is writing to friend who asked her how to raise a feminist daughter, a task that demands beginning at square one. If you help a child develop a solid foundation—or, as Adichie suggests, give them the language with which to talk about the subject—the rest is likely to follow.
Adichie is Nigerian, and often cites the country’s own gender climate. As she describes it, Nigerian culture seems to be extremely traditional when it comes to women’s rights, feminism, and gender issues. A lot of pressure is put on girls to be appropriate and to aspire to marriage. These are values held in many cultures—the West is still struggling to get past it. They do, however, add some insight into Adichie’s perspective. More accurately, it gives you an idea of what it is she’s trying to combat when she writes about feminism, and why the fundamentals are so important to her.
However, presenting feminism on a fundamental level always has its drawbacks. Adichie admits in her thirteenth suggestion that she is assuming that Ijeawele’s daughter is heterosexual—not because she has to be, but because it is the dynamic with which Adichie herself has experience. On the one hand, this does exclude the LGBTQ community from the narrative, it’s also an important lesson in writing what you know, and acknowledging what you don’t. I’m glad she touched upon this, even just briefly, as it was something I noticed while reading We Should All Be Feminists, and was therefore on my mind while reading this. It’s important to recognize when a story isn’t yours to tell, but also a fine line to tread while trying to remain inclusive and intersectional.
Many of Adichie’s suggestions deal with dissolving the confines of gender identity, not just in the roles women are expected to play, but also in their behavior. In her eighth suggestion, she writes:
“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.”
A lot of time has been spent discussing the restrictive nature of societal expectations of women. Be a wife, be a mother, perform all domestic duties. But it’s easy to forget how restrictive behavioral expectations are as well. Girls are encouraged to be sweet and likeable, and are told off for being loud or inquisitive. In her fourth suggestion, she writes:
“We ask of powerful women: Is she humble? Does she smile? Is she grateful enough? Does she have a domestic side? Questions we do not ask of powerful men, which shows that our discomfort is not with power itself, but with women.”
Power and ambition are generally considered masculine in such an utterly positive way that it does really make you wonder about people’s reactions to strong women. It makes you wonder how people can be so incapable of seeing the double standard. It makes you wonder how much you have to hate women to make you oppose their successes.
Ultimately, Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions is a great resource for parents who want their children to grow up caring about equality and believing in the rights of all humans, regardless of what society tries to push on them. Adichie’s final sentiments:
“What I hope for Chizalum is this: that she will be full of opinions, and that her opinions will come from an informed, humane, and broad-minded place.”
*To every female identifying and non-binary reader; happy International Women’s Day. This day is for all of you.*