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Motherhood and feminism

· Based on the essay by Adichie, a Nigerian young woman ·

How can it possibly be that today’s Western society, the offspring of the generation of women who created feminism in the 1960s, is still so chauvinist? It is not so of course at the legislative level – at least in the West – and at the social level it is certainly less so than it was several decades ago; but it is a fact that the way to an effective parity is still uphill. Why are we still at this point? The question is a complex one and the answers are entangled. However the still difficult relationship which the feminism of the 1960s had with motherhood probably lies at the root of this failure.

One of the important topics with which that movement in the West was concerned – both in its 19th-century phase, and in the more recent phase in the past century – was its relationship with motherhood. At the time, the solutions were diametrically opposed: while for the 19th-century feminists the basic idea was of a sort of moral superiority of women by virtue of motherhood, for their great-grandchildren – or at least for many of them – being a mother was the incarnation of the handicap which for centuries had nailed women to the rear, a sort of diminishment of being a woman.

As a child I didn’t understand much about this position: I perceived that it was a vision which relegated women to the margins of their nature. Their specificity was becoming an obstacle: was it not a brutal theory which was proposing new cages on old bases, capable of enslaving them again and again? Nor do we like the rhetoric of those who, inverting the process, squash the whole of being a woman into maternity – and here, the words written by Cardinal Ratzinger are crystal clear: “Even though motherhood is a key element of the female identity, this is no authorization to consider women solely under the profile of biological procreation. In this sense there can be serious exaggerations which exalt a biological fecundity in vitalistic terms and which often are accompanied by a dangerous contempt of women” – but the problem of the relationship between motherhood and feminism remains.

For this very reason we were impressed by the recent pamphlet published by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian woman writer (who graduated in 1977) which achieved world renown. Written with verve and combining autobiography with a clear distancing from those who consider feminism a cumbersome heritage of the past century, We Should All Be Feminists, which came out in 2012 (in Italy Einaudi published a translation of it this year, entitled Dovremmo essere tutti femministi), not only claims the right to carry on the battle in stiletto heels without hating males but also expresses the hope for a more just world consisting of males and females, all likewise truly faithful to themselves – and to their specificity (“Men and women are different, we have different hormones, different sexual organs, and different biological capacities: women can have children, men can’t”).

In this text, the fruit of an adaptation of what she said at a conference, Adichie outlines a pitiless – and lucid – portrait of today’s society. We women are still invisible, in the sense that we are not considered as individuals who have a different view from that of men. We still “spend too much time teaching girls to be concerned with what boys think”, while the contrary does not happen. We don’t teach boys to try to please”; and it is suggested to us women, since we are small, that we should conceal our anger, for a woman who is angry and shocked at the injustices to her sex is considered a hysterical bore.

Although all this is true, without complaining and with deep irony Adichie then looks at our responsibilities as mothers. “We do serious wrong to males by bringing them up as we do. We stifle their humanity. We provide a very narrow definition of virility. Virility is a small, strict cage in which we enclose males. We teach them to be afraid of fear, of weakness and of vulnerability. We teach them to mask what they truly are, because they must be, to use a Nigerian expression, “hard men” […]. But the worst thing we do to males – urging them to believe that they have to be hard – is that we make them extremely fragile. The more a man feels forced to be a “hard man”, the frailer his self-esteem will be. And then we do an even more serious wrong to females, for we teach them to take care of the fragile egos of males”.

We, first of all us women since it is still primarily we who care for the little ones, must thus revise our entire educational system, changing what we teach our daughters and sons. If we wish to attain a world that is truly more feminist – that is, “a juster world, a world of happier men and women who are more faithful to themselves” – we must pass through motherhood. A young woman, a daughter of the country with the youngest population in the world, according to public records, reminds us of this.

Giulia Galeotti




St. Peter’s Square

Nov. 20, 2019