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The Wise Counsel of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Feminist Manifesto

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s new work is not a children’s story. It’s about children — daughters, specifically. Adichie prefaces the book (addressed to the mothers of girls) with the story of a friend, Ijeawele, who asked the author in a letter, “How do I raise a feminist?” Dear Ijeawele is an extended version of that correspondence.

Letter writing as literature is nothing new. Dostoyevsky used the epistolary form in Poor Folk to examine class in pre-Revolutionary Russia. Shusaku Endo’s Silence (adapted for the screen recently by Martin Scorsese) did likewise to discuss struggles with faith and colonialism. More recently, there’s Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, written to his teenage son on the topic of race in America. These letters, often intimate and heartbreaking, offer tragic insight into weighty topics. Adichie’s manifesto is no less consequential, but in addressing her childhood friend she allows for jokey asides and allusions to their youth, adding welcome levity to the subject. Her responses, given in the form of “suggestions” numbered 1–15, are extremely logical and stated clearly, full of Adichie’s dry wit, and range from the obvious (“Do it together”) to the bold (“Reject likeability”). The more radical suggestions are the ones that encourage mothers to be complete human beings, not merely “hosts” (as for example Oklahoma lawmaker Justin Humphrey would have it).

Of course, the fact that Adichie even had to write this down — the fact that this is still a “radical” idea — is a hard pill to swallow. Even so, the suggestions are powerful and life-affirming, offering wisdom for everyone. And as much as this is a book written to mothers of daughters, fathers of daughters would benefit from reading it, too; parents in general would do well to try to raise children who won’t have to grow up and read it at all. Hopefully someday very soon we’ll live in a world where the equality of the sexes is normalized — where our children will already know how to be feminists because, at the end of the day, feminism is about the equality of the sexes and feminism is for everybody.

Here are my thoughts on three suggestions from the book.

Suggestion 1: Be a full person.

Motherhood is a glorious gift, but do not define yourself solely by motherhood. Be a full person. Your child will benefit from that.

Women are always judged by the type of mother they are or will be. But the type of mother we will be is determined by the type of people we are. Being a full person doesn’t necessarily mean being “well rounded” or even a “good person.” It just means being yourself. I watched my mother provide for us and chase her artistic dreams at the same time. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it, and it’s probably the main reason I’m a writer today.

Unfortunately, postpartum, continuing to be oneself and all the things that entails can be tough. Adichie tells Ijeawele, a new mother, to “be kind to herself.” Although the world assures women that we are all natural mothers, and that we’ll just figure it out once the baby comes, it’ll take a lot of trial and error and tears. If we base our self-worth solely on being great mothers, we’d be doing ourselves great harm. The good mother can only do so much in the world. Mothers are people, too. And once the child is grown and looking to be their own person in the world, they’ll be pulling a lot of influence from their mother. Let’s make sure we give them something to grab from.

Suggestion 10: Be deliberate about how you engage with her about her appearance.

Encourage her participation in sports. Teach her to be physically active. I think this is important not only because of the obvious health benefits but because it can help with all the body-image insecurities that the world thrusts on girls.

This is quite possibly my favorite suggestion because of how rational it is. Little is taught to parents about how to raise body-confident girls, which in truth is pretty similar to raising body-confident boys: Let them learn their bodies by being present in them.

Sports are a great way to do this. Unfortunately, most girls stop playing once puberty hits — precisely when we need the self-esteem that such activity can give us in abundance. Through sports, girls can learn that how they feel in their body is more important than how it looks to others. The year I played rugby in college was one of the best of my life, not only because it was the first (and last) time I had a flat stomach but because I knew how strong my body was.

Adichie also stresses the importance of letting daughters choose for themselves how they will adorn their bodies. “Feminism and femininity,” the author writes, “are not mutually exclusive. It is misogynistic to suggest that they are.” This suggestion implores mothers of daughters never to link appearance to morality and to be wary of the prison of beauty standards. All these things will ultimately work to tear down our daughters’ self-image, so, according to Adichie, it’s important for girls to be around “alternative” standards of beauty. Our daughters need to hear us speak highly about ourselves and other women we love. The world they’ll be coming into will not speak highly of women often.

Suggestion 15: Teach her about difference. Make it ordinary.

Teach her not to attach value to difference. And the reason for this is not to be fair or to be nice, but merely to be human and practical. Because difference is the reality of our world. And by teaching her about difference, you are equipping her to survive in a diverse world.

This may be the most profound suggestion in the entire book. Growing up, the worst thing in the world is to be seen as “different.” Where do we learn this nonsense? We’re all different.

Unfortunately, girls are taught that their value lies in conformity. Studies show that women who wear makeup in the workplace are more likely to be considered competent, and girls as young as ten report dieting to get thinner. While a natural response to this injustice may be to trade in one standard for another, valuing the “different” as you reject the “mainstream,” this still results in the maligning and shaming of young women for failing to conform.

Adichie offers a brilliant solution: Let’s just teach our kids that difference is ordinary, a mere part of life. People are different, they have different genitalia, different phenotypes, different spiritual beliefs, different desires, and this is all OK. Adichie is quick to remind us that she is not saying, “Raise nonjudgmental daughters” — we don’t need more “I don’t see color” naïveté in this world. Rather, she suggests, “Teach her to never universalize her own standards or experiences. This is the only necessary form of humility; the realization that difference is normal.”

Her work is full of such soft-spoken gems — simple, wise counsel that compels readers to think critically about the world they plan to raise daughters in. A world where, unfortunately, that daughter’s humanity will be constantly questioned; her autonomy hard-won; her peace of mind under relentless attack. Adichie’s book offers practical advice you can take now to help her grow into a full person, a person who values equality for all human life — a person also known as (yes) a feminist.

Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions
By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Knopf

80 pp.

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