ENG 363 – “Dear Ijeawele…”

The premise behind Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is what to do to raise your child a feminist and/or be a feminist while raising a child. Hot on the heels or reading Crispin’s so-called manifesto, I was thrilled to read something that actually added to the conversation of Feminism without just being an angry rant. Angry rants are for blog posts (see my previous ENG 363 for a prime example), not for printed publications. Those poor trees that suffered for Crispin’s independently published diatribe, may their spirits haunt Melville House for eternity.

My goodness does Adichie get it right; and by “get it right” I mainly mean she echoes what I already have decided is the best way to raise my child. She reminds her friend that she is more than just a “mother” and that “mother” does not mean “primary caregiver”. The first line that struck me and made me want to quote it is “The knowledge of cooking does not come pre-installed in a vagina” (15). Damn straight it doesn’t! I can’t cook for shit! Even with mail-order recipe and food services I still can’t cook! I do not have the mental energy or attention span to do it at all! My husband does all the cooking and I love him so much for it. We started our life together cooking “equally” but soon realized that doing half of the work drained more out of me than him, so we adjusted.

The suggestion to abolish/ignore marketed gender roles is an absolutely important one, and one I absolutely live by. My son has a dollhouse (which no one in the family would buy him for Christmas, so we bought it for him afterward) in which live action figures, Funko Pops, dolls, and papercraft Minecraft animals. He rarely plays with it now, but it was an interest of his for a while to have Anna and Elsa living in the house, Doc Brown in the garage, and Groot in the yard, and so on. While he may be embarrassed at school to mention these things, we remind him that not everyone realizes that children can be “as much of a boy or girl as they want” without ridicule, and so they likely ridicule their kids or condition them to be ready for ridicule. Like Adichie suggests for her friend’s daughter, we don’t measure our son by how much of a boy he is, we measure him on how much of himself he is.

Adichie’s “Feminism Lite” is given a short section in suggestion four, but it is an important one. The idea that men do, and women are “allowed” to do, is insanity. I do not work because my husband “allows” me, I do not create art or write because my husband “allows” it. I do it because it is who I am, and he is supportive of it (and as Adichie points out, “support” is what women do). I’m reminded of the phrase, “Behind every great man is a great woman,” because it implies that a woman should be grateful that she is supporting a man.

“Feminism Lite” also bleeds into much of the rest of the letter/book, especially in section six in which she says to question language. I’m reminded of an article from 1933 about Freda Kahlo, headlined as “Wife of the Master Mural Painter Gleefully Dabbles in Works of Art“. I can 100% assure you that I have never learned about Kahlo’s spouse in art history, but I have always learned about Kahlo as an accomplished artist (and, to point out, not as a “woman” artist, but an artist outright). I have a mohawk and dye my hair, I get tattoos. I sometimes get asked what my husband thinks of it (he loves it, though he would not do any of this himself) and I reply, “he helps me with the hair.” I do not acknowledge what they’re seeking to find, that he “allows” it or that I am “rebelling” against him, but skip to the implication that he’s fully supportive of me being myself. The most important take-away from this section, though, is “Teach her that if you criticize X in women but do not criticize X in men, then you do not have a problem with X, you have a problem with women” (27). This is something that needs taught not only to children, but to adults, to managers, to people in power, to the media, to everyone, everywhere. It is something that I sometimes have to remind my manager; I am a woman in a male-dominated field (as an aside, I am an artist and writer, but I am employed in an engineering role and do my job quite well). He may be enlightened enough to know that my gender has no bearing on my skills (just as my hair, my tattoos, etc. equally have to effect on my work) needs to listen to criticism from my coworkers about me and take into account that they may not be on the same level. Are they complaining that the behavior is wrong, or are they complaining that a woman has behaved that way?

I am glad that Adichie address the ideas of sexuality and romance as well as the shame and insecurity that come from discussing it. I see too often in feminist literature that these ideas are brought up, but not truly discussed. Relationships between two people, whether the heterosexual norm or not, should be about communication and mutual benefit. Femininity is too often about sacrifice and Feminism is too much about about not-sacrificing. Rarely does Feminism and Relationship discussion come down to actual interpersonal communication, authors opting more often to take an us-vs-them approach that echoes the misogynist viewpoints found in history. Turning a bad thing upside-down doesn’t fix it.

Adichie’s central feminist message for the child and mother is that “Be a person, a whole person, and do not define your self, your worth, or your choices by what society says you, as a woman, should do.” She doesn’t once tell anyone to “Just Stop” being a certain way, but rather accept that everyone come from a different place and has different hurdles to cross, and that their choices are their best choices. You can have opinion about things, but you cannot force your views upon someone – you cannot make them “Just Stop” as Crispin would love to be able to do. Adichie’s manifesto is much more useful for feminism, and for humanity. Though her background is far different from mine, her advise is universal.

  1. avatar
    • Lucy Biederman
    • June 17th, 2018

    I’m so glad you draw on your experiences as both a parent and a spouse, here Amanda. I think those experiences, and reflections on those experiences, can enrich our understanding of how feminism actually works in the world. The last two books we’ll be reading for this course are both, in their own weird ways, about feminist parenthood/relationships. I’m looking forward to reading your responses to them!

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