35 pages 1 hour read

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions

Nonfiction | Essay / Speech | Adult | Published in 2017

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “Dear Ijeawele or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions”

Dear Ijeawele is an epistolary manifesto composed of 15 suggestions. It’s intended audience is parents who want to raise their daughters as feminists. The book functions both as a parenting guide for raising girls to be empowered, independent women, and as a sort of field guide for feminism that anyone can use to live a more feminist life.

Written by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the work is the product of a correspondence between Adichie and her friend Ijeawele. Ijeawele just gave birth to a baby girl, Chizalum, and asked Adichie for advice on how to raise her to be a feminist. Adichie’s response forms the basis of this manifesto, which was first published by Knopf Publishers in 2017.

The book addresses the dual context of both Adichie and Ijeawele’s home country of Nigeria and Adichie’s adopted home country of the United States. The book references ongoing gender inequality in both countries and draws comparisons between the two cultures.

The purpose of the manifesto is to undo this gender inequality by raising girls to reject traditional gender roles and expectations. As Adichie characterizes it, gender roles are like a straitjacket designed to restrict women’s freedom and limit their potential. Her hope is that this work will contribute to a more gender-equal world.

Introduction

In the introduction, before she begins laying down her suggestions, Adichie offers two feminist tools which serve as a sort of springboard for the rest of the text. Her first “feminist tool” is to have a premise. That premise (as a woman) should be “I matter. I matter equally. Full stop” (8). The idea here is that if mothers want to raise feminist daughters, they must embrace feminist ideals themselves. Mothers can do this by committing to a feminist premise which serves to remind them never to compromise on the equality that they are struggling for as women.

The second tool is like a formula for determining whether something is sexist or not. That formula is “can you reverse X and get the same results?” (8). For example, a feminist could apply this formula to determine whether they ought to leave their husband after he has cheated on them. The question you should ask is, would your husband leave you if you cheated on him? If the answer is no, then it may be a feminist choice to forgive him and work through the problem. If the answer is yes, he would leave, the feminist choice might be for you to leave as well, since he’s clearly not willing to employ the same standard for women as he is for himself. This formula underscores the fact that the feminist way of acting in any given situation is very much based on context.

The introduction ends with a warning that you can’t control exactly how your daughter turns out. You can do everything right, and she may still turn out differently because sometimes “life just does its thing” (9).

Suggestion 1: “Be a full person” (9).

The first suggestion is a warning to mothers not to identify too strongly with the role of motherhood. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with motherhood. Motherhood can be a beautiful thing, and it’s a legitimate choice for feminist women to make. However, there is a tendency for women to get so involved in the role of mother that it comes to completely define their lives. This is a problem, both for mothers and their daughters.

It’s a problem for mothers because it means they don’t properly attend to their own needs and desires. It’s also not good for daughters because it sends a bad message. One of the main ways that children learn is through example, and if a young girl grows up with a mother who seems to live only to raise children, then she’s going to learn to identify womanhood with motherhood.

You’ll send a better message to your daughter if you live a full life independent of your children. Show your daughters that besides raising children, you also have other interests, desires, and ambitions in life.

The easiest way to do that is to work alongside motherhood. The advantages that work can bring for mothers are manifold, including increased confidence, a sense of fulfilment, and financial independence. Moreover, contrary to what some proponents of traditional gender roles say, working does not compromise a woman’s ability to mother. On the contrary, as Marlene Sanders, the first woman to report from Vietnam during the war, once said, “loving what you do is a great gift to give your child” (10).

Many people appeal to an idea of tradition to justify why women ought to behave a certain way. However, these so-called “traditions” are often rather modern inventions. For example, the “tradition” of women staying home to mother full-time in Nigeria was actually a practice imposed under British colonization. Before this, it was normal for Igbo women to engage in economic activity. In fact, in some parts of Nigeria, trading was exclusively performed by women.

Suggestion 2: “Do it together” (12).

This suggestion addresses the division of labor between parents in a heterosexual relationship. Adichie advises that fathers ought to share equally in domestic and child-raising responsibilities. This suggestion follows directly from the first because when fathers get more involved in parenting, mothers have greater freedom to pursue other activities. Additionally, it’s also good for daughters to see male role models engaging in typically non-masculine activities, such as cooking, cleaning, and nurturing.

The discussion in this section introduces several themes that Adichie will elaborate on in later sections. The first has to do with biology. The author argues that there is nothing, or almost nothing, about the nature of men and women that makes them inherently suited to certain tasks. Men and women are equally capable of learning and performing new skills, including all of those required in child-rearing. So, there is nothing in the nature of men that precludes them from helping out with parenting. Adichie makes one exception for breastfeeding, since men are generally incapable of lactating.

