Charlotte Kessler | 26 June 2017.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of the best known contemporary feminists; she is a Nigerian writer of novels, short stories and feminist theory. In 2014, she published her essay We Should All Be Feminists after giving a Tedx talk on her approach to feminism and followed it up with her feminist manifesto Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions in March 2017. Written as a letter to a friend, and recommending how to raise her newborn girl, Dear Ijeawele makes powerful statements about feminism today. Issues addressed in Dear Ijeawele resemble those raised in Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist classic The Second Sex, published in 1948. I will examine how Adichie has furthered de Beauvoir’s feminist thought and made it more inclusive and therefore better suited to contemporary feminism. Adichie echoes, whether consciously or unconsciously, arguments made by de Beauvoir in The Second Sex about childhood, the mother and marriage.
Adichie’s first two recommendations address motherhood. She urges her friend not to define herself by motherhood and encourages her not to think of it as ‘doing it all’ (11). ‘Our culture celebrates the idea of women who are able to ‘do it all’ but does not question the premise of that praise’ (11). Here, Adichie addresses the inclination of society as well as women themselves to be all encompassed by motherhood, making it their sole identity. She goes on to say that Ijeawele and her husband, Chudi, have the same responsibility for the upbringing of their daughter. Parenthood is a choice and this responsibility should be shared equally between the partners. In The Second Sex, de Beauvoir speaks very negatively about motherhood. De Beauvoir does not imagine women combining motherhood and a professional career, and entirely distances herself from the traditional role of the wife. Adichie overcomes this aversion to motherhood on condition of shared responsibility.
Similarly, Adichie asks her friend to ‘never speak of marriage as an achievement. Find ways to make clear to her that marriage is not an achievement, nor is it what she should aspire to’ (24). In de Beauvoir’s opinion, a woman cannot be an individual within the confines of marriage as the man takes on a dominating role within this partnership. Adichie makes suggestions for overcoming these constraints of marriage, we need to ensure that neither man nor woman should ‘be expected to make marriage-based changes’ (28).
Adichie continues by recommending that Ijeawele teach her daughter that ‘the idea of ‘gender roles’ is absolute nonsense.’ (13). At the foundation of Adichie’s thinking lies de Beauvoir’s famous statement that ‘one is not born, but rather becomes, woman’ (293). She argues that gender roles are taught by society. Adichie draws on an example from recent debates on Nigerian social media. There is a conception about ‘women and cooking, about how wives have to cook for husbands. It is funny, in the way that sad things are funny, that we are still talking about cooking as some kind of marriageability test for women’ (14). De Beauvoir claims that the link between domestic work and a little girl’s life is easy to make. There is a solidarity between the child and the housewife because there is not much physical distance between them (de Beauvoir 310). In the line of de Beauvoir’s argument, Adichie is right to warn Ijeawele against associating domestic work with women. She states: ‘If we don’t place the straitjacket of gender roles on young children, we give them space to reach their full potential. Please see Chizalum as an individual. Not as a girl who should be a certain way’ (16).Finally, Adichie agrees with de Beauvoir that we should not accept biological reasoning for privileges men have. Biology is not a reason for social norms. She claims that ‘social norms are created by human beings, and there is no social norm that cannot be changed’ (37). De Beauvoir extensively argues this case in her chapter ‘Biological Data’. The distinction de Beauvoir makes between sex and gender enables her to attack the notion of anatomy as destiny. De Beauvoir argues that the woman’s body ‘is not enough to define her; it has a lived reality only as taken on by consciousness through actions and within a society’ (49).
Sixty-nine years lie between Achichie’s and de Beauvoir’s feminist manifestos and yet they address almost identical issues. Both feminists are concerned with social conditioning and its resulting female oppression, the limitations of gender roles and the dangerous belief that anatomy is destiny. Adichie believes in a hopeful future and actively tries and offers a guide to overcome these gender inequalities. She makes suggestions that might enable the next generation to surmount gender stereotypes. In contrast to de Beauvoir, Adichie does not dismiss marriage and motherhood, but makes recommendations on how to bring equality to the home and to parenthood. She makes practical suggestions for modern feminism, furthers de Beauvoir’s thoughts and makes them accessible to the contemporary woman.
Charlotte graduated with a BA in Drama and English Literature from Anglia Ruskin University in 2016 and is currently studying an MSc in Comparative Literature at the University of Edinburgh. She is particularly interested in the political impact of theatre and literature and is working on contemporary migration literature for her Masters dissertation.
Edited by Brad Copper and Margaret Graton.
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions. Apple Books ed., 4th Estate, 2017.
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. We Should All Be Feminists. Apple Books ed., 4th Estate, 2014.
De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Trans. by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. Jonathan Cape, 2009.