Even if you haven’t read the short text of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists, we’ve included a ton of quotes in our discussion and would love for you to jump in on the conversation. You can also watch a video of the incredibly powerful TED Talk the essay is adapted from over on YouTube!
“…[female Americans] have been raised to believe that their being likable is very important and that this ‘likable’ trait is a specific thing. And that specific thing does not include showing anger or being aggressive or disagreeing to loudly.”
I would include “being assertive” in that list, too. I’m self-employed and set my own rates. For some reason, when I raise those rates (which is more rare than it should be) I feel nervous and tend to give “reasons” when really, no explanation is necessary at all. I shouldn’t feel apologetic when I know my worth. It definitely ties back to that “likeability” worry.
I was thinking about this kind of thing at work the other day. Female attorneys have the choice of being a sweetheart or a bitch. Both choices do a disservice to your client. Working in criminal law whether or not the jury loves or hates the attorney can have a big impact on what the verdict is—at the same time if you don’t object to things that the other side you’re screwing your client over if he needs to appeal. So likability in my field is extremely important, or at least the perception of being likable is and it’s so hard for women in the field, argue too hard and you’re a bitch. I can’t even imagine how women of color can deal with this issue as attorneys because argue too hard and they’re going to be the dreaded angry black woman.
This also plays into our discussion on unlikable characters. It was mentioned a bit in the comments, but so many characters that get looped into the unlikable category are female. It was Claire Messud’s major point in her famous interview about unlikable characters: “Because if it’s unseemly and possibly dangerous for a man to be angry, it’s totally unacceptable for a woman to be angry.”
“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.”
Wow, isn’t this true across the board? I’m thinking about a friend of mine who works full-time while her husband stays home with their four kids. Or my male flute students getting ribbed for playing a “girl’s instrument.” Or goodness, the transgender community, where the weight of gender expectations (both societal and personal) is especially heavy. As cisgender women we generally don’t have to worry about whether or not people think we “are” women. My spouse says this about being trans and dealing with gender expectations (from the MtF perspective): “We have to be good, congruent men until we’re no longer men. Then we have to be good, congruent women.”
“I know a woman who has the same degree and the same job as her husband, when they get back from work she does most of the house work, which I think is true for many marriages, but what struck me about them was that whenever [her husband] changed the baby’s diaper, she said thank you to him. What if she saw it as something normal and natural, that he should help care for his child?”
GURL. I have so many friends and family members who literally cannot get their husbands to watch their children. Not even for one evening so we can go out to dinner as adults. It’s ridiculous. It’s also ridiculous that I consider myself extremely lucky that Mr. Steadfast Reader will always watch The Girl if I need (or want!) to go out and do something for myself.
I heard that so many times over the years. My husband isn’t a babysitter. It’s not odd for him to take care of his children. It’s not strange for him to change a diaper. And it’s not praiseworthy either. It’s nice, it’s not a miracle.
Most of my friends have a very hard time getting their spouse to watch the kids as well. My husband is viewed as some sort of magical and rare unicorn because he’s always willing. To, you know, be a parent.
This is where I go on a rant about the how much little things like this are holding all women back in serious ways and how it’s possible to change a societal expectation, but not if we don’t even recognize it as a problem. It’s why I freak out when I’m sitting in preschool classrooms that start teaching these gender roles to three year olds or cringe over sexist toddler t-shirts that are supposed to be funny, but just really, really aren’t. It’s why I shake my head when a man is praised by women for adding up his wife’s value as a stay at home mom, because what’s his role at home and what about working moms who also do those things?
“I wasn’t worried about the material I would teach because I was well-prepared and I was going to teach what I enjoy teaching. Instead, I was worried about what to wear. I wanted to be taken seriously. I knew that because I was female I will automatically have to prove my worth…If a man is getting ready for a business meeting he doesn’t worry about looking too masculine and therefore not being taken for granted….Had I then the confidence that I have now to be myself my students would have benefited even more from my teaching, because I would have been more comfortable, and more fully and more truly myself. I have chosen to no longer be apologetic for my femaleness and for my femininity.”
That’s powerful stuff right there—and so completely true. I think that as privileged as we professional women are (lawyers, teachers, professions you must ‘dress’ for), the expectation of how we look is something that is incredibly stressful. I miss the military where I knew what I was expected to wear every day. I still lack the confidence in much of my clothing choices and that can have a real effect on how I perform in court.
I feel so much of this kind of pressure in my profession, but it’s almost the opposite. Rather than worrying about being “too feminine” I worry about not appearing “feminine enough.” Consider the front cover of this month’s Flute Talk magazine:
Pretty much every time I give a solo recital, I worry about looking like a huge frump. Chamber music concerts are easier. An orchestral setting is easiest with a “concert black” dress code, but even then women typically have 3 or 4 lines of instructions as to what they can and can’t wear. And the men? Black tux. Every setting.
Like this dress code? The boys just need to look “classy”, but the girls get a four paragraph summary of how to look like “ladies”.
“At some point I was a happy African feminist who does not hate men and who likes lip gloss and who wears high heels for herself but not for men. Of course a lot of this was tongue-in-cheek, but that word ‘feminist’ is so heavy with baggage, negative baggage. You hate men, you hate bras, you hate African culture, that sort of thing.”
The quote is so true, though, and I think it goes back to one of my favorite lines from Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist: “It’s hard not to feel humorless, as a woman and a feminist, to recognize misogyny in so many forms, some great and some small, and know you’re not imagining things.” You just start to wonder if you’re the only person seeing these things, so you get more vocal…but we already established that women aren’t supposed to be vocal, right? So, “feminist” becomes this negative, man-hating term.
“And then we do a much great disservice to girls, because we raise them to cater to the fragile egos of males. 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 will threaten the man.”
“My own definition of feminism 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.”
So, readers, how do you feel about the way Adichie approaches feminism? If you don’t consider yourself a feminist, what makes you hesitate? If it’s the term itself more than the ideas, what do you find unappealing?