Adichie then introduces us to the idea that women can be complicit in unfair gender dynamics. To consider an example, sometimes mothers themselves intentionally reduce the father’s access to children out of fear that he will handle them too roughly, or he won’t change their diaper properly, etc. When mothers are overly critical of the way fathers parent, they end up reinforcing an unbalanced division of labor and give themselves unnecessary work. That’s why it’s in the interest of mothers not to be too critical of the way fathers parent; they ought to stand back sometimes and let him figure it out for himself.

This section also includes a brief discussion of language, which will be picked up again later in the book. The author argues that when referring to the father, it’s important to “reject the language of ‘help’” (13). In other words, you should never refer to the father as a “helper” or “babysitter” because this only reinforces the idea that the mother is the primary carer. When the father looks after his child, he’s just doing his job as a father, and so he shouldn’t be given any special praise.

Suggestion 3: “Teach her that the idea of ‘gender roles’ is absolute nonsense” (14).

This is the most theoretically heavy portion of the book. It introduces the concept of gender roles and discusses to what extent a culture constructs gender by conditioning men and women to behave differently.

We’re often told that the reason men and women behave as they do is because of their gender: Men are active, rational, and industrious because they’re men; Women are passive, emotional, and caring because they’re women. We’re told that our gender dictates how we will perform at certain tasks or react in certain situations. Our gender, essentially, defines who we are and limits what we’re capable of as individuals.

This view treats gender as though it’s natural—simply a fact of human nature that we’re all born with. But, the author argues, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In her view, boys and girls are born equal, and it’s society that thrusts gender roles onto children by conditioning them to behave differently based on their sex.

Almost from the moment babies are born, society begins to condition boys and girls differently. We dress them differently, talk to them differently, handle them differently, and choose different toys for them to play with. Boys are usually given active toys to play with, such as vehicles, whereas girls are typically given toys related to care work, such as dolls. The author relates how she once saw a mother refuse to buy her daughter a toy helicopter on the grounds that she already had dolls to play with.

Children’s clothes and toys do not need to be categorized by gender. They could be categorized by size, age, or type. The fact that society categorizes products by gender is a choice, and it’s one that Adichie argues has harmful outcomes, especially for girls.

It’s harmful because it squeezes children into predefined molds. Instead of being allowed to discover for themselves what they like and find interesting, children are told what they ought to like and find interesting. This curtails their curiosity and sets arbitrary limits on their field of exploration, which may hinder their development.

So, instead, Adichie implores parents to treat their daughters as individuals first and “girls” second. As she says, “‘because you’re a girl’ should never be a reason for anything” (15). So, let her play with whatever she wants to play with, pursue whatever she wants to pursue. Teach her to be active and independent. Let her try things; indulge her curiosity.

Suggestion 4: “Beware the danger of what I call Feminism Lite” (21).

This suggestion is a warning to be wary of false friends and also never to make compromises when it comes to female equality. Feminism Lite is a concept coined by the author. It refers to attitudes held by men and women alike that seem to be feminist in spirit but are actually premised on misogynistic ideas about women. In Adichie’s words, Feminism Lite is a “hollow, appeasing, and bankrupt” (21) form of feminism. It’s epitomized by expressions like ‘‘he is the head, but you are the neck” and “he’s driving but you’re in the front seat” (21).

Feminism Lite masquerades as real feminism because, on the surface, it teaches that men ought to treat women with respect. However, it falls short of real feminism because it’s premised on the idea that women need to be helped because they are inferior. This is a premise that a feminist should never accept.

Suggestion 5: “Teach Chizalum to read” (25).

It’s important to teach your daughter to read—and, not only to read but to love reading. Reading will improve her knowledge, it will help her to understand and question the world around her, and it will develop her skills and personality. In short, reading is the cornerstone of any genuine education, and it’s an essential ingredient in the development of fully-fledged subjectivity.

The easiest way to teach your daughter to read is by example. If she sees you reading, she will learn that reading has value. However, if you’ve tried this, and she still shows a lack of interest in reading, Adichie suggests offering her a financial incentive by paying her a small amount per page.

Suggestion 6: “Teach her to question Language” (26).

Language is important for feminists because it is one of the ways a culture constructs and disseminates a particular view of women and the role they ought to inhabit. As the author argues, both the ideas expressed using language as well as the very words themselves have the power to reinforce gender roles. For example, when a parent calls their daughter “princess,” they may be reinforcing certain gendered expectations of behavior. That’s because the word “princess” is not a neutral term—it’s a term loaded with assumptions and cultural associations. Princesses are usually presented in our culture as passive damsels in distress who need men to come and save them. For this reason, non-gendered nicknames for girls, such as “star,” are preferable.

