How Do You Raise A Feminist Daughter? Chimamanda Adichie Has 15 Suggestions

Mar 3, 2017
Originally published on March 6, 2017 8:17 am

A few years ago, Chimamanda Adichie received a message from a childhood friend asking for advice: She wanted to know how to raise her newborn daughter to be a feminist.

For Adichie — a best-selling author who has also made a name for herself as a leading feminist voice — the question was a bit daunting, but she wrote a long letter back to her friend. Now, that letter has been published as a book. It's called Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, and it talks about everything from how to choose toys to teaching self-reliance to challenging traditional gender roles.

Adichie says writing the letter was useful for her, too. "Yes, I wrote it for my friend, but I think to a large extent it was also my way of mapping out my own thinking. Because I have talked a lot about these things and I care very much about them and I get very passionate ... but I realized I didn't actually have a concrete map of the particular, specific things that I think will help if we do them differently."


Interview Highlights

On "feminism-lite" and why it's harmful

It means raising a girl to believe that she is inferior to a man, but that the man is expected to be good to her; that women are somehow naturally subordinate to men, but men have to treat women well. And I find it dehumanizing to women because I think that surely we have to have something more than male benevolence as the basis for a woman's wellbeing.

I also think that that kind of feminism-lite, you know, often uses the language of power. And an example from the book is a British newspaper writing about the British prime minister and saying that her husband had "allowed" her to shine. And I think it's the kind of language that's used so often that we just think it's normal, but it's so problematic. ... The premise, of course, is it's kind of like the headmaster has allowed the little girl to ascend.

And I just think it's important, very early on, to let children be aware of this. Right, so if a child — and when she's 3, of course, she's not going to be reading the newspapers, but when she's a bit older — to say to her, "Do you see? This is not OK and here's why: 'Allow' is the language of power, and you can't use that when you're talking about two people who are equal."

On the importance of teaching girls to reject likability

I think the way that a lot of girls are raised in so many parts of the world is that idea that you have to be likeable. And likeable means you have to kind of mold and shape what you do and say based on what you imagine the other person wants to hear. ...

Actually, I was just thinking about a friend of mine who lives and works in Lagos, [Nigeria]. And she's talking about her superior at work, who she said was making her very uncomfortable because he made very demeaning remarks about her appearance, about her breasts, that kind of thing. And she said, you know, "I just can't take it anymore. I need to tell him to stop." And one of the men, a friend of ours who was there, said to her, "Well yes, you should, but make sure you're not rude about it." And my friend said, "Of course I won't be rude."

And I remember being struck by that because I thought, He's demeaning you, this person. You're uncomfortable and unhappy, but you're still consumed by how not to be rude when you tell him to stop. And I thought, You know what? You should be bloody rude! And I remember also thinking, Only a woman raised in the way that we've been sort of conditioned would think about not being rude in telling somebody who's really hurting her to stop.

And for me it's the consequence of likeability; it's what that idea of likeability does. And I think instead we should teach girls to just be themselves, and that idea that you don't have to be liked by everyone. And it kind of makes me wonder what kind of world would we have lived in if women had been allowed to be their full selves?

On the importance of teaching difference

My general approach is teach the child that we don't understand everything. ... "I don't know, and it's OK that I don't know." I think it's important to just say to kids, "Look, there's difference in the world. The norm of our existence as human beings is difference. We're not all the same, and it's OK." ... Then it makes them just kind of shrug when things that don't fit their own narrow existence sort of appear to them.

On why it's important to start having these conversations early on

By the time we are older, it's much more difficult to unlearn things that we've learned, which is why there are so many women who — even though ideas of gender are bad for them, stifle them — they kind of still go along with it because that's what they know. If we start early to start to challenge it, push back, then, you know, a woman is more likely, when she is an adult, to have those tools to say, "You know, in the end I'm going to live the life I want to live."

Editor Bridget Kelley, producer Jordan-Marie Smith and digital producer Nicole Cohen contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A few years ago, Chimamanda Adichie received a message from a childhood friend asking for advice. She wanted to know how to raise her newborn daughter to be a feminist. Now for Adichie, a best-selling author who's also made a name for herself as a leading feminist voice, this question was still daunting.

CHIMAMANDA ADICHIE: My first reaction was to delete the email and pretend I never got it - no, I'm kidding.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Joking aside, Adichie wrote a long letter to her friend, a letter that's now been published as a book. It's called "Dear Ijeawele, Or A Feminist Manifesto In Fifteen Suggestions," suggestions ranging from choice of toys to teaching self-reliance to challenging traditional gender roles. I asked Adichie how she approached the task.

ADICHIE: For my friend - and I think many of my friends and family - I embody feminism. And it's not always a good thing I think that I need to say.

CORNISH: Right.

(LAUGHTER)

ADICHIE: So she - what she said to me really was, I want my child to have a better life than I did. She didn't mean it in that general way I think that all parents really want their children to have better lives than they themselves had. But it was particularly gendered.

What she meant was, I don't want my daughter to have the experience that I had of being a woman in the world. For her, it was saying, how do I give my daughter the tools so that she faces the world in a way that will be better for her, that will be different from how I faced the world?

CORNISH: In the first handful, there are some things that people may recognize. Number one, be a full person - right? - like, be a person in your own right that your child can admire. Another one - do it together, the idea that there is equality in the parenting process.

ADICHIE: Yes.

CORNISH: I think more and more as generations go on, we're hearing people talk about these things. But there are also ones that I think are a little more pointed. One of them is the danger of feminism lite, the idea of conditional female equality. What does that look like when you're trying to raise a child? What does that mean?

