Book Club: We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Members of the Keele Academic Community read this wonderful book that was written based on Adichie’s TED Talk of the same name.
We then contributed to a conversation via a google doc to allow for us all to talk to each other around our various commitments during covid-19 and lock-down.
Anyone is welcome to respond, you don’t have to be at Keele and we hope that on our next book club text (Feminism, Interrupted: Disrupting Power by Lola Olufemi) to get more voices, follow us on twitter (@KeeleOf) or get in contact to get access to the google doc.
We responded to some questions that were written in this blog post
We followed the below guidelines and rules to make the process work:
Work through the questions with some thinking points or answers of your own.
Be respectful to others’ comments.
Do not delete other people’s comments.
Observe the Women of Keele Educate Safe Space rules.
Five people responded and were in conversation with each other and the result is below.
For ease each respondent is referred to with their initials, so we see a conversation developing between Sophia (SHT), Beth (BE), Aimee (AM), Sarah (SEH) and Dan (DN).
Do you call yourself a feminist? Why or why not?
SHT – Yes I call myself a feminist but I always use the term ‘intersectional feminist’. This is because historically and still today we see a lot of feminisms, a spectrum so to speak, and I want to make sure that I both hold myself accountable to be intersectional with my feminism but also to make sure others, who are marginalised or have differing experiences of being womxn understand that I see them and I am here to listen to them and value their experiences.
AM – I agree with SHT and call myself an intersectional feminist. I realise that – as a white, cisgender woman – I have specific perspectives that mean I experience the world in certain ways and I work continuously to ensure that I do not fall into the trap of universalising my experience.
BE: I have always been reluctant to call myself a feminist, due to misconceptions around what it meant and the media association with radical-feminism.
However, in recent years and after engaging with more literature (especially this book) I would call myself a feminist in the sense that I fully believe in equality for all people (irrespective of race, gender, sex, religion etc.).
SEH: Yes, I do call myself a feminist, but, agreeing with SHT here, I would also use the term ‘intersectional feminist.’
I am white and working class, so I am acutely aware that how I experience my feminism will not be the same as others.
I have rarely been reluctant to call myself a feminist, unlike BE, but through a lot of exploring and searching it has taken me some time to really come to an agreement of what being a feminist means to me.
DN: Yes. I am reading several books on feminism at the moment, and have been involved in a couple of lectures that discuss feminism, but apart from that I would say that I am ‘academically new’ to feminism, if that makes sense. In the journey of learning about the history of feminism (the fluid nature of the whole Ontology, the many definitions and factions, etc.), it still seems to me that feminism as a base is a recognition of an evident inequality.
To call yourself a feminist therefore, perhaps at the base level seems to me to say that you understand that THERE IS an inequality/inequalities. To say that you are not a feminist then by that logic is to say that either you do not understand/are not aware of this, or that you do not agree with this, or perhaps something in between. If I were to categorise how and where I am in terms of specific type of feminist, I would perhaps struggle.
Perhaps at this time it would make more sense for others to categorise me, which right now seems like something I would be comfortable with. That might change, but I think I can accept that possibility. Intersectional feminist seems to me at this stage a great example of the nature of feminism at one of its core values: Emphasis on reflection. To be open-minded; to amend ideas with the progression of thoughts and principles; to listen to anybody with the same level of sincerity and respect. It is what attracted me to the feminist approach in the first place. It is a living organism of thought. I can get behind that.
What is a feminist? Adichie says, “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.” Do you agree with this definition?
SHT – I agree we must all do better, and I agree we should all be feminists but I think we need to add something more to the definition. As feminists we should always lean into our own personal discomforts.
We should always listen and center experiences – using things like ‘no conversation about us without us’ means that as a feminist you do not presume to speak for anyone else’s experiences.
The journey to do better for the problems around gender should also take into account class, sexuality, parenthood, disability, etc. A feminist has to be inclusive in their feminism and ready to listen, and put their own ego to the side.
Be uncomfortable and don’t put that uncomfortable feeling on anyone else but yourself to process as you listen to all the different experiences of womxn.