The language you use matters. You can either use language that perpetuates prejudicial thinking, or you can use language that subverts it. That’s why, for feminists, changing language is an important step in changing cultural attitudes and behaviors. Parents should teach their children to be conscious of the language they use, but that also means being self-critical of how they personally use language.

Suggestion 7: “Never speak of marriage as an achievement” (30).

This suggestion is about redressing an imbalance in the way we condition girls and boys to think about marriage. Girls and boys are conditioned to value marriage differently. Girls are taught that marriage is an achievement. They are taught that marriage is something they ought to aspire to—that it’s a part of their destiny as women. If they don’t get married, it’s implied that they’ve failed in their role.

What’s more, we don’t condition boys in the same way. This creates an imbalance in the way men and women conduct relationships as adults. When men and women get married, the relationship is imbalanced from the beginning because the institution matters more to one side than the other. This has negative consequences for women because it means women are more willing to make sacrifices and put up with marital problems in order to keep a relationship going. As Adichie says, “women sacrifice more at a cost to themselves” to make relationships work (31).

Suggestion 8: “Teach her to reject likeability” (36).

This point is about authenticity and the need to teach your daughter to make decisions for herself. “Rejecting likability” means refusing to mold yourself into an image that other people expect or want from you just to please them. The point is not that your daughter shouldn’t care at all what others think of her, but simply that being liked should not be a priority over being herself.

Here, we have another example of a disparity in the way we raise girls and boys. We condition girls “to be likeable, to be nice, to be false” (37). We don’t condition boys to be the same. Again, this leads to different outcomes for women and men later in life. One of the more devastating consequences of this conditioning is that it can leave women vulnerable to abuse. Women who have been conditioned to be passive and likable are less likely to resist sexual assault and more likely to remain silent after it happens.

To counter this conditioning, girls should be taught to behave just the same as boys. Like boys, girls should be taught to express themselves honestly and authentically. That means teaching them to say what they really think, to ask for what they need when they need it, and to stand up for what they believe in. Adichie suggests you reinforce this behavior in your daughter by praising her when she asserts herself and especially when she takes a stance that is unpopular.

Suggestion 9: “Give Chizalum a sense of identity” (39).

This is the most specific suggestion on the list, as it addresses Chizalum’s Igbo heritage directly. It also speaks to the specific situation of people of color growing up in a world where images of whiteness dominate popular culture, and where images of African people and Blackness are often connected with negative stereotyping.

To redress this imbalanced messaging, Adichie says Chizalum should be taught to take pride in her culture and heritage. She should be shown that there is much to admire in the Igbo culture because “it values community and consensus and hard work, and the language and proverbs are beautiful and full of great wisdom” (39). At the same time, she should also be taught that it’s ok to be critical of the more problematic aspects of her culture. For example, the Igbo culture’s attitude towards women teaches that “a woman can’t do certain things just because she’s a woman and that is wrong” (39).

You may also need to be quite intentional about counteracting the preponderance of whiteness that she is likely to witness in books and on TV. Do this by showing her images of Black beauty and Black success. Introduce her to Black heroes—men and women—who have changed the course of history.

Suggestion 10: “Be deliberate about how you engage with her appearance” (41).

This suggestion discusses what you can do to help your daughter cope with the inevitable body-image insecurities that the world thrusts upon girls. One very simple and actionable piece of advice is to encourage your daughter to do sports—and keep doing it after puberty arrives. Exercise will boost her self-esteem, and it will also help her be a more active person. Being active in a sport will teach her to be louder, to take up space, and to use her muscles more.

Again, it may also be necessary to counteract the prevalence of white images of beauty that she will likely encounter in magazines, films, and on TV. It’s imperative to show her alternative conceptions of beauty. Let her know “that non-slim, non-white women are [also] beautiful” (45). Your goal should be “to protect her from looking at her own reflection with dissatisfaction” (46).

A further point is to refrain from turning your daughter’s fashion tastes into a moral issue. That means holding yourself back from judging or shaming your daughter for the fashion choices she makes. If she likes dresses and makeup, let her wear them, and if she doesn’t, that’s also fine. Of course, you’re welcome to express your opinion, but at the end of the day, you should encourage your daughter’s self-determination.

Suggestion 11: “Teach her to question our culture’s selective use of biology as ‘reasons’ for social norms” (48).

