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Should We All Be Feminists?

By July 3, 2017 8 Comments

By Brian Keepers

This past Christmas my sister-in-law, an ordained minister in the RCA and a Ph.D. student at Wheaton, gave me a compelling little book titled We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Adichie is a Nigerian award-winning novelist, and this little book is actually based on a talk she delivered in December 2012 at TEDxEuston, an annual conference focused on Africa. (click here to watch her TED talk)

Adichie acknowledges that the word “feminist” is a loaded word, a word that carries a lot of baggage for many. She tells the story of her childhood friend, Oklahoma, who was the first one to say to her, in the heat of an argument when they were 14 years old, “You know, you’re a feminist.” “It was not a compliment,” Adichie recalls. “I could tell from his tone—the same tone with which a person would say, ‘You’re a supporter of terrorism.’”

At the time, Adichie didn’t even know what the word meant. Years later she would be called this again, after writing a novel called Purple Hibiscus (2003). A Nigerian man, a journalist, informed her that people were tagging her novel as feminist. His well-meaning, unsolicited advice: Don’t ever call yourself a feminist, since feminists are “women who are unhappy because they cannot find husbands.”

So Adichie decided to call herself “a Happy Feminist.” When she was told that being a feminist is un-African, she then started calling herself, “a Happy African Feminist.” When a friend told her being a feminist meant hating men, she decided she would be “a Happy African Feminist Who Does Not Hate Men.” At some point, it evolved to “a Happy African Feminist Who Does Not Hate Men And Who Likes To Wear Lip Gloss And High Heels For Herself And Not For Men.”

In both the TED talk and her writing, Adichie manages to keep her humor and grace. But she acknowledges that beneath it all there is also anger, pain, and deep sadness. She tells a story about being passed over in school as a hall monitor, something she deeply desired and was awarded to the smartest kid in the class, but it went to a boy in the class (even though she had the highest grade) because girls can’t be hall monitors. She tells stories about discrimination and sexism she experienced in restaurants and hotels. And she shares stories about women in her country who are regularly mistreated, beaten, and sexually abused.

But it’s not just about overt and violent acts of sexism (as awful as such things are). Adichie is concerned about all the subtle ways that gender stereotypes are embedded in our particular cultures and societies (and it’s not just African culture). She points out that even though 52 percent of the world’s population is female, most of the positions of power and prestige are reserved for men. She quotes the late Kenyan Nobel peace laureate Wangari Maathai, who put it so simply: “The higher you go, the fewer women there are.”

The part of Adichie’s book that most got me, however, is where she insightfully addresses gender stereotypes. We teach girls they need to be liked, and that means girls can’t show anger or be aggressive or disagree too loudly because that makes her “unlikable.” But we don’t teach boys to care about being likeable. No, when a boy is angry or aggressive or tough, we either excuse it or we even praise boys for it!

Adichie describes how in Nigeria, masculinity is defined in a very narrow way, which serves as a hard, small cage that boys are forced into. “We teach boys to be afraid of fear, of weakness, of vulnerability. We teach them to mask their true selves, because they have to be, in Nigerian-speak, a hard man.” (p.26)

This is a horrible disservice to boys, says Adichie, because by forcing them into this cage where they must be hard, “we leave them with very fragile egos. The harder a man feels compelled to be, the weaker his ego is.”

The result of this is an even greater disservice to girls. We raise girls, then, to cater to the fragile egos of males. “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller.” Adichie goes on: “We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful but not too successful, otherwise you will threaten the man. If you are the breadwinner in your relationship with a man, pretend that you are not, especially in public, otherwise you will emasculate him.’” (p.27-28)

Can we pause right here and sit with this for a minute? This statement is so arresting: We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. Why? So that we, men, can avoid having our fragile egos bruised or threatened. It stings, but I think she’s right.

Adichie is addressing her own Nigerian culture. But she also speaks to us all. Is this not a relevant message for what is happening in our own nation? In our cities and towns, communities, institutions, churches, and families?

Last Thursday President Trump went on another Twitter tirade, attacking the intelligence and appearance of Mika Brzenzinski, cohost of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” In response to the uproar (from Democrats and Republicans), Trump’s spokesperson justified his sexist cyber-bullying because Mika, a strong critic of the President, “deserved it.” The President, who is praised by many for being hard and tough, is “fighting fire with fire.” On the one hand, Trump is a product of our own myths of masculinity prevalent in U.S. culture. On the other hand, as a white, male leader in a position of power—the highest office of power—he is only perpetuating these myths and making it worse for both our daughters and our sons. We need more from him. We must expect more.

I’m a forty-one-year-old white, evangelical, male pastor. And I know that I’m part of the problem. I, too, have bought into these myths of masculinity in ways of which I’m not even fully aware. And I have my own gender biases that are blind spots. But I also know that I am part of the solution.

It’s time for more of us men to speak up. Not because our gender equals need us to sweep in and save the day. There are many women who are speaking up in ways that are truthful, healthy, courageous, strong and compassionate. Chimamanda Ngogzi Adichie is one of them. But it’s time we men join our voices in solidarity and support, and are even willing to more honestly address our own fragile egos and insecurities, and wonder, “In what ways might I begin to help change the culture(s), systems and structures of which I am a part?”

I say this not just as a pastor and leader but, even more so, as a husband and father of two daughters. I say this as a follower of Jesus, who in his own way could be called a feminist.

Maybe you’re still hung up on that word, feminist. Maybe Adichie’s definition will help. Most simply, she says, a feminist is “a man or woman who says, ‘Yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better.’”

The President must do better. I must do better. We men must do better. Partisan politics aside, can we all just agree on this—for the sake of our daughters and sons and the world we are passing on to them—that we all must do better?

Brian Keepers

Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.


  • Monica R Brands says:

    Thanks for this, Brian.

  • Ruth Boven says:

    I don’t know you, Brian, but I respect you so much for this. Thank you!

  • Barbara Top says:

    I appreciate your comments. We need to see each other as God sees us, as His creation.

  • Sarah Parker says:

    Brian, this touched me so deeply. As a woman, as a mother of girls, as a citizen who desires my leadership and government to upgold the rights of all humanity, I’m grateful for the voice that lifts up the gift that is femaleness. Thank you for continuing to shine light on the patriarch model of our culture, of many cultures. We should continue to hold those who speak lightly about others accountable for their loose lips and casual comments. We need to help all live into the beauty of empathy, tolerance, and compromise, often stereotypically feminine traits. They are the traits of Jesus. They are the human image in which we were designed.

  • Hanna says:

    Very touched, thank you!

  • Anne Weirich says:

    I wonder if perhaps you can stop self-identifying as a leader… and stop you description at the word pastor. That might be another step along the long past time men should have said something. Doing better is not enough. You just have to do it. Period.

  • Jan VanKooten says:

    It is striking to me that all the above comments on your thoughtful and strong call to (feminist) action, especially but not only to men, are from women. I wouldn’t want to ascribe something major to this outcome, but it does speak.

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