LOUD WHISPERS: The Hillary and Chimamanda Conversation

Recently, there was a storm in a teacup over a question posed by the brilliant writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to Hillary Clinton, over Hillary’s use of ‘Wife’ as the first word on her Twitter bio. I read a lot of comments in support of the question and many against it, with people calling Chimamanda all kinds of names including ‘FemiNazi’. In typical diva fashion, Chimamanda clapped back at her critics challenging them to understand her conversation with Hillary in its full context beyond the sensational headlines. I am not surprised at the reaction to Chimamanda’s question because it touched some raw nerves, particularly those with more conservative leanings when it comes to the status and choices of women. I also fully understood why Hillary found herself having to explain the choice of the word ‘Wife’ as a precursor to her many extraordinary accomplishments.

Even though I had always theoretically known how much premium many communities around the world, particularly in Africa, place on patriarchal privilege, there was a particular day when the reality of it all was served to me steaming hot. It was 2001, and I had just relocated to Accra, Ghana from London to start the African Women’s Development Fund. As part of my terms of service as the Executive Director, the AWDF Board was going to pay 50% of the school fees of my son Folajimi at the Ghana International School.  I however had to pay the hefty fees in full to the school and collect a refund from my employers later. I went to the school to finalise the paperwork and sign all the necessary documents, after which I handed over my cheque. I waited patiently for the receipt, and when it was placed in my hands and I had a look at it, my heart sank. The receipt had been written in the name of ‘Mr. Fayemi’. I asked the lady who had been attending to me why the receipt was not in my name since I had signed all the papers and the cheque I handed over was from me. She shrugged and said, ‘We usually write the receipts in the name of the father’. Why? ‘Because they are the ones who pay the school fees’. When I kept insisting on having the receipt written in my name because I had to give it to my employers she asked, ‘Are you not his wife’? I am usually never lost for words, but on that occasion I found myself almost stammering with frustration. I calmed down long enough to get a properly written receipt and fled the place. Later on, as I reflected on the experience, I reminded myself that I was now living in a community where being a ‘Wife’ was very, very important, and all your other accomplishments pale into insignificance. I was so upset that I told ‘Mr. Fayemi’ that since the receipt was almost written in his name under the assumption that he would be paying, I was coming after him for the full amount!

A few months after my encounter at the Ghana International School, I was invited by a new friend I had made to a breakfast prayer meeting for Diaspora professionals working in Ghana. When I got there it turned out that all the ladies present were spouses of professionals based in Accra. As we got to one of the prayer points which was ‘O God, please guide and protect our husbands in this country. May they succeed in all they do here’, I thought to myself, who is going to pray for me? So I asked God, ‘Please guide and protect my husband in Nigeria and protect me in this country. May I succeed in all I do here and may he succeed in all he does there’.

Hillary Clinton has spent a huge chunk of her personal, political and professional life working alongside her husband Bill Clinton. As is the case with the independent minded spouses of powerful men, she often had to create a box for herself to fit in or have one created for her. After many battles spanning decades, long before the birth of Chimamanda, Hillary Clinton was comfortable enough to offer up the first box which would put many at ease – the Wife box. That box enables people see beyond the toughness, the grit, the power, the force of nature Hillary Clinton is. The Wife box raises the possibility of vulnerability, submission, compliance with male authority and conformity with societal norms and expectations. It is a choice that Hillary Clinton was entitled to make since the feminist movement is about informed choices and one which I believe she made deliberately, understanding the feminist politics around naming. In the eye of the voting public, a married woman (and in some parts of the world where it matters, a married male) comes across as more relatable than a Miss or Ms.

