The Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie famously proclaimed that “we should all be feminists”—an idea that became an acclaimed book, a TEDx talk (video), and a rallying cry that has new resonance in the era of #metoo. This week in London, she offered a simple first step to help make it happen for men and boys:
“I think men should read more stories by and about women,” she said at the annual Chatham House conference. “We know from studies that men read men, and women read men and women. Perhaps if men read more women’s stories, they would be more likely to see them as fully human and less likely to see them as objects that exist for the needs of men.”
Indeed, research by the polling firm YouGov in the US found that in the top 20 “all-time favorite authors” of men, just one was a woman—J.K. Rowling. Among women, seven female authors made the list. Literary criticism is still dominated by men, as is evident in most reviewers’ male-dominated “must-read” lists. Still, women tend to read more than men and are more likely to describe themselves as avid readers, so most male authors who find themselves on bestseller lists have a lot of women readers to thank.
Adichie spoke at a dinner June 21 at Chatham House, formally called the Royal Institute of International Affairs, a British institution founded almost a century ago to discuss and propose policy on global affairs. Heads of states are regular speakers at the London-based think tank. International politics is an arena dominated by male voices—historically and still today—so it was significant to have the author and feminist holding forth in that space, talking about the power of storytelling.
Turning to books is often her solution to problems, Adichie said. ”I think of literature as my religion, and I have learned from literature that all of us human beings are flawed,” Adichie said. “And I’ve also learned that most of us have the possibility for redemption. We can remake masculinity from the narrow cage for men into a humane, expansive idea.”
The tendency of men to put women on a pedestal, to treat them as “little gods that need to be worshipped,” is also dehumanizing, Adichie said. Because “if this is true then there is a certain level of autonomy that they can never truly have and it is important to teach boys that women have full autonomy, just as men have.”
American boys start to get “screwed up” at a young age, as young as 10, says Adichie, referencing a 1992 article by the writer Susan Orlean, titled “The American Man, age 10.” The more recent research of Niobe Way, a New York University professor of applied psychology, supports this idea, and underlines the importance of intervening early, when boys have not yet been subjected to toxic ideas of what masculinity is and isn’t.
“Most importantly, what we need to do before they turn 10 is teach boys that women are human,” Adichie said. “It can seem obvious—of course women are human—but if our world truly valued the humanity of women, then I would not be here speaking about feminism.”