Great lessons for us all from some feminist literature

Home Focus Great lessons for us all from some feminist literature

One does not always know where to start on a topic so delicate as feminism – a movement that fights for the total attainment of not only equal rights for women, but also the upliftment of their status in every sphere of life in our societies.

 The interest in this topic emanates mainly from my postgraduate students of literature who conduct some researches in literary works from various countries using the feminist theory or offshoots of this theory. I have come to learn that authors present their stories in print sometimes oblivious of the fact that one day some scholars would use the feminist lens in critiquing their stories whether they be in the form of novels, drama or poetry. 

In this piece, I focus on books written by women, bringing out the brilliant ideas or lessons that we get from them. It is important to that the achievements of the feminism movement are there for us to see, although there is still a lot work to be done for the total emancipation of women.

 The following are among the great books that have attracted the feminist analysis by upcoming and established scholars: Americanah by Chimmanda Ngozi Adichie; Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga; The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing; and The Round House by Louise Erdrich. The results of these scholarly analyses have been enriching and intriguing. At the centre of all these stories are women operating largely in insensitive patriarchal societies – societies that promote male domination of women in every sphere of life – in short, the subjugation and suppression of women. In her internationally renowned book, The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan attacks the gender role that confined women to domestic chores in America where the patriarchal society “encouraged them to be housewives, mothers and wives,” and nothing more. Friedan unconditionally condemned the system that forced women into domestic submission and raised the awareness of the plight of women in America. 

The book contributed to the growth of the feminist movement that would later triumph over male domination. Armed with education, Friedan argued, women could improve their situations and fight the male dominated society. It is disheartening that today, there are still societies that confine women to the home where they are literally forced to stay and perform mundane duties as wives, mothers and housewives.

Also contributing to the emancipation of women through literature, Germaine Greer’s book The Female Eunuch metaphorically and sarcastically said that women had been “psychologically castrated by patriarchy” and needed to free themselves from that position. This citation from Geer’s book is encourages women to be independent: “I’m sick of pretending that some fatuous male’s self-important pronouncements are the objects of my undivided attention, I’m sick of going to films and plays when someone else wants to, and sick of having no opinions of my own about either. I’m sick of being a transvestite. I refuse to be a female impersonator. I am a woman, not a castrate … It takes a great deal of courage and independence to decide to design your own image instead of the one that society rewards, but it gets easier as you go along.”

Another gem of a book on feminism is Sexual Harassment of Working Women by Cathrine MacKinnon. In this book, she says sexual harassment is “the unwanted imposition of sexual requirements in the context of a relationship of unequal power.” She is accredited for recommending that all practices of sex discrimination which subordinated women to men should be banned. Her brilliant ideas emanating from this seminal book have been adopted by courts and have been used in defence of women who fall victim of sex discrimination.

Reading feminist Judith Butler’s books Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subjugation of Identity and Bodies that Matter reveals that there is nothing biological about the genders of male and female. We are socialized into these genders and identities by our societies. These identities have been culturally transmitted from generation to generation. 

In other words, they have been imposed on us. There is no difference between the male and female genders that makes the male gender more superior than the female gender, Butler correctly argues. She goes on to suggest that there are more than these two genders, male and female. This brings us to what she called the queer theory, which allows us to question the male and female dichotomy as the standard or norm. The queer theory further allows us to come up with other genders and identities beyond the ‘traditional’ male and female – genders such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersexual. It is true that we have such communities in our midst, and they are protected by the constitution, the supreme law of the land.

 It is their right to define themselves the way they want depending on their orientations; there is nothing wrong with that. However, in some countries in Africa and elsewhere, such communities go underground, as they have been outlawed by draconian decrees.

Reading books on feminism shows that the struggle for the emancipation of women from patriarchal societies has been arduous and bitter. As feminism is s topic that cuts across disciplines in academia – for example from sociology to literature – it is important that our students get the right information on this subject in order to be ambassadors of this great movement for the total freedom of women in male dominated societies. 


*Professor Jairos Kangira is the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Namibia. He was Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Zimbabwe before relocating to Namibia in 2006.