This section links up with the discussion of gender roles in suggestion 3. It is very common for proponents of “traditional” gender roles to justify them on the basis of biological differences between men and women. The assumption they make is that gender roles are in some way “natural” rather than purely products of society.

For example, you often hear it said that men are more promiscuous than women by nature, whereas women are naturally more monogamous. To justify this view, people claim that men and women have evolved to be this way. They say men have evolved to be promiscuous because, in the past, it served as an adaptive advantage to have many sexual partners, as this increased the chances of having healthy offspring. Women, on the other hand, have evolved to be monogamous because children were more likely to survive to adulthood if the mother could keep the father around for support.

This is a plausible-sounding story but its “scientific” credentials should be questioned. After all, one could also appeal to evolution to justify the completely opposite viewpoint. You could say, for example, that women evolved to be promiscuous because that increased their chances of giving birth to healthy offspring, and men evolved to be monogamous because children were more likely to survive to adulthood if they stayed around to support them.

At the end of the day, when people appeal to biology to justify today’s social norms, they’re not being scientific, they’re simply weaving a story to justify what they already believe. That’s why so-called biological differences between women and men must not and should not be accepted as excuses for inequality.

Suggestion 12: “Talk to her about sex, and start early” (50).

This suggestion is essentially about ensuring your daughter has a quality sex education—one that’s both informative and doesn’t connect sexuality with shame. Traditional sex education for girls invariably connects sex to shame, and this is true all over the world. The author recounts how, when she was supposed to learn about sex in school, instead she was told “vague semi-threats about how ‘talking to boys’ would end up with us being pregnant and disgraced” (50). Although this form of sex education is presented as a way of protecting girls, the truth is that it has nothing to do with girls’ welfare. The real reason we connect female sexuality to shame is control. Women’s sexuality must be controlled in order to protect the honor and appetites of the men around them. Shame is a vestige from when women were the mere property of men.

Feminist sex education must eschew shame. Teach your daughter that there’s nothing shameful about sexual pleasure. Make it known that sex can be a beautiful and emotionally rewarding thing. By freely talking about sex with her, you will communicate that it isn’t something to hide or avoid. Make sure she knows that “her body belongs to her and her alone, [and] that she should never feel the need to say yes to something she does not want” (51). Again, it’s ok to tell her your opinion, but in the end, you must accept that her decisions are hers to make alone.

Suggestion 13: “Romance will happen, so be on board” (54).

As with sexuality, you ought to be open and accepting of your daughter’s choices when it comes to love as well. Simply being available to give advice and talk through problems is the best thing you can do as a parent. You don’t need to be your daughter’s best friend, just be there for her when she needs it.

What’s more, when talking to her about love and romance, take care not to identify “real” love with unconditional love. There is a disparity in the way we teach love to girls and boys. We condition girls to believe that love involves making sacrifices and that real love means persevering through thick and thin. The problem is, we do not condition boys to think about love in the same way. The result is to create an imbalance in the way women and men approach amorous relationships as adults. Women are often far more willing than men to give up on personal ambitions to make a relationship work, and they’re more willing to put up with problems, too. To counter this conditioning, it’s very important you teach your daughter that love should not be unconditional. Love is as much about receiving as it is about giving. If you don’t get anything in return, then it isn’t love.

Suggestion 14: “In teaching her about oppression, be careful not to turn the oppressed into saints” (58).

There is a tendency in discourses on inequality to overcompensate for injustice by idealizing the oppressed group, and this is true of the discourse on gender, too. Sometimes, it’s just assumed that, owing to their inferior position, women must automatically have the moral high ground over men. This may explain why some proponents of women’s rights feel the need to venerate women’s character as more virtuous than men’s.

This tendency to venerate women may come from a well-intentioned place, but it’s problematic because it has the effect of reinforcing women’s difference from men. The truth is women are not morally better than men. They are not perfect. Nor do they need to be to receive all the same rights and respect that men have. As Adichie says, “saintliness is not a prerequisite for dignity” (58).

Suggestion 15: “Teach her about difference” (59).

This suggestion encompasses both a broad lesson about the nature of the world and a more specific lesson in parenting.

The more philosophical point is this: Difference—meaning diversity among people—is the reality of our world. There are almost no constants across all human beings. People differ in their bodies, their preferences, their desires, their worldviews, their language, and their way of life—and the list goes on.

The more specific point for parents is that teaching your daughter about difference will be an important, formative experience for her. She will learn that she is not the center of the world, that her way is not the only way, and with a bit of luck, will become a more accepting, considerate, and curious person in the process. That is not to say she can’t have her own opinion, but that she may those opinions be informed and broad-minded.

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