We humans

Beware of “Feminism Lite”

Mar 7, 2017 /

Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls out Feminism Lite — “a hollow, appeasing and bankrupt idea.”

A few years ago, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie received a letter from a childhood friend and new mother, asking her how she could raise her baby girl to be a feminist. Adichie’s new book, Dear Iljeawele, is her response, and it contains 15 suggestions for how to empower a daughter to become a strong, independent woman. Here is one of her suggestions.

Beware the danger of what I call Feminism Lite. It is the idea of conditional female equality. Please reject this entirely. It is a hollow, appeasing and bankrupt idea. Being a feminist is like being pregnant. You either are or you are not. You either believe in the full equality of men and women, or you do not.

Feminism Lite uses analogies like “He is the head and you are the neck.” Or, “He is driving but you are in the front seat.” More troubling is the idea, in Feminism Lite, that men are naturally superior but should be expected to “treat women well.” No. No. No. There must be more than male benevolence as the basis for a women’s well-being.

Feminism Lite uses the language of “allowing.” Theresa May is the British prime minister, and here is how a progressive British newspaper described her husband: “Phillip May is known in politics as a man who has taken a back seat and allowed his wife, Theresa, to shine.”


Now let us reverse it. Theresa May has allowed her husband to shine. Does it make sense? If Phillip May were prime minister, perhaps we might hear that his wife had “supported” him from the background, that she was “behind” him or that she’d “stood by his side,” but we would never hear that she had “allowed” him to shine.

“Allow” is a troubling word. “Allow” is about power. You will often hear members of the Nigerian chapter of the Society of Feminism Lite say, “Leave the women alone to do what she wants as long as her husband allows.”

A husband is not a headmaster. A wife is not a schoolgirl. Permission and being allowed, when used one-sidedly — and it is nearly only used that way — should never be the language of an equal marriage. Another egregious example of Feminism Lite: men who say, “Of course a wife does not always have to do the domestic work; I did domestic work when my wife traveled.”

Do you remember how we laughed and laughed at an an atrociously written piece about me some years ago? The writer had accused me of being “angry” as though “being angry” were something to be ashamed of. Of course I am angry. I am angry about racism. I am angry about sexism. But I recently came to the realization that I am angrier about sexism than I am about racism. Because in my anger about sexism, I often feel lonely. Because I love, and live among, many people who easily acknowledge race injustice but not gender injustice.

I cannot tell you how often people I care about — men and women — have expected me to make a case for sexism, to “prove” it, as it were, while never having the same expectation for racism. (Obviously, in the wider world, too many people are still expected to “prove” racism, but not in my close circle.) I cannot tell you how often people I care about have dismissed or diminished sexist situations.

Like our friend Ikenga, always quick to deny that anything is caused by misogyny, never interested in listening or engaging, always eager to explain how it is in fact women who are privileged. He once said, “Even though the general idea is that my father is in charge at our home, it’s my mother who is really in charge behind the scenes.” He thought he was refuting sexism, but he was making my case. Why “behind the scenes”? If a woman has power then why do we need to disguise that she has power?

But here is the sad truth: 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 and that a powerful women 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. We judge powerful women more harshly than we judge powerful men. And Feminism Lite enables this.


Excerpted from Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Copyright © 2017 by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.