Join the Conversation:  A Book Review of Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in 15 Suggestions

“When your children and grandchildren ask you what you did in the war against racial and gender inequality, what will you say?” – a mentor

A recent study by The American Lawyer revealed that at our current rate, female equity partners will not reach 30 percent until 2081, and without extraordinary new efforts, parity remains only a distant possibility.   Currently, women make up about 47% of graduating law school classes and 45% of incoming Big Law associates but only 16% of equity partners.  This means that men make up only 55% of incoming Big Law associates but almost 85% of equity partners. 

Dear Ijeawele is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s letter to a friend, who asked how to raise her baby girl a feminist in today’s world.  The book consists of 15 suggestions on how to raise a feminist daughter.  It’s important to the conversation on gender disparities in the workplace because thinking about how to raise our children begs the question of how to change our behaviors and actions now to make gender equality more real for our children.  And what we expect the workplace to look like 50 years from now will affect how we raise our kids today.  Below I’ve included my interpretation and summary of Adichie’s 15 suggestions on how to parent and what values to instill in raising a feminist daughter. 

1. Continue to work. 

Quoting a journalist, Adichie writes, “‘Never apologize for working.  You love what you do, and loving what you do is a great gift to give your child.’” 

Adichie adds – and this may be especially relevant to lawyers in Big Law:  “You don’t even have to love your job; you can merely love what your job does  for you – the confidence and self-fulfillment that come with doing and earning.”

2. Share parenting and household responsibilities equally with your partner if you have a partner. 

What does “equally” mean?  Adichie offers that you’ll know that responsibilities are equally shared when you lack of resentment:  “Because when there is true equality, resentment does not exist.”

3. Do not constrain your child with, or let your child be constrained by, traditional notions of gender roles.

Examples include needing to cook, wear pink clothes, or play with dolls. 

4. Expect and demand full equality, and do not settle for less.

For example, avoid language that assumes that female well-being is a result of male benevolence:  “Philip May is known in politics as a man who has taken a back seat and allowed his wife, Theresa, to shine.” (italics added)

Adichie observes:

Our world is full of men and women who do not like powerful women.  We have been so conditioned to think of power as male that a powerful woman is an aberration.  And so she is policed.  We ask of powerful women:  Is she humble?  Does she smile?  Is she grateful enough?  Does she have a domestic side?  Questions we do not ask of powerful men, which shows that our discomfort is not with power itself, but with women.

5. Read.

Teach your child to love to read. 

6. Be critical of bias- and prejudice-laden language.

For example, nicknames like “princess” are loaded with assumptions such as a girl’s delicacy or her fate of being saved by a prince. 

7. Do not prioritize your child’s marital or maternal roles above all else or link marriage or being a mother to your child’s sense of identity or success.

The problem, according to Adichie, is that we condition girls, but not boys, to aspire to marriage such that girls grow up to become more preoccupied with marriage than men.  Then when women marry men, the relationship is automatically uneven because the institution matters more to one than the other. 

8. Reject likeability and speak your mind.

9. Take pride in your identity, e.g. gender, race, and ethnic identities.

10. Instill non-normalized or traditional perceptions of beauty.

For example, children will see in magazines and TV that whiteness is valued, so create alternatives.  Let them know that slim white women are beautiful, and that non-slim, non-white women are also beautiful. 

11. Question social norms and reject biological justifications for inequality.

For example, men may be generally physically stronger than women, but that is no reason to give children their father’s name.   

12. Unlink sex and shame, and do not hold women responsible for managing the appetite of men. 

For example, in some cultures, women must be covered up “to protect men,” which reduces women to “mere props used to manage the appetites of men.” 

13. Do not elevate men to pedestals. 

14. Treat women as equal to men, as opposed to “better” or “worse,” and don’t forget that female misogyny exists.

15. Accept differences, and do not judge people who are different as “better” or “worse.” 

The problem with some of Adichie’s suggestions is that they assume we live in a more ideal world.  For example, when women and racial minorities defy the stereotypes of being “communal” or “reticent” and instead speak up or assert themselves, they are penalized, judged to be “less loyal” or “super-aggressive.”  Unlike men, often women and racial minorities do not get to speak up – or exercise power – without consequences until they “earn status.”  In that sense, teaching our daughters to simply disregard traditional gender roles, reject likeability, and speak up, as much as we aspire to these principles, may not be enough – may not result in them actually being treated as equals or otherwise achieving success – in today’s, or tomorrow’s, world.  Instead, as with today, our daughters may still need to walk a fine line between comporting with and defying traditional stereotypes to achieve their goals, to be respected, or to be treated as equals. 

In addition, Adichie argues that we should not teach our daughters to aspire to marriage or see it as an “achievement.”  But in today’s world, marriage can correlate closely with a woman’s career success:   the vast majority of women who have served as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies were or have been married, many of whom reported that they “could not have succeeded without the support of their husbands, helping with the children, the household chores, and showing a willingness to move.”  In that sense, marriage can empower women, and it may be valuable to teach our daughters to aspire to supportive marriages.    

Finally, given that most senior leaders of organizations are men today and at this rate will continue to be men when our children and grandchildren grow up, it is just as important – if not more important – to raise feminist sons as it is to raise feminist daughters.  Many of Adichie’s suggestions can be applied to sons, from not constraining your child to traditional gender roles to treating women and men as equals.  But in particular, instead of simply asking our daughters to reject likeability and speak up, we can raise our sons to stop penalizing women when they speak up.  And instead of asking our daughters to put less of a premium on their marital or maternal roles, we can raise our sons to put more value in their marital and parental roles. 

I want to be able to use Adichie’s advice as principles for raising my children.  I want my daughters and sons to be able to just as easily achieve their goals while speaking their mind, breaking traditional gender roles, and rejecting likeability.  But based on today’s research and statistics, if we want to take these suggestions at face value and raise our children using these principles, we have to first change our world.  

Write a comment

Please login to comment

Remember Me

Become a Member

FREE online community for women in the legal profession.



Subscribe to receive regular updates, news, and events from Ms. JD.

Connect with us

Follow or subscribe