Then along comes the irreverent Chimamanda, the sparkling toast of the global literati, beautiful, glamorous, with a mind and tongue as sharp as a razor. Chimamanda is young enough to be fearless and old enough to know what she is doing. Chimamanda fully understood why Hillary Clinton chose the word ‘Wife’. What she wanted to accomplish with her question to Hillary was to open up a conversation about what it means to be a super achiever as a woman, yet be defined first and foremost by your affiliation with a man, whether the said man is a President or a Postman. Hillary’s response to the question was also quite revealing. Hilary said she wanted people to know that it is okay for women to be defined by their relationships as well as their accomplishments. I have often argued that the problem feminists have with marriage is the unequal power relations, and this means having  to do the work of building consensus and ensuring mutual respect on an ongoing basis. It is not impossible but it can be hard work.  It was also interesting to hear Hillary Clinton say that on the basis of Chimamanda’s observation, she would rethink the primacy given to her ‘Wife’ tag.

Chimamanda’s challenge forces us into a conversation about the value placed on who women are and what they accomplish in their own right, with or without the almighty ‘Mrs.’ attached to their names. For a generation of young women and girls growing up in a world where opportunities are shrinking for both men and women, it is important for us to demystify the importance of being someone’s ‘Wife’ over and above being your own person. When I was a girl, my father used to tell me that men would treat me like a Queen if they knew I could take care of myself. The more incapable you are of looking after yourself, the more likely it is that you will fall into the hands of someone who will treat you badly. Therefore I learnt from an early age to pursue the designations that would define me as a person in my own right, with ‘Wife’ and ‘Mother’ as bonuses. I looked at my Twitter bio last week again to remind myself of what was there and it reads, ‘Women’s Rights Activist, Feminist Thinker, Social Entrepreneur, Writer, Business Woman, Non-Profit Specialist’. Now I will add ‘Wife’ and ‘Mother’ because I agree with Hillary that our relationships should be acknowledged and celebrated. I also firmly agree with Chimamanda, perhaps with a bit more diplomacy involved, that we are now trying to raise a generation who have to look inwards for validation. Knights in shining armour can be a nice feature in the fairy tale but not the entire story itself. That reminds me, I will have a look at ‘Mr. Fayemi’s’ Twitter bio and make sure he adds ‘Husband’ and ‘Father’ to his many accomplishments – in no particular order of course!

 

Have a great week.

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20 Responses to LOUD WHISPERS: The Hillary and Chimamanda Conversation

  1. Femi Diipo May 1, 2018 at 2:50 pm

    As expected, this is the best and most comprehensive analysis and exposition of this conversation I’ve read and I’m sure it fully expresses the intentions and ideas behind the action and comments of both parties. I just really want everyone to be reading this weekly, always so brilliant.

    Reply
  2. Dom Dom May 1, 2018 at 2:58 pm

    I’ve always thought and believed that being a wife and mother as well as being a husband and wife is a commendable achievement in this age and time, especially when you’ve been able to manage the affairs of your family for ages. And I think a woman should still have a choice to make this her foremost achievement as well as a man. However, I believe you have done justice to this topic ma’am. May the thoughtful ink never dry

    Reply
  3. olanrewaju May 2, 2018 at 7:00 am

    I knew you would do justice to this. I have been expecting you to write something about it. I am glad this came out. I don’t know why Nigerian overthink and think ignorantly. By the way, Hillary has edited her bio o.

    Reply
  4. DSEED May 2, 2018 at 4:57 pm

    Your concluding part on these talk is just the best after seeing so many comments and attacks from every angle.

    Reply
  5. Olakunle Olajide May 3, 2018 at 2:43 pm

    This is laudable. This writeup effortlessly gave insights on CNA, Hilary and the people’s points and explanation. Well done ma’am. My own little point, marriage is not compulsory but if you are married, it isn’t bad to make it known in no particular order to other accomplishments because it is an individual’s choice.

    Reply
  6. Lilian Adams May 4, 2018 at 3:26 am

    I have been waiting for an intelligent breakdown from you and here we have it. The issue people had with that question is just the fact that they know CNA to be vocal, intentional and the world frowns at women who are intentionally vocal that’s why they came after her like that.

