Should We All Be Feminists ?
Should We All Be Feminists ?
I wrote my undergraduate long paper on black American women writers of the 20th century. We didn’t call it a dissertation in those days. I focused on Alice Walker (In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, The Colour Purple) and Zora Neale Hurston (Dust Tracks on a Road), touching on Maya Angelou (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings) and Toni Morrison (Sula). So I became familiar at quite an early stage with feminism in literature, if not more widely in society.
It would be fairer to say that I gained an understanding of ‘womanism’, a more holistic celebration of female behaviour, values and aspirations in an oppressed society. The term is typically used by black American writers. My favourite cousin, a Jamaican American in New York, describes herself as a womanist. She is a fine, independent, creative, determined woman, comfortable in her own skin and fully appreciative of those who have gone before her in the ‘cause’.
Flash forward twenty years or so, and I stumbled across the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, around the time her short story collection The Thing Around Your Neck was published. I am slightly ashamed to admit, though perhaps also slightly amused (noting one of the themes of her latest novel) that I first noticed Adichie because of her wonderful hair. I have long since admired Adichie as a brilliant and inspirational public speaker as well as a wonderfully gifted story teller. She is blessed with an exceptional mind, great insight into history and culture, tenacity, and a disarmingly effective no-nonsense approach.
We have recently been bombarded with Beyonce’s extract from the “We Should All Be Feminists” talk, given by Adichie at the TEDX Euston ‘Challenging Conventional Wisdom’ conference in 2012. I recall watching Adichie deliver this talk via a live video stream. Alongside the images was a feed showing comments posted mostly by young African men. One contributor had the impertinence to claim that Adichie had misjudged the point of TEDX, and was delivering the wrong speech for the occasion. I think he was expecting a talk on business development in Africa, or the rise of Africa, or anything but the need to champion the roles and rights of women in society. Perhaps he had a point, but most of us were delighted to hear how to develop better social values and support equality for all. Especially support for women, of course.
I readily admit to being fascinated by issue of race and gender. I also find myself often in a minority at events where such issues are discussed. That’s fine. I fully accept that women, and particularly black women, tend to be the agenda setters and movement leaders in a number of the areas that I find most interesting. I usually feel most comfortable slipping in at the back, prepared to listen and to allow others (mostly women) to speak. As at the Stylist Book Club event on Americanah in May, for example, I found it slightly vexing when attention was drawn to the lack of men in the room. I am not embarrassed. I just want to fit in as a reader, a follower, one who is simply interested in the author and the book. I want to hear about love and race and hair, from a woman’s perspective. I want to learn. I want to show that men can listen and be supportive. I need to know if there’s anything I can adjust in my life, for myself or for the greater good. What I don’t want is to be celebrated as a ‘token male’, brave enough to stand up and ask Adichie a question. Though I love talking to her at book signings.
But there’s a problem, here. It’s really not about what I want. Feminism, womanism, and the all- encompassing intersectionality are about championing the female point of view. And relishing the breadth and diversity of ideas, values, experiences that matter to women. Sometimes, but only sometimes, my opinions might be requested and relevant. That is completely reasonable.
On a technicality, perhaps, I am never quite sure whether men can be feminists. At the University of Southampton all those years ago, the accepted view was that men could be ‘pro-feminist’, but I have recently read that this term is now frowned upon. I gather that the very question is out-dated and frustrating. The distinction does seem somewhat blurred and unhelpful. I usually tend to take my steer from the women leading the argument in any given context. Being sensitive to their preferences and needs is paramount. Men have had far too great a say throughout history after all. If this means I’m a feminist, then that’s fine. Otherwise, I’m happy to be a feminist empathiser, perhaps, or just a man who values, supports, and loves women. A man who recognizes and champions the cause of women. I will be supportive in the best and most welcome way possible.
So, should we all be feminists ? Who would dare to argue with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ? But I might just have to elaborate a little, to show that I have not completely forgotten the other 49% of the world’s population. Focusing on women is vital. And timely. Always. More widely, we have to be fair, honest, kind, decent, respectful, open-hearted, open-minded and supportive of everyone in society. We must all espouse equality for all, whatever titles we give ourselves. I may be splitting hairs when it comes to names and titles, and even to the scope of the argument, but one thing I know for sure is that I am seeking to become a better informed and better person.
(c) Eddie Hewitt 2014