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Africa's answer to militant feminism


Chika Unigwe headshotYahoo's CEO Marissa Mayer caused a furore last year when she said that she didn't have the 'militant drive' and the 'chip on the shoulder' that was required of the modern day feminist.

It was a statement that seemed directly at odds with her circumstances: the 37-year-old is one of the most powerful women in the technology industry, Google's first female engineer and now head of a Fortune 500 company. After the birth of her first child just months into her new role, she resolved the angst of mother-child separation by building a nursery alongside her office so that she could bring the baby to work.

Mayer might not call herself a feminist, but in smashing through the glass ceiling of a male-dominated industry she is standing, in part, on the shoulders of all those feminists from decades and centuries past who spent their lives fighting for gender equality.

While her comments have offended the women for whom the connections between modern-day female liberty and the feminist movement are still obvious and strong, they also highlight the way in which progress has transformed the feminist ideal in the western world.

Although women still earn considerably less than men for the same work, are not well-represented at senior levels in business and politics and are often valued for their youth and beauty rather than their skills and expertise, they exist in a largely egalitarian milieu when compared to women in developing countries.

In Australia, girls are outperforming boys at school, more of them are going on to university, and less of them are being discriminated against in the workplace. There is no need for militant drive and a chip on the shoulder when the fight has already been won.

Despite all this, feminism is still as relevant as ever, if only as a structure with which to maintain the advancements that have brought us to this point and to ensure that we don't regress.

But the lack of buy-in from women like Mayer, and the argument among women as to what constitutes a feminist, suggests feminism as a philosophy needs to expand its definition, to be flexible and inclusive so that it reflects the society in which we now live rather than the deeply inequitable era to which it originally responded.

'We shouldn't talk about feminism but feminisms,' says Chika Unigwe (pictured), a Nigerian-Belgian writer whose work explores the motivations of women and the way in which they empower themselves in the most dire of circumstances. Unigwe has been a guest at this year's Adelaide Writers' Week, which is part of Adelaide Festival.

'You can wear power suits to work and be a feminist, and you can stay home and raise your seven kids and still be a feminist. What happens now is that feminism blocks out certain women, women who see themselves as feminists but who choose to stay home and raise their kids. At the moment there is no space for them — there are choices that you have to make if you want to be called feminist.'

The choices she speaks about — putting children in care, pursuing a career, eschewing your husband's name, wearing unfeminine clothes, even disliking men — are estranging young women from the West's aggressive and individualistic form of feminism, and turning the term 'feminist' into a pejorative statement.

Unigwe says women might find its antidote in her home continent of Africa, where community-centric, gender-inclusive ideologies have been espoused in recent decades: womanism, which includes racial, cultural, national, economic and political considerations; motherism, which elevates motherhood, nature, nurture, and respect for the environment; stiwanism, which entrenches equal female participation in the social transformation of Africa.

The most recent African feminism — and the one Unigwe prefers — is nego-feminism, a concept spawned by Obioma Nnaemeka, a Nigerian professor and expert in the field of gender studies and development. Taking its name from the words 'negotiation' and 'no ego', nego-feminism accommodates traditional family structures and actively incorporates in its philosophy negotiation, complementarity and collaboration.

It's a movement that seeks to advance both men and women within the traditional construct, taking the gentle approach rather than ripping women from the family bosom and setting them on their own pedestal as so many people feel Western feminism has done.

'Western feminism says that women are at the centre,' Unigwe explains. 'It's almost taboo to say that you're not an individual, that you see yourself in terms of being a mother. In nego-feminism, women are part of an extension which includes other women and their own children.'

As we mark International Women's Day today, we may reflect that things have never looked better for women in the West. Mayer is captaining industry while her baby boy sleeps in a nursery nearby; Julia Gillard is leading her country; girls everywhere are taking up opportunities never dreamed of by their grandmothers.

As the old feminist guard continues to chip away at the last vestiges of sexism and inequality, let's take a leaf out of our African sisters' book: drop the aggression and ego, nurture an embracing sisterhood, invite men to be partners in social change and work in good faith towards the inclusive society our feminist forbears longed for. 

Catherine Marshall headshotCatherine Marshall is a journalist and travel writer. Adelaide Festival is on until 17 March 2013. 

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, International Women's Day



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Existing comments

Please know that Mayer just gave herself a more than one million dollar cash bonus. She appears to be just one of the boys. What has happened to pursuing truth and justice in our world? Continue to pray for us all. May the true peace of God fill every moment of every day for everyone you may ever know. Yes, Jesus loves us all.

Papa Smurf | 08 March 2013  

This article reminds me of my first encounter with African feminism which I came across during an international Women's Year conference held in Hobart in 1975. As a happily married young mother of three children at the time, some of the contemporary Australian aspirations didn't resonate with me at all. When I heard African women stating their objectives I felt "Yes, these are statements that fit with where I am at this stage in my life." I'm glad that the African perspective is being heard once more. It also tied in with Quentin Bryce's statement from about that time: "Women can have it all: but not at the same time."

Paddy Byers | 08 March 2013  

And of course, Western 'feminists' - the control group - would never dream of exploiting other, poorer women, would they? Please consider the lowest paid women in Australia! (I do consider myself a feminist.)

AnneP | 08 March 2013  

I am a feminist. I do not wear masculine clothes, I raised 5 children at home, working sporadically to pay the bills - my children were not put into care, I have had two careers, having changed midstream from midwife to Anglican Priest and I do not dislike men: what I do dislike is being thrust into such a generalised, narrow description of feminism, particularly by those who claim to be promoting the feminist cause. In my experience women in Australia still have a long way to go before enjoying the true equality which is the goal of the feminism I espouse, that aims for equality for each and every human being, regardless of gender, class, religion or nationality.