AM – Once again, I agree with SHT. It’s really important to self-reflect on our own behaviours and how we exist in systems of oppression.
It is important to reflect on the privileges and oppressions that we experience. It can be initially uncomfortable to reflect on how our privileges afford us ‘advantages’, but as SHT explains, discomfort is crucial if we are to practice feminism that is truly intersectional.
BE: I particularly like the simplicity of the definition by Adichie and the way that it portrays feminism as being an acknowledgement for inequality and the imperative for action.
This definition I believe is ‘enough’ to understand what is at the heart of any social action and feminism particularity and is written in a way which is accessible to a wider audience.
However, I also agree completely with both SHT and AM that it does not consider other problems/differences in experience of oppression etc. and therefore it is likely not comprehensive enough, but then again rarely any definition is!
SEH: I’m not sure there is ever one specific definition as to what a feminist is. Adichie’s explanation is wonderfully simple, and is a great starting point for those who are maybe figuring out what being a feminist means to them.
Agreeing with SHT and AM, maybe one of the catalysts for figuring out ‘your’ feminism is that idea that we need to be uncomfortable, it needs to make us question and be acutely aware of our own privileges, and that our experience is not the same as others. There are so many questions that feminism and being a feminist brings up, and what might make things ‘better’ for one person is not necessarily universal across the board.
DN: Well, I may have gone into this a little on the previous question. However I would suggest that, because of the nature of feminism as I am currently aware of it, I would say that I would both agree and disagree with it, but I am not sure they are the right terms for my feelings towards it.
‘Definition’ seems a strange term when considering feminism too. Adichie’s essay is wonderful to me for several reasons, one being that it is unapologetically inclusive (‘problem’ unspecified with gender; the idea that ‘we must fix it, we must do better’), but at the same time does not seek approval (this idea of ‘the ingrained value of the need to be liked’ that she discusses).
It allows all readers to get a base of feminism, without pandering to egos. That can be a difficult thing to achieve in any effort.
The first part, the recognition of ‘a problem with gender’ I see. The inequality. Simple. What I feel I am struggling with is the notion of ‘doing better’, which I think is something that all of you have addressed in your answers. What feels important to me, is that those collective ideas is what strengthens/broadens feminism and feminist ways of thinking.
Adichie says her brother is her favorite feminist. Do you have a favorite feminist?
SEH: This one is difficult! I’ve never specifically identified one person and said ‘they’re my favourite feminist.’
Lots of people have lots of different facets that I admire and appreciate – a lot of them are women figures in politics, and eminent female academics, although I am aware that my list is very gender biased.
Some people who come to mind: Jacinda Ardern, for her stellar handling of the recent pandemic in New Zealand, along with other female heads of state. Benazir Bhutto, Mo Mowlam, Mary Robinson… the list could go on!
I also learn an awful lot from the wonderful feminists who are involved in WOKE – I think they probably know who they are.
BE: My favourite feminists are those who I have met through the WOKE group; these are people who have made me question my own assumptions, helped to educate and guide me, who inspire me to try and make small changes to improve the situation of others.
As cheesy as this may sound, this was new to me as I had lived a privileged (‘sheltered’) life before coming to Keele – meeting everyone has significantly changed my outlook and perspective on many things and inspired me to improve as an individual and stand up for my beliefs.
SHT: This one is a hard question, one of my favourite feminists is one of my supervisors. They inspire me regularly and keep me thinking more positively.
One of the lessons I constantly learn from them is to approach things with kindness. Sometimes I can be super frustrated at a situation, wanting faster change or annoyed that more isn’t done and they also always remind me to be patient.
Like BE i also learn constantly from the feminists who are involved with WOKE. One of the greatest achievements of the project has been to provide a meeting of minds of people willing to lean into discomfort, educate each other, learn together and continue to develop their own approaches.
A favourite feminist who I have never met is Sara Ahmed – everything she writes is amazing, sometimes I read her and she has echoed my thoughts, other times she makes me think further and in more detail. She is a wonderful academic.