ADICHIE: It means raising a girl to believe that she is inferior to a man but that the man is expected to be good to her, that women are somehow naturally subordinate to men but men have to treat women well. And I find it dehumanizing to women because I think that surely we have to have something more than male benevolence as the basis for a woman's well-being.

I also think that the kind of feminism lite, you know, often uses the language of power. And an example from the book is a British newspaper writing about the British prime minister and saying that her husband had allowed her to shine. And I think it's the kind of language that's used so often that we just think it's normal, but it's so problematic because...

CORNISH: Right, because it was a compliment here.

ADICHIE: Yes.

CORNISH: It was saying look at this wonderful marriage where this man...

ADICHIE: Yes.

CORNISH: ...Allows her to be the leader of a major country (laughter).

ADICHIE: Yes. And the premise of course is kind of like the headmaster has allowed the little girl to ascend. And I just think it's important very early on to let children be aware of this. Right, so if a child - and I suppose - I mean when she's 3, of course she's not going to be reading the newspapers - but when she's a bit older - to say to her, do you see this is, you know - this is not OK, and here's why. Allow is the language of power, and you can't use that when you're talking about two people who are equal.

CORNISH: And it's a conversation you're saying that can start quite early.

ADICHIE: I think it should start quite early and partly because by the time we are older, it's much more difficult to unlearn things that we've learned, which is why there's so many women who kind of still go along with it because that's what they knew.

CORNISH: One other lesson here is teach her to reject likeability. And obviously we heard a lot about that (laughter) in the last year with our own election here in the U.S. and having a female candidate. But also, you link this to the idea of teaching children about fairness and even consent, which was a leap I hadn't quite made (laughter) in teaching children to be kind, teaching girls what it means to be, quote, unquote, "nice."

ADICHIE: No because I think the way that a lot of girls are raised in so many parts of the world is that idea that you have to be likable. And likable means you have to kind of mold and shape what you do and say based on what you imagine the other person wants to hear.

And I think instead, we should teach girls to just be themselves and that idea that you don't have to be liked by everyone, you know? I really do believe that this world is such a diverse, wonderful place that there is somebody who will like you for you (laughter).

CORNISH: This gets to the last suggestion, which is about teaching difference. This struck me as something that you obviously could teach young boys as well but especially in an era where this generation is going to grow up with the idea of gender nonconforming friends or the idea that there is genders on a spectrum. They're just having a completely different education I think than even you or I...

ADICHIE: Yes.

CORNISH: ...Not that long ago.

ADICHIE: Yes, absolutely.

CORNISH: How do you think about that when it comes to, like, children and the feminist manifesto...

ADICHIE: Yeah.

CORNISH: Right, like, how do you fit that in?

ADICHIE: You know, it's very interesting because there are things that I don't fully understand, and my general approach is teach the child that we don't understand everything. I think it's a refusal to say I don't know, and it's OK that I don't know. I think it's important to just say to kids, look; the norm of our existence as human beings is difference. We're not all the same, and it's OK.

CORNISH: And not to make an excuse for that, not just to say, don't stare or something like that...

ADICHIE: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...Or don't ask about so-and-so's parents but to say, it's going to be different from yours...

ADICHIE: Yes.

CORNISH: ...And you'll be OK (laughter).

ADICHIE: Yes. And by the way, I think it's OK to ask because actually, I think when we say to children, no, no, no, don't look or don't ask, that's a problem because then it's kind of - I think it shrouds everything with a kind of mystery that also often has a, you know, dark underbelly where kids are thinking, OK, it must be bad.

If my daughter asks me, I'll be like, you know what? I don't really know. I don't know somebody. It's OK people are different. They're not like us. It's fine, right? The world is full of people who are not like us.

And I'll sort of bring those books that show you, you know, aboriginal children with blond hair. And I'll be like, well, they - here they are, and they're very happy because I think just starting out with that I think is just very useful because then it makes them just kind of shrug when things that don't fit their own narrow existence sort of appears to them.

CORNISH: You know, you mentioned your child. You're a mother now yourself with a baby girl. How has this made you think differently about raising a child because you actually say in the book you realize how easy it is to dispense advice about...

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: ...Raising a child when you're not facing the reality of doing it yourself. So you've had those conversations or maybe been on the other side of that. How has all this made you think differently?

ADICHIE: It's just made me think, like, forget all those suggestions. Do whatever the hell you can do. I'm kidding, Audie (laughter).

CORNISH: That's why it's a short book I guess.

(LAUGHTER)

ADICHIE: Yeah. No, you know what? Seriously, it hasn't - having a baby girl - and I wanted to have a baby girl. I hoped it would be a girl really purely for vanity reasons because if I had had a boy, I think the sort of upbringing would be the same largely. I just wanted a mini-me. I wanted to sort of have her, you know - if I did my bantu knots, then I could do bantu knots on her hair. That was why.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

ADICHIE: But...

CORNISH: I like that you're upfront about this.

ADICHIE: Oh, yeah.

CORNISH: Most people are hiding this part of the childbearing process.

ADICHIE: You know, this is true. But really I mean the difference is it has brought an entirely different kind of love into my life. That's really what the difference is. It's cliched, but I don't think I conceived of this love before she came. But now she's here. It's also made me so much more desperate for the world to be better.

CORNISH: Chimamanda Adichie, thank you so much for speaking with us.

ADICHIE: Thank you.

CORNISH: Chimamanda Adichie - her new book is called "Dear Ijeawele, Or A Feminist Manifesto In Fifteen Suggestions."

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