As part of Feminist February, I’m reading some selected texts that focus on feminism, whether that’s an obvious feminist text, or fiction depicting women as we are. You can read all about my selections here.
I downloaded a copy of We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and devoured it within half an hour. It’s a short book, with an introduction explaining how it was adapted from a TEDx talk Adichie gave.
A personal and powerful essay from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the bestselling author of ‘Americanah’ and ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’, based on her 2013 TEDx Talk of the same name.
What does “feminism” mean today? That is the question at the heart of We Should All Be Feminists, a personal, eloquently-argued essay – adapted from her much-viewed Tedx talk of the same name – by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the award-winning author of ‘Americanah’ and ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’. With humour and levity, here Adichie offers readers a unique definition of feminism for the twenty-first century – one rooted in inclusion and awareness. She shines a light not only on blatant discrimination, but also the more insidious, institutional behaviours that marginalise women around the world, in order to help readers of all walks of life better understand the often masked realities of sexual politics. Throughout, she draws extensively on her own experiences – in the U.S., in her native Nigeria – offering an artfully nuanced explanation of why the gender divide is harmful for women and men, alike. Argued in the same observant, witty and clever prose that has made Adichie a best-selling novelist, here is one remarkable author’s exploration of what it means to be a woman today – and an of-the-moment rallying cry for why we should all be feminists.
Earlier that evening, my partner and I had been discussing those social experiments that involve a man living as a woman for a period of time, and vice versa, to see how one another’s experiences might differ based on their gender. I said that you would have to “pass”, i.e. you would have to really look like a woman if you were going to experience life as a woman. I’m sure many people have thought about what life might be like if they were the opposite gender, but I’ve never truly wanted to be a man. Sure, it might make peeing a bit easier, and women are oppressed in ways that men aren’t, but I still love being a woman. I feel my womanhood strongly. I feel a kinship to other women, that sisterhood that many feminists talk about. Despite the problems we face, I don’t want to run away from my gender, I want to embrace it, fiercely, and fight for my rights, passionately. I am a woman, I love (almost) everything about being a woman.
Adichie defines a woman as someone who can bear children, which is a problematic definition at best. Not all women can have (or want to have) children, and not all those who are able to have children are women. This cisgender definition rubs me up the wrong way, but I like to give people the benefit of the doubt. I like to think Adichie will have learned better since then, because, as feminists, we are constantly learning, and doing our best to, well, do better.
Adichie also mentions being “girly”. That word always makes me cringe. As a young child, I was called a “tomboy”, because I wore tracksuit bottoms and trainers, and liked to climb trees and go out on my bike. But I still wore dresses on occasion, and, as a teenager, I’d regularly change my style to suit my mood. I wasn’t a tomboy, nor was I girly – I was simply a child. And now I’m an adult, I can’t say I’m much different. I prefer to wear men’s shirts and leggings, but I also own skirts and ballet pumps. I always wear make-up, and I have long hair, and I get my nails and eyebrows done. But that doesn’t mean I can’t roll my sleeves up and clean the bathroom (fibromyalgia permitting, of course), or break the glass ceiling. I have a degree, I have a good job, I’m a published author. And I also wear mascara and lipstick, and enjoy having my hair done.
I know a woman who is super healthy. She’s a personal trainer, and she spends a lot of time and energy on being fit, so she doesn’t, in her words, have the inclination to be “girly”. She still wears make-up (albeit minimal), and she’s great at doing hair, a talent I envy. But she still wouldn’t describe herself as “girly”. So it makes me wonder, what do we mean by the term “girly”? Why are men shamed when they spend time on personal grooming? Why is it “girly” to wear lipstick, or heels, or dresses? Am I only half “girly” because, although I wear make-up and get my nails done, I’m crap at hair and can’t walk in heels? Terms like “girly” only serve to remind us that anything remotely feminine is bad. The aim of wearing make-up, for some, is to look as if we haven’t made much of an effort. We, like in the movies, woke up looking fresh, with defined brows and sky-high lashes and rosebud lips.
A colleague told me a few weeks ago that, upon first meeting me, she never would have guessed that I was a feminist. Why not? I asked. But she couldn’t answer. Perhaps she had the idea that all feminists are ugly, bra-burning, hairy-legged man-haters (though I am hairy-legged). So, in essence, I do agree with feminists like Adichie trying to smash this idea. But I do detest the term “girly”. There’s no right way to be a feminist (in this respect), just like there’s no right way to be a woman. Love make-up? Great! Prefer to go bare-faced? Fine! Have short hair? Nice! Have long hair? Awesome! These things are superficial, and yet, women are constantly judged on how we look. You may be the smartest person in your class, you might be super ambitious and want to rise to the top of your profession, but you will still be judged on your looks. And this is something that needs to change.
In all, We Should All Be Feminists is a great read. It reaffirms a lot of things that I already knew to be true, and have spoken about before, but it was also interesting to read Adichie’s version of feminism, and how her background influences the way she views the world, and how she plans on smashing the patriarchy in her own way. Smash on, Adichie, in your heels and dress and lipgloss. Smash on.