DN: Ah. I have thought about this question a lot since first reading over this document over a week ago. I have many. My mother is one of my top two heroes. Is she a feminist? Undoubtedly. Is she an inspiration? Every single day. Is she my near-complete self-defined characterization of power? Yes. Has she absolutely bulldozed sexist oppression whenever she has encountered it? Oh yeah! Does she inspire me to be a better feminist/human being/son? Without question.
She is a 5’0 (definitely not 4’9”) Italian unstoppable force, who quite simply affects change on a daily basis. I hope you all get to meet her at some point.
But when considering this question, my thinking kept shifting back to my Nonna, who died just over a year ago. She grew up with 6 brothers and sisters, and another 7 who didn’t make it passed infancy.
For that reason, among many, she was taken out of school at the age of 9. She looked after the home, as well as most of the children while her brothers went to school. She hated this. She loved maths. She resented the fact that she was never allowed to develop her education her whole life. She married her 3rd cousin at 23. He was 51. She always says proudly that it was her choice. At least, to say, in her narrow window of choice, she still felt she had one. They were in love. He was wealthy and could provide.
He was better than the other ‘husband prospects’. He provided an escape for her. But he was abusive. He never let her have her own money. He had most of the control. He was an adulterer. When he died, her and my mother were left with his money and his properties. She developed them, and lived a second life of fiscal, social and emotional independence. She was never intimidated by men again, or indeed the women who had so rigorously controlled her childhood. In her mind, who was to argue with her? She had money, she had a home. She fought with family constantly.
Family who still treated her like the sister who cleaned the house; who changed their dirty nappies; who cared for them when they were sick. They saw her as a handout because ‘she hadn’t earned her money, just married rich.’ They felt she had obligations to spend ‘her husband’s money’ on their businesses. She never flinched when fighting her corner on these subjects.
It would be very easy, and frankly pointless for me to criticize her from a modern-feminist point-of-view in that some of her attitudes would not fall under categories of feminist thinking today.
Such criticisms would be missing the point of feminism’s fluidity and relationship with culture and time. For her time, her situation, her culture, she was definitely a feminist. Is she my mother’s inspiration? Completely.
Does the culture you grew up in have different expectations for boys and girls? At what age do distinctions between the genders start? Do you believe these expectations arise out of biological difference, or socialization?
AM – I think gender expectations, at least in the UK, start before birth and even before conception. Most people/parents I know have an idea about what they want their ‘girl’ or ‘boy’ to be like before that child is even conceived.
These ideas are often intensified if and when the parent(s) choose to find out the ‘sex’ of the baby during pregnancy and then when the midwife announces ‘it’s a boy!’ or ‘it’s a girl!’
These words often set the course of how that child will be treated by others, i.e. whether they’re dressed in pink or blue and given a barbie doll to play with or an action man (I’m thinking about my own childhood here). I think these differences arise out of socialisation.
There’s nothing inherently girly about pink (in fact, pink used to be associated with ‘boys’ in the Victorian era).
BE: I think the privileged (middle class), white British society I grew up in has completely different expectations for boys and girls.
This is a culture where there is very little ‘difference’ at all, whether that be race, sexuality, gender. People are expected to conform to the norms all of the time and if they are ‘different’ are expected to conceal this. I agree with AM, we live in a society where we are gendered from birth, all of the gifts the child gets when born are pale blue or baby pink, cars or dolls.
I also agree that this is down to socialisation and cultural expectations/norms.
SHT – Fully agree with BE and AM. These are socialised norms.
I grew up as a mixed ethnicity ciswoman across two cultures and there are definitely different expectations of boys and girls in both of them.
When I preferred to play with wooden trains and soldiers as a toddler I was breaking convention and often told about it later in childhood. I got my first doll when I also got a baby sister. I assume the logic was so that I could have my own baby to play with. Then later there were family jokes about my brother dressing up in our dresses as a toddler. So I guess on one hand we were free to experiment as kids, but then on the other these became talking points and jokes.
The idea of gendered kids toys still annoys me. I’m not sure there have been enough improvements but at least in the UK we have conversations about the weird binary and gendered nature of toys. As an adult I am still breaking the expected roles I should fulfill as a cis gendered Muslim woman.