Pirrial Clift | 08 March 2013  

Mayer certainly isn't a feminist. Shortly after building the nursery alongside her office for her own child, the put a stop to other Yahoo employees working from home. Working from home is the only way many workers, especially women, balance career and family commitments. With her ego, "I'm OK Jack" attitude and lack of sympathy for the difficulties many workers have of balancing parenthood with careers, she should fit in quite well with the rest of the boy's club running Fortune 500 companies. As a feminist of over 50 years, let me say we don't dislike men, we have just raised our expectations. If we no longer like some men, then those men have the option of raising their standards of behaviour. In 2 weeks when we celebrate our 42nd anniversary, I must remember to bite hubby so he knows I haven't lost my aggressive feminist ways.

Eclair | 08 March 2013  

This article made my day! I have spent most of my adult life as a full-time housewife and mother, and this has been my choice, unusual though it has been over the last few decades. It's meant my family is very central to my life, and to my sense of identity. So I've long felt we need an approach to feminism which does not just focus on women, but sees women in the context of their families and their communities. So, many thanks for this article, Catherine.

Cathy T | 08 March 2013  

I am a very feminist grandmother who became employed in the male professional world due to a WWII shortage of suitable men! I am compelled to reply. I cannot stand the breaking through the glass ceiling idiom . Was this term invented by strident so-called feminism? Like Margaret Thatcher's comment, I was before Women's Liberation was thought of !!!! I encourage my daughter and five grand-daughters to be true to the person they most deeply are. Being gentle, one can win through with feminine subtleties! That attitude has taken me to so many exciting platforms in male dominated worlds. I have never had children in care. I was a home mum for 9 years then found exciting professional employment until retirement days. Thanks indeed to those whose comments echo my sentiments.

Bev | 08 March 2013  

“As the old feminist guard chip away .... drop the aggression and ego”, you say. I do wonder why you so easily and dismissively define the ‘old guard feminists’ as aggressive and egotistical? Where does this myth come from? I stayed at home raising my child and I am a feminist. I even love my husband, son, brothers and male friends. Furthermore I value my role in both the private and public sphere. It still perplexes me why some younger women have bought into a singular definition of feminism as militant. Yes we can talk loudly, sometime we are angry and sometimes rant but we are also tolerant beyond belief. Yes, some were (are) extreme in their views like in all philosophical or political movements. Do you call Martin Luther King in his fight for equality a militant? It is time to update your story of history. What you call egoistical and militant I call being an active citizen in our democracy.

In Vain | 08 March 2013  

I have been in awe of my wife for 38 years; what she can fit in to life and calmly achieve, including 5 children, a mid-life PhD and successful professional and academic career. I knew her mother and grandmother, and they were pretty formidable too, though without what we would now call "the opportunities", but their priorities were different and they did actively bequeath the centrality of the Catholic faith in their lives. I have been studying a Lenten course with a daughter-visiting middle age lady from Zimbabwe; who is a catechist and theology student at home. One of the most difficult questions she says she has to answer from her women friend in Africa is : "why are women not allowed to have authority or preach?". I don`t think the African Church is quite as quiescently conservative as we are sometimes lead to believe! ...or at least not its women.

Eugene | 08 March 2013  

In an era when the editor of a major newspaper's weekend magazine pays female writers half what he pays male writers; when major public hospitals are known to be grossly discriminatory in their employment practices; and to be powerful means being one of the boys, I don't think we can say that feminism has arrived - and it's also ok to be angry about these things. I love the many men in my life but I continue to be angry that so many of my female friends are in short term contracts while their male peers are established in tenured positions. It's still a man's world, even here in the 'liberated' West.

Alison | 08 March 2013  

Oh that women and men could be partners in the work of the gospel and enablers of an inclusive church! For Australian women called into collaborative or co-responsible ministry this is currently nigh on impossible. I try to maintain hope through the tears.

vivien | 08 March 2013  

Is it possible for a man to be a feminist? If so, I would consider myself one - even though I doubt I could provide much evidence that I've contributed to the cause...

AURELIUS | 09 March 2013  

I like the idea of plural 'feminisms'. I'm an old-time feminist who would certainly be rejected by hardline feminists. Their definition of feminism is enormously exclusive, and becoming more so. You can't be a feminist who questions current abortion laws. e.g. You can't be a feminist who's a practising Catholic. You can't be a feminist if you're 'heteronormative'. No wonder Marissa Mayer won't claim to be a feminist - perhaps she disagrees with one or more of the feminist rules. I do claim it, however, and, Aurelius, you're one too. You don't need permission because 'feminism' shouldn't be an exclusive club with doorkeepers!

Joan Seymour | 10 March 2013  

This writer employs such tired old insults about feminism that it's hard to accept there is anything at all credible about the article. And if she thinks feminist philosophy needs to expand to include anti-feminists like Marissa Mayer, then I suggest there's serious misunderstanding at the heart of this piece.

Deborah Kelly | 11 March 2013  

I would add that you couldn't have been a Christian in the early days of the movement without being a feminist - it's a pity Christianity became so Romanised.

AURELIUS | 12 March 2013  

"It's a pity Christianity became so Romanised" - a bit like your pseudonym, Aurelius?

John | 14 March 2013  

Thanks, John. I'll take that as a comment.

AURELIUS | 19 March 2013  

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