Nigerian-born writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was already an accomplished novelist when she took to a London stage in 2012 and delivered her now-famous TED Talk, “We Should All Be Feminists.” The speech, which at once champions and defuses the concept of feminism with a series of witty, conversational and powerful anecdotes, has been viewed nearly four million times on YouTube, sampled by Beyoncé and, in 2014, it was turned into a slim volume that is now required reading for every 16-year-old in Sweden.
Recently, Adichie published a second book on the subject, Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, an extended letter to a friend who asked for her advice on raising a strong daughter. Adichie—a MacArthur “genius” and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for her 2013 novel, Americanah—divides her time between Nigeria and the U.S. She spoke with Chatelaine editor-in-chief Lianne George in Toronto.
One of the major premises of your new book is that the language we use is important, so I want to start by asking you about the title, because you call it, quite forcefully, a “manifesto,” but one that’s made up of “suggestions.”
I use manifesto in a playful way. The idea of a manifesto itself is scary, and then you add feminist to it, and it becomes doubly scary. So I wanted to poke fun at it. But also, I mean, they are suggestions because obviously I don’t think you can say to somebody that you must do this.
In the book, you talk about feminism getting bogged down by words like patriarchy and misogyny. And yet the word feminist carries a lot of baggage for people too. Many women feel that, as a movement, feminism doesn’t speak for them. Why do you believe it’s important to preserve that word?
Because we need a word. For me, the idea of using feminist is to take ownership of it and turn it into a word that isn’t associated with the negative extremes of a movement. There are still large portions of the world who think it’s not that big of a problem, that everything is okay now, and that to take on the label feminist is to be an extremist.
I respect Black American women who say, “I feel uncomfortable with taking on the word because, for so long, feminism was for white, middle-class women”—and I take all of that into account, but we need a word. And if you look in the dictionary, it says exactly what I feel, which is a belief in the equality of men and women. Part of my project is not to talk only about gender equality, but also to make that word ordinary, to make it lose its stigma.
Still, even when women support the premise of feminism, many will say, “I prefer to call myself an ‘equalist’ or a ‘humanist.’ ” Is there a case to be made that the word feminist can be a distraction?
Well, here’s the problem I have with words like humanist. The problem that I am talking about, which is gender equality, is not a problem of humanism. The problem is that women have been excluded for being women, and we need to name that. Equalist . . . I think a word like that is not so much concerned with the problem at hand as it is concerned with being comfortable and being kept comfortable. To solve the problem, you have to be willing to engage with discomfort.
In the book, you distill feminism down to the simplest terms: “It means that I am equal, full stop.” Do you think big tomes and cultural-theory texts have over-complicated feminism?
Fundamentally, my vision of feminism, and the reason I do this—you know, obviously I’m driven by a certain passion for this subject; I’d rather be at home writing my novel — is that I want feminism to be redundant. I want us to get to a world where we don’t need to be feminists. The kind of feminism that says you have to read the right books or be a part of this exclusive little party where people are brought in and kept out, the end goal of that—I don’t even know what the end goal is!
A woman, an academic, once said to me, “So now everybody can be a feminist?” And I said, “Yes!” She seemed to think that this was a bad thing, and I said, “That’s the whole point!” I don’t feel the need to make things that are not difficult, unnecessarily difficult.
Your first suggestion for raising girls is to teach them to “be a full person”—that work and motherhood are not mutually exclusive. What do you mean by that?
The way that we socialize girls—and I think this is true for almost every culture in the world—is that we teach them that because you’re the woman or the girl, you’re the person who has to sacrifice, you’re the person who has to compromise. I’ve seen so many women who have reduced themselves, or allowed themselves to be reduced, by this idea of self-sacrifice. Women are taught that the way to love is by giving up themselves. Men are not taught that.
I find that motherhood [further] complicates things, and there’s a lot of guilt involved. I think women feel, “I shouldn’t really think of myself, or think of being other things apart from being a mother.” I’ve often seen that kind of sadness, especially in older women—and it makes me very sad, because I think about all the things they could have been, all the things they could have done. And they could have done all of those things and still have been wonderful mothers.
The domestic sphere is the one area where women have long had a measure of control. Do you think there is, unwittingly, some reluctance to relinquish that ownership—and, say, allow a man to change the diapers, and accept that he can do domestic work as well as she can?
Even that thinking holds women back, because so many women would say, “Well, he won’t do it well; he doesn’t know how to.” Just let him try. If the dishes aren’t perfectly rinsed, maybe he can rinse them a second time. And also, men are like, “Oh, I don’t know how to really do this.” There isn’t a gene that comes with domestic work.
You talk about gender roles being nonsense, which is an idea that has increasingly taken hold. And yet, in the U.S., there was so much antipathy toward Hillary Clinton. How much of that do you think was about gender?
Oh, a lot. A lot. Had Hillary been Jonathan Clinton, she would have won. There are too many men and women who are not comfortable with women having that power. I also think that she was judged not just differently, but unfairly, and I think it was about gender. There’s a sense in which she’s expected to be seen as “clean.” It goes along with that very disturbing discourse—sometimes in feminist circles—that women are morally superior. I don’t agree with that at all. I find it dehumanizing.
Women are human, and I think that there are women who are good and kind, and there are women who are not, and that’s the whole point of being human. But there’s a discourse that says, “Oh, if women ruled the world, we wouldn’t go to war.” I don’t think that’s true. I have been to girls’ boarding schools. It’s not true!
It wasn’t as though her opponent was an average opponent, either.
