We Should All Be Feminists is a short, adapted essay of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDx talk on the subject of twenty-first century feminism, gender, sexuality, and her own experiences as a Nigerian woman, that forces readers to confront issues of everyday sexism and prejudice that are so deeply ingrained in modern society that they aren’t even immediately apparent as worthy of examination. At several points in this short book, I found myself stopping to reconsider the ways I thought about myself or about other women and checking that initial, socially-ingrained knee-jerk response – all of this, despite the fact that my own life is very different to Adichie’s. That is the mark of a very good TED talk and, indeed, book.
“My own definition is a feminist is a man or a woman who says, 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.”
Coming in at just under 70 pages, Adichie’s text is short and succinct but nonetheless packs a punch for it. She eloquently and anecdotally charts her own experiences as a young woman alongside those of her friends and family, using these examples to illustrate that the problem (if we may call it that) of sexism and discrimination is rarely ever solely down to the natural inclination of the person in question but rather how the person was raised, how they were conditioned to think, and what values they were taught by their parents and, indeed, society itself. Culture is people and people are culture though, so it is only by striving to be better people that we can affect change.
“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man.”
The anecdotes are not confined to the personal and individual, they also chart experiences in Adichie’s professional life and career, specifically how other people think about her, as a Nigerian woman who speaks openly about such issues – the implication, of course, is that if she wants to attract a good, honourable husband, she should be more “womanly”, she should talk less (and smile more). This is something that I am sure most women can attest to being told by society at large or, perhaps even more concerning, to think themselves, even if this is only a subconscious thought. And for women who want to get ahead in their careers, especially in business, and are assertive about what they want when given a position of power, they are dubbed as “bossy” or “domineering” in a way that a male equivalent would probably not be.
“What struck me – with her and with many other female American friends I have – is how invested they are in being ‘liked’. How they have been raised to believe that their being likeable is very important and that this ‘likeable’ trait is a specific thing. And that specific thing does not include showing anger or being aggressive or disagreeing too loudly. We spend too much time teaching girls to worry about what boys think of them. But the reverse is not the case. We don’t teach boys to care about being likeable.”
(Consider Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada – she is dubbed the ‘Dragon Lady’ and considered a formidable figure in the fashion world, but this is always said with a sense of denigration that she is not softer, or more “womanly”, that she is “incapable” of “keeping a man” because of her strong personality. As Anne Hathaway’s character Andy points out, if she were a man all anyone would say is that she were good at her job.)
“The sad truth of the matter is that when it comes to appearance, we start off with men as the standard, as the norm. Many of us think that the less feminine a woman appears, the more likely she is to be taken seriously. A man going to a business meeting doesn’t wonder about being taken seriously based on what he is wearing – but a woman does.”
However, Adichie does not just lay all the blame at society’s door or at men’s door – in fact, Adichie advocates that we teach our children to be what they want to be, regardless of gender. To condition this new generation of humanity to be themselves without gender restrictions. Men, as she observes, are just as confined in their behaviour by expectations of “masculinity”, standards that they, as a real man, must uphold in order to be deemed worthy or “normal”. I appreciated this aspect of We Should All Be Feminists as it works some way to redressing the inaccuracy that feminism is all about women, and only works for women, so therefore only women should be feminist. No, if it wasn’t obvious enough from the repetition, we should all be feminists.
“But by far the worst thing we do to males – by making them feel they have to be hard – is that we leave them with very fragile egos. The harder a man feels compelled to be, the weaker his ego is.”
It is not just the world of work that Adichie addresses, she also charts some of the more everyday and universal experiences. For example, who among us has not experienced going into a restaurant, as a group or perhaps as a pair, and having the male(s) with us addressed first and foremost by a maitre d’ or waiter? I had never considered this until Adichie pointed out it had happened to her, and then I realised how often it actually does happen – it happens but I did not even note it happening because it is so commonplace in life. I am not trying to slander every waiter or maitre d’, obviously, but it is something that I am now noticing more and more after reading We Should All Be Feminists. Perhaps this is simply tradition, a lingering hangover from a largely patriarchal society, but the fact of the matter is that we should be asking why does this tradition endure? Because we let it, because we come to expect it so much that it is not even noticed as something that is, perhaps, a little old-fashioned in today’s (allegedly) equal society. More than anything, this is what We Should All Be Feminists does best – it makes you stop and think and question why you accept these “norms” of society.
“The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognizing how we are. Imagine how much happier we would be, how much freer to be our true individual selves, if we didn’t have the weight of gender expectations.”
Don’t expect to find something academic, don’t expect to find something revolutionary, but do expect to find yourself living Adichie’s personal anecdotes only to find that the very specific personal experience she is describing in fact tallies with something you yourself might have experienced. Without being isolating, without being segregating, Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists manages to convey a more universal, inter-sectional, cross-cultural, and above all inclusive feminism that well and truly proves that, yes, we should all be feminists (if we’re not already), and you should read this book sooner rather than later.
“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.”