The main sticking point is that I don’t want to have children and this is a major faux pas or movement away from what is expected. I also see boys roles really heavily socialised from childhood as well into adulthood. There are expectations of boys in both of my cultures and a lot of those expectations still fall into toxic masculinity ideals. They aren’t good for anyone.
SEH: I grew up as a working class white kid in a relatively well-off rural town. Great credit to my family, as there was never any particular assumption that I would behave like this and my brother would behave like that.
I do remember having dolls, but my Mum always jokes that I was more likely to perform surgery on them, rather than mother them.. I desperately wanted to be a vet as a child, so I had a lot of animals and spent an awful lot of my time outside, pretending that I had my own surgery.
This was always encouraged (both the vet and the being outside), and I never remember having any specific ‘gender attributes’ assigned to me. Both my brother and I loved sport, we love riding our bikes, I very rarely, if ever, wore a dress. I remember going into secondary school, and having an argument with my Mum as to why I had to wear a skirt, rather than the trousers or the pinafore I’d been wearing for however long beforehand.
In my experience, the age distinction for me came at about 11, but I have become increasingly aware that the age distinctions easily start from birth. I have made a decision not to have children, which usually shuts down a conversation, particularly as I am at ‘that age’ where people think that’s an actual opening gambit.
I’m also married, and to a Catholic, and so therefore I carry those particular societal pressures and presumptions about what that means to other people.
I really do believe that these expectations come out of socialisation: I was a teacher until recently, and there was (and still is) a pervading culture and narrative in teaching that ‘boys don’t grow up as quickly as girls, we need to give them more slack’ whilst girls are carrying on this educational burden as they’re ‘meant’ to be a certain way by a certain age.
DN: I want to say first that after reading the answers to this question in particular, I am grateful to be a part of this book club. All of the points raised, from ‘gendered toys’ to different societal pressures regarding having children, to the socialised norms of gendered clothing.
A further addition to this might be my feelings towards what I would hope to be describing correctly as ‘gendered education’. I could not understand why at a young age, more of my male friends, me included would be encouraged to play with KNEX or Meccano, or science kits, and girls seemed to receive diaries, or be more encouraged to paint, or learn a specific musical instrument (not the guitar or drums. ‘Them’s for boys’).
On self-reflection, a naive 15 year old me probably focused on Maths and science partly because subconsciously I saw them as masculine subjects; a very difficult thing for me to admit now.
I suppose it has a lot to do with institutionalised sexism, and feeding boys and girls different information to train them for the ‘career ahead’, a bit like the origins of boy scouts and guides; something I’m reading about in Bananas, Beaches and Bases (Enloe, C.). Truly horrifying.
Adichie describes how disadvantaged women negotiate for power in Nigeria; how might it be easier for women living in privilege to embrace feminism?
BE: Those with privilege have the resource to explore feminism and have the power/freedom of speech to convey their opinions to others, they are also more likely to be taken seriously and listened to (in my own opinion).
However, women in privilege may be somewhat ‘blind’ to some of the issues that feminism encompasses, especially if no one is actively questioning their assumptions. I think learning about/ embracing feminism is a different journey for every individual.
SHT: I agree with BE that women with more privileges can often be blind to broader feminist issues. I think it takes active work to undo your socialised assumptions and being a feminist is a daily set of work. I also think that Adichie raises a good point when she speaks of her grandmother.
Who by her actions was a feminist but would not call herself one. I think when you have the privilege of time to think then you may embrace feminism in theoretical terms more easily, by which I mean have the right language to discuss feminism, but there are many people living or embodying feminism without engaging in the language of feminism and its important to not gate-keep the ideas of who is and is not a feminist when it comes to that. There shouldn’t be an elitism.
There are of course people who actively embody non-feminist lives and so there is an ability to say that person is not a feminist. Or people who hold really bigoted views who call themselves feminists, again, I think you can challenge their feminism and call out their behaviour.
DN: Adichie does describe certain aspects of culture in Nigeria providing further difficulties and pressures for women, such as the example of her friend who chooses to wear a wedding ring in the office to gain respect, even though she is not married. A woman from the UK probably would not imagine a scenario such as that for herself, and that is why so much is put on broadening your knowledge in feminism.