    Reply
  7. Shola Ademide May 4, 2018 at 3:28 am

    I wonder why women aren’t given accolades. I wonder why we find it hard to accept the voice of a woman especially if the voice is an intelligent one. The funniest thing is, the women who were at the event applauded the question o na only Nigerians see am as another thing. We are too subjective in thinking in this country, that is our problem. Thanks for sharing this ma.

    Reply
  8. omilola Adeleke. May 4, 2018 at 3:31 am

    I still think Chimamanda went off the boarder. Feminism is a world of choice for women. Hillary isn’t a child and she has a right over her decisions, I currently think changing her bio just proved to us that this isn’t a world of choice anymore. We need to understand that women can choose who they are and what they become.

    Reply
  9. Adeshina Oye May 4, 2018 at 3:32 am

    God bless you for sharing this. Nigerians are angry o and who wouldn’t be, the present situation is causing a lot of us to be irrational in thinking. It’s only on sites like this that most of us have sanity once again.

    Reply
  10. Laura Dameson May 4, 2018 at 3:35 am

    I totally get your point ma but seriously I think CNA should take the back seat on this her feminism issue. She is taking things too far. After all, we know feminists like you and how you are open to different angles of conversations and thinking, but Aunty CNA is too opinionated and that is not a good one. She needs to relax abeg!

    Reply
  11. Victor Udoh May 4, 2018 at 3:37 am

    I see a lot of comments for and against CNA.It will be wise to know that this article is for us to understand the different views of the people in question and accept their sincerity. Whether you like what happened or not, Hillary has edited her bio which means, CNA made a valid point that hit her.

    Reply
  12. Iniobong Akpan May 4, 2018 at 3:39 am

    What pained me most was that, women were the ones tongue lashing her online. Can’t we just try to be as intelligent as this woman{Erelu} see how she dissected the conversation, attacking nobody, insulting no one. God bless you ma.

    Reply
  13. Bisi Alawode May 5, 2018 at 3:45 am

    Ahaha! Brain has shifted o. This is a nicely written explanation and brain enlightening session. Wow! My brain just did a 360 turn right now. God bless you ma.

    Reply
  14. Sharon Miller May 5, 2018 at 3:48 am

    I read this article more than once. Who else read this more than once? I seriously had to read and reread. Sincerely, we need lots of intelligent women like this in our world. I was also upset when I saw that video and right now, I do not see the need to be upset sef. I feel like I was being dumb for not thinking wisely like @bisi alawode said, Brain has shifted o.

    Reply
  15. Solomon Nkechi May 5, 2018 at 3:52 am

    Women shouldn’t been as a domestic tool, Just look at that school and what they displayed. I remembered when House rent was due for us and Hubby wasn’t around, I went to the landlord to pay and he said, Your husband has sent the money abi? I told him No, this is my money, I worked for it. He was shocked and he gave me this very strange look. We have a choice to be powerful in everything not just to be seen as a domestic tool.

    Reply
  16. kolade Wilson May 5, 2018 at 3:53 am

    Whether being seen as a boss, wife, merchant, mother etc. Relationship matters! Women shouldn’t drag it.l

    Reply
  17. Lauretta Idemudia May 5, 2018 at 3:54 am

    It is either some people don’t read, or they read and do not assimilate properly. Thanks for sharing this, I have really learnt a lot.

    Reply
  18. Nkiru Chukuwemeka May 6, 2018 at 9:28 am

    Please, are we now saying being a wife isn’t an achievement? Are we saying being called to manage a man, the home isn’t worth boasting about? We are women because of the function we have to accomplish not because of the different roles we have attained in the society. That is my belief.

    Reply
  19. Olushola Aderanti May 6, 2018 at 9:30 am

    This has been duly analysed and if some people still do not get the gist of this great analysis, Then, they need to be schooled.

    Reply
  20. Eric Onuoha May 15, 2018 at 5:37 am

    This is really deep. I find nothing wrong with a woman describing herself as a Wife and Mother along with her profession. As you have described yourself as a Social Entrepreneur, Writer and Business Woman, alongside being a Wife and Mother, I see you as a great achiever

    Reply

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