My best friend of many years recently began to study at divinity school. Many of the women to whom she provides pastoral care can feel their frustration bubbling up, but they do not know its cause. The cause has something do to with their womanhood. It has something to do with the gaze of male eyes resting malevolently on their endeavors. Many of them have been touched in a way they did not solicit. Many of them have been made to feel small by their husbands, by their bosses, even by strangers who sensed instinctively that these women lacked whatever power might be needed to protect themselves. They simply feel besieged by the lives they have cobbled together.
These are Southern Baptist ladies, Republican ladies, traditional and conservative ladies. They do not even like the word “feminism”, having been made wary by the steady drip of fearfulness in their lives. My friend slips them books to help them step into their own light. A lot of Christian books are garbage, either very poorly written or simply badly argued in order to deepen the subservience of women in religious culture. These women need words from those writers who stand beyond the white picket fencing to which they are accustomed, but they don’t know where to look. They look to my comparatively extremely liberated friend and they take her suggestions.
She will soon be slipping them Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions. It’s a small book, good for hiding inside a fat Bible. They can take the dust jacket off so nobody will shoot an evil eye at all the bad words in the title — feminist, manifesto, suggestions. They can say vaguely that they are reading about African girls, which has a sort of implied missionary goodness to it that will put an end to any scrutiny. Despite what they view as reactionary titling, they should be able to hide the book in plain sight with relative ease.
It’s only 63 double-spaced pages long. Its sentences are short and its word choice is clear. They needn’t have gone to college to be able to understand it. They can read it three minutes at a time, suggestion by suggestion, in between the chores and the kids and the job and the sleep. The suggestions do not seem hard, nor are they expensive. Adichie is sometimes funny and is always realistic. All of this stacks up to a heap of possibilities. Dear Ijeawele is the perfect wedge. It can open the doors that have slammed shut for reasons of safety or bitterness or confusion.
But are they the ones to whom is this book addressed? Who is Ijeawele? She’s a dear childhood friend of Adichie’s who has a new baby girl. So this book is not about how one becomes a feminist, but more about how one teaches feminism to others. We mostly learn by example, but many mothers are not themselves able to be those examples, either casually or explicitly. Adichie is undertaking the daunting task of listing principles by which we may consciously raise the next generation of women to be empowered. “It’s not enough to say you want to raise a daughter who can tell you anything,” she counsels. “You have to give her the language to talk to you” (52). Many women lack this language.
Dear Ijeawele is a shockingly lucid, surprisingly simple road map to living a more feminist daily life so that our daughters may do better for themselves than we did. We should be more authentic and not worry so much about likeability. We should not think of marriage as a prize to be won. We should value our own work and treat each other as equals. We should question the assumptions of gender roles and the assumptions of language. We should be deliberate when we talk about our appearances and our careers. We should have a sense of cultural identity and we should be full people.
The fifth suggestion is one of the best: be sure to read. Indeed, many people need to start by reading Adichie. We cannot break free of systems unless we know how we have been trapped inside of them. As she quite rightly concludes about where our brightest future lies, “I cannot overstate the power of alternatives” (48). Dear Ijeawele offers a comprehensive and comprehensible alternative to patriarchy without ever using words like “patriarchy”. The author doesn’t water down any concepts; she just speaks of them plainly.
Even for those of us who went to graduate school and have wiggled our way past feminism to humanism, Adichie’s adept essay is a refreshing reminder of our first principles and a handy checklist for when we inevitably lose our way, as we will, at times. It’s a shot in the arm that doesn’t hurt at all. You can read it in less time than it takes to drink a bottle of wine.