Without that information, someone might not see that there are different levels of inequality, and it is important for everyone to recognise that. There are other cases in different cultures where preconceptions of what a feminist is can be more or less damaging to the individual identifying that way.
Adichie talks about her defining/refining of how she identifies with respect to feminism. There are definitely refinements there that would not be a part of another person from a relatively more privileged background/culture.
SEH: I agree with both BE and SHT here – people with more privileges often bury their head in the sand and have a ‘well it doesn’t matter to me so why should I care’ attitude.
I know a lot of people who refuse to accept that they may well be feminists, as they don’t conform to what their preconceived ideas of feminism looks like.
Feminism is an entirely lived experience, lived by individuals individually.
People in privilege have the tools and the capacity to really realise what feminism means to them, and therefore I think that they need to use this privilege to enable those who may not have the resources to discover their experience for themselves.
Feminists are often described as “angry.” What is the place of anger in advancing or hindering a cause? Can you think of examples, in your own life or in popular culture, where male and female anger is treated differently?
BE: From my perspective, the conception of feminists as angry puts a lot of people off from engaging with feminism as it is portrayed as being negative or sometimes extreme. I think this was an initial misconception of my own and only through talking to proud feminists and reading have I really started to understand what it is all about.
I understand why feminists would be angry at the oppression/inequality, however, I do think that it leads to misconceptions about their intentions and core beliefs, unfortunately.
Although no one should have to take responsibility for this, I believe education and calm reasoning to be a better way to convey a message, even though it is not always effective (but could avoid negative conceptions).
SHT: I think anger is important. It creates change. It demands change. It is a natural feeling when you are pushing back against multiple layers of oppression. It is needed when people die from gendered violence, from intimate partner violence, from bigoted attacks, from being targeted because they are transpeople or nonbinary. Anger is natural and it is needed.
I also think there is a space to not be angry. If you have the energy and the privilege to be able to teach without anger it is useful, it is kindness that will often get through to people. Patience is definitely needed.
I see it as a cycle between anger and patience and kindness, they’re all needed. I think we really need to push back against tone policing though, especially if you are a woman of colour or Black woman. The tone policing is horrendous. We aren’t meant to smile all the time and I think allowing anger and again, leaning into your discomfort if the anger is directed at you is very important.
Yes your feelings might be a bit hurt, your ego bruised, but other people are facing violence and death at the hands of the cis-heteropatriarchy. I am frequently described as angry, preachy or unreasonable by those who don’t like what I say or push back against. I am also described as kind and nice by those who don’t object to what I am saying.
So I guess the image of the angry feminist is also used to derail and undermine feminists as well. It would be nice to not be angry, but not everyone has the luxury. I do agree with BE that the anger can put potential allies off, it can also intimidate and gate-keep from people wanting to learn, but here I think comes the balance. If you have the energy to teach with kindness then it is great to do so but anger can also teach.
SEH: I agree with both points made by SHT and BE here – that anger can, and indeed has, hindered the progress that feminists and feminist teaching has made, but also that anger is so powerful. I am also frequently described as ‘angry,’ whether that be specifically to do with feminism or just in general everyday life, and it is something I have struggled with. I particularly struggled with being ‘angry’ as a teenager: it seemed that no-one was listening to me and that whatever it was i was angry about was usually unfair and unjust, and again no-one cared.
As I’ve gotten older, I have become a lot calmer and more measured when talking about things that I’m passionate about, and this is definitely needed to portray a point of view, but sometimes feminism needs that raw, guttural anger and white heat to make people realise that yes, this is very, very important and yes, it does need to be debated and argued about. Yes, it makes us all feel uncomfortable, but we will never learn and people rarely listen if they’re not put in these positions.
DN: Anger tends to play a part in the advancements and hindering of most causes. The idea the feminist’s anger is so excessive as to be note-worthy seems a lazy response to people who are having their beliefs or understandings challenged.