It’s deeply sad. When I look at [what happened to] Hillary Clinton, it feels personal. I look at her, and I’m in mourning. I feel like America has lost, really lost. This is the president that America now will never have, and it’s worse because it feels really unfair. Had she lost to somebody who wasn’t unhinged, maybe it would be easier for me to handle, but it feels like a colossal waste of a brilliant woman.
Do you think a woman like Hillary Clinton scares people?
Oh, [definitely]. Powerful women scare people—men and women—and the root of it is simple misogyny. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told that I’m scary, by women and men. I don’t apologize for the space that I occupy, because I feel that I am very worthy of that space, and it’s scary to people. Hillary Clinton was terrifying.
And the sad thing about it—one of the things that breaks my heart—is that I think she tried very hard to straddle so many lines, appearing to have authority, but not too much, so that she wouldn’t scare away that voter in Iowa who would then call her a bitch. I feel that’s the reason she kind of became a robot, because I could imagine that before the debates she would have 75 different voices saying to her, “All right, don’t do this, do that, be careful about appearing . . .” Those are things men don’t even have to think about.
In the book, you advise readers not to succumb to “feminism lite.” It made me think of Ivanka Trump, who has been called the president’s chief apologist—and worse—but in the guise of a modern feminist who empowers women. Is that an accurate description of what you would call feminism lite?
Yes. Actually, I would call it many more unkind names, but I won’t. On the one hand, you know, I can see how she would love her father. What is troubling is the excusing of things I think are inexcusable. I can’t understand how reproductive rights for women are still a tenuous thing. There are people I respect whose stance on abortion is that it’s immoral and bad, but I think that’s a position to hold for yourself. I think it’s immoral to hold it for everyone else.
So now you have an administration that’s saying it’s going to defund Planned Parenthood? And why? Because it’s the “abortion provider.” Never mind that Planned Parenthood is a lifesaver for many, many, many women. Or defunding programs on the continent of Africa that, for many women who do not have access to health care, are often a way of getting contraception, ending unwanted pregnancies. Ivanka Trump going out there, defending her father, telling us that he really does care for women—it’s offensive to me. It really is.
Our prime minister, Justin Trudeau, who is a vocal, self-identified feminist, got into some hot water recently for co-hosting an event for women leaders with Ivanka Trump in New York.
Oh, I think it’s unfair [to criticize] him for participating in an event with Ivanka Trump. There’s a certain ideological purity that people insist on, and the world isn’t ideologically pure. You have to engage; you have to engage! I’m very interested in people who are not feminists, because there’s a part of me that wants to persuade. Let’s have a conversation, let’s try and make you come to my side. And to do that, you have to be open to conversations.
You talk about the importance of being angry. There’s not much space for women to be angry in our culture. It’s traditionally perceived as an unfeminine way to be. What is a healthy manifestation of anger?
Having rants when you need to, speaking up, refusing. I mean, my mother, God bless her, believes that if you are a woman and if you are having an argument, the way to win is not to be vocal. The way to win is more of a subterranean, manipulative thing. In many cultures, women are taught to channel anger into other things. I find it so unhealthy.
More women have to speak up and own anger so that, collectively, we become less judgmental of women who are that way. I think women are very harsh judges of women who refuse to be false, who refuse to perform, and it’s very much linked to the idea of being likeable, and it’s mentally exhausting.
So in Nigeria, I sometimes will just let go. You know, I’ll go to a restaurant, and I’ll feel that a waiter has been dismissive of me because I am a woman. I’ll call him back and I’m like, “Hello? You don’t get to do that. No, you need to be more respectful of women.” I just go off, and afterwards I feel better. Sometimes people are looking at me slightly strange, like, “Oh my God.” And I’m like, “Yup.” And for me, it’s that this waiter—the next time a woman comes up to him, he’s going to be a bit more careful, you know?
Last year, you appeared in a beauty campaign for the British brand Boots. Afterwards, there were columns written about how you’d given smart women permission to like makeup and fashion by appearing in those ads. And I thought, it’s so interesting that women still feel like we need permission to like these things.
Yes, yes, yes! It’s so sad, but that’s actually one of the reasons why I did it, because I remember thinking, I like makeup, I like high heels, I like dresses. I know many women who do, and I also know many women who pretend not to, and who find ways to sort of dismiss it, or to intellectualize it in public. I’m just like, “I like high heels. They make me happy,” and quite frankly, the male gaze is irrelevant to me, because really, men don’t even get it.
I dress up and my husband looks at me and bursts out laughing. This happens a lot. He’s just like, “Why are you wearing those shoes? Are they comfortable?” and I’m like, “No. It’s not about comfort. They make me happy.” But there’s a sadness in that women still feel that pressure.
It’s pressure on both sides—pressure to amp it up and pressure to play it down, depending on the audience. Again, it’s performance. In that context, what do you think of selfie culture?
I’m not a very keen fan. I think it’s also a generational thing. I have now learned how to take selfies because my nieces, who are 18, taught me. And they also taught me that you do this [makes Kardashian-style selfie face] . . .
Suddenly, one of the biggest cultural trends for young women is to spend half their lives taking pictures of themselves.
You just said, I think, what my problem is with it. There’s so much pressure on young girls today, and it’s also linked to slut shaming. That’s why I have a problem with it.
It’s tied to that likeability question again.
You’ve got an 18-month-old daughter now. How do you think you’ll navigate those various influences?
There are two competing things, because I want her to be a sexual person who can have desire and talk about it. But I don’t want her to feel that she has to perform for a world that tells her that there is a particular way to be sexy. So I want her to be strong. She is already playing soccer, by the way. And I think those things matter, because she’s going to see her body as a machine that does things. Not just a thing to be prettied up.