We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Review by Juliette Deblue, bookshop volunteer
We Should All Be Feminists is a book everyone should read. It has been embraced by millions of people as modern feminism’s call to arms, a call which has reverberated across the globe and aims to rally people irrespective of nationality, race, class background, political persuasion and gender. No one is excluded, no one is exempt from its lessons, and thus Adichie’s manifesto has such broad appeal that a sample of it features in Beyoncé’s chart song ‘Flawless’; a copy of it was given to every sixteen-year-old student in Sweden in 2015; and in January 2017 Portland Oregon’s Broadway Books decided to distribute it for free in protest at Donald Trump’s inauguration.
Even before opening We Should All Be Feminists, two things about it suggest that it’s an important book. Firstly, its title is bold and direct. It’s dismaying that a statement which ought to be self-evident by now can still be deemed provocative, but Adichie already deserves praise for proudly asserting her belief in a movement which is misunderstood and maligned by so many.
Secondly, the very fact that We Should All Be Feminists exists in print points to its positive impact. As Adichie explains, the book is a “modified version of a talk [she] delivered in December 2012” at a conference; the talk received a standing ovation and has since been viewed on YouTube at least 4,317,242 times (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hg3umXU_qWc). The popularity of Adichie’s speech and the resultant demand for it to be published in hard copy testifies to its power to galvanise.
Adichie’s confidence in feminism and, by extension, her faith in humanity’s ability to “plan for a […] fairer world” sustains her argument throughout what proves to be a consistently inspiring and convincing manifesto. The book itself is a tangible artefact of the palpable need for change that Adichie appeals for, and the sound of its pages being turned echoes the applause with which it was welcomed into public discourse.
Another remarkable thing about We Should All Be Feminists is that it is pocket-sized without being reductive, and rich without being dense. In less than fifty pages, Adichie addresses a broad range of feminist issues such as sexism in the workplace, suffocating gender expectations, and rape culture, to name but three topics. If Adichie were a lesser writer, this would be an indictment of her work. However, Adichie’s eloquence and insight enable her to engage with many problems to which, as the reader is gently persuaded, surely feminism offers the most reasonable and loving “solution.” Indeed, the genius of Adichie’s manifesto lies in her ability to preach to those who have yet to be converted, while simultaneously singing to the choir. That is, she knows how to coax those who are “resistant to talk about gender” into the conversation while providing those who are already involved with new material to consider.
Because Adichie explicitly aims to recruit more people to the feminist cause, there is a danger that, in her effort to avoid spooking some readers, she may not seem sufficiently radical to others. Some readers might feel frustrated with Adichie’s style, finding it too placid compared with the hoarse rallying cries that crested the second wave, for instance. Yet, it would be a mistake to underestimate Adichie’s indignation, for it seethes between every sentence, and is only diffused by her compassion and “tongue-in-cheek” humour. In fact, she is decidedly “unapologetic” about her anger in response to the “grave injustice” of “[g]ender as it functions today,” and she urges us to be angry too. Crucially though, in almost the same breath, she also encourages us to be “hopeful” that “human beings [can] remake themselves for the better.” This is the rhetorical equivalent of firing a shot and muffling the almighty noise it generates. She entreats those who are wary of critiquing the strictures of gender to recognise how corrupt the current model is, but immediately softens the blow with her optimism so that they are not scared off. To the newly initiated, she introduces the anger that should incite “bringing about positive change” and insists that we must not be complacent and confuse oppression with what is “natural.” To the jaded, those who have already embraced feminism but are beginning to despair, she offers hope.
We Should All Be Feminists makes for an excellent introductory text to a wider body of work, but it would be a mistake to dismiss it as some sort of overview or primer, when it’s actually a refreshing addition to the feminist canon. It is no small feat to occupy both of these positions at once, but Adichie succeeds because she is a masterful storyteller. Her defence of feminism depends almost entirely on her gift for translating the micro into macro, which she achieves by demonstrating how individual instances of pain are symptomatic of a universal wound. For example, she recounts an incident from her childhood where a boy was elected “class monitor”, despite the fact that this prestigious post was promised as the reward for a competition she had won. Her teacher, who, for the young Adichie and her classmates, represented all authoritative institutions, had “assumed it was obvious” that only a boy should be allowed to patrol “the class with a stick”. The appointed boy, however, was “a gentle soul” with “no interest” in taking the job Adichie “very much wanted,” and Adichie reflects upon this as proof of the fact that gender “prescribes how we should be rather than recognizing how we are”.
This anecdote is one of many Adichie shares, all of which she utilises to emphasise how gender is largely socially constructed and ultimately harms us (“We stifle the humanity of boys” and “shrink” the ambition of girls). Readers who are sceptical of Adichie’s message will still empathise with her experiences and cannot deny their poignancy, while feminist discourse benefits from a vigorous vindication of its maxim “The personal is political.” In addition, Adichie also advocates that “systems of oppression” must not be “blind to one another”, thus lending her voice to the campaign for intersectionality. Furthermore, by comparing how sexism manifests in Nigeria to how it manifests in the United States, Adichie reminds western feminists to consider perspectives outside of America and Europe.
Adichie admits that when reading “classic feminist texts” she often “get[s] bored” and “struggle[s] to finish them.” This is fitting as her book seems to be the antidote to the sort of dense feminist literature that often leads people to the misapprehension that feminism belongs to academia. This is partly an issue of class and education as some “classics” use language that is so obscure it can appear hostile. We Should All Be Feminists provides a welcome relief in that it is warm and accessible without being patronising. In presenting “the little things that sting” as representative of larger social problems Adichie proves that feminism is not coldly cerebral, it is something one feels as a knot in one’s gut and a fire in one’s spirit. My only criticism is that in her final plea, “All of us, women and men, must do better,” Adichie falls into the trap of reinforcing the gender binary. Perhaps an amendment will be made in future editions for readers who are gender non-conforming. Nevertheless, her message is clear and heartfelt. Feminism is not some highfalutin concept, strictly the concern of certain women: feminism can work for everyone, if everyone can accept some degree of responsibility for making the world a kinder, fairer place.
Review originally written in February 2016, updated slightly for its release in the FL newsletter, November 2017.