It is also fundamentally sexist. But that aside, anger is of course important, alongside many other emotions such as understanding, patience and determination.
And in terms of examples of male and female anger being treated differently, there are many. A simple scroll through twitter responses to almost any woman opening a conversation on a difficult topic is met with repulsive threats of sexual violence and death. How anger can be seen as ‘a problem of feminism’ is anyone’s guess.
Adichie points out that boys also struggle under strict beliefs about what it means to be masculine. Do you believe that boys and men pay a price in a world that devalues feminism or insists on hyper-masculinity? How?
SHT: Feminism is for men too. It is an intervention to break patriarchy not to hate boys and men. I do think boys and men pay a price and that toxic masculinity can kill them.
We see this in suicide rates, we see this in the criminal (in)justice system. I think the idea of binary gender kills people too, it feeds further into stereotypes and pushes people into at best discomfort and at worst danger.
I think we are slowly pushing back, there are some great initiatives like Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) which looks at men’s mental health and encourages men to tackle the stigma and talk to their friends with greater emotional vulnerability.
There is also great work being done by people like the Feminist Men Project which again is taking space to talk to about men’s feminism. Great work like Dope Black Dads allows for conversations around fatherhood to be made visible and work like this book open up conversations.
We should all be feminists. It benefits everyone.
BE: I do think that there are big problems around stereotypical masculinity and the expectation of all boys to follow this e.g. being strong, showing little/no emotion. I think this can be very difficult for boys to negotiate especially if these attributes do not come natural to them – these are expected by society and they are often ridiculed or subject to jokes if they do not conform.
From an employment perspective this is problematic as we end up with typified mens/womens jobs and stigma associated with being in the ‘wrong’-gendered occupation.
I think that this is a relatively neglected issue and that more support should be in place to try and alleviate this issue. I think that it goes hand-in-hand with feminism, especially intersectional feminism as it is another example of inequality among individuals based on personal characteristics/attributes.
DN: Two people in my class, when conversing on the subject with me individually, both put forward the question about whether feminism itself was exclusive, and this often leaves some people who do not fall into the ‘appropriate category’ feeling alienated by feminism.
One was a woman, who did not identify with some of the more crass stereotypes that surround feminists, especially female feminists, and found these ideas of feminists intimidating.
Another was a man who flatly said to me, ‘I feel that it is not my place to have an interest in feminism because I am a white male.’ It seemed to me at the time that was down to, more than anything else, because they were looking at feminism purely from their own perspective, and not as a question of inequality.
But then I thought how can that be the case? Even if they were looking at it from their own perspective, surely it wouldn’t change the question: do I understand that gendered inequality exists, and how do I feel about it? How does it affect me? What advantages/disadvantages does this award me?
Hyper-masculinity affects all of us, whether we are a man who is expected to be, as Adichie wrote ‘hard’, or a woman who has to sacrifice more in her relationship so as to not risk emasculating her partner.
I have always felt, partly because of my upbringing, that I have had a relatively healthy relationship with my own masculinity, and society’s expectations of my masculinity. But having said that, I have also always felt that it was one of those things that you can never stop learning about.
There will always be bridges that I will have to cross where I will be in several minds about how I feel about it. Sometimes I imagine I will be disappointed by my initial reaction, and others where I will be proud. If sexuality is a broad spectrum, gender is an endless mirage of colour.
We might not all be exploring our sexuality, but we practice gender exploration everyday, in almost everything we do. Fixed-radical notions of this seem to me to be confining rather than freeing, especially if so much of the spectrum (femininity) is devalued.
I feel like I haven’t really answered this question, but I hope it is useful in any case! Sorry!
SEH: I agree with SHT – feminism has to be for men too. I define my idea of feminism as ‘equality for everyone,’ regardless of biological sex or gender or identity.
If we exclude men from this narrative, then it pushes people into discomfort and danger, just like SHT said.
Everyone pays a price if the idea of binary gender pervades: women are still seen as being shoehorned into particular roles in employment, it is seen as a weakness if men cry. There is a reason the suicide rate in men is much higher, this is the price that is paid when the world devalues feminism and does not accept or listen to the ideas behind it.