Monday, July 2, 2012

The Incomplete Revolution

As a woman of a certain age, I have started thinking about how I will navigate the delicate balance between family and career. I’m not married yet, nor do I have children, but I hope to soon. And the question of whether I can "do it  all" has been bothering me.

I have long been attracted to the bright side of academia – the lectures, the conferences, the prestige that comes with being called “Dr.” But I was always daunted by the amount of time getting a PhD required (5-7 years for a humanities degree) and the long tortuous road to tenure. Beyond personal fears of intellectual adequacy and sustainable interest in my chosen field of scholarship, there was also the problem of how I would balance having children.

The average PhD today can spend up to10 years in poverty – from laughable student stipends, to slave wages as an adjunct – before landing a tenure-track job. And with the tough economies in the West, the wait can be even longer. There are plenty of PhDs on welfare in the United States and Britain.

As a feminist, having a career which allows me to pay my own bills is the cornerstone of my being. I would be wracked with guilt if my financial situation meant my partner had to take on the lion’s share of the family’s expenses. I suppose I could continue to put off having children until I defended my thesis at least, but as a woman who wants to have her own biological kids someday, that could be too long a time to wait.

I just read Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece in the Atlantic on why women can’t have it all. It was brilliant. She talked about the structural changes that have to take place in the way we consider work and childcare if we want women to get into halls of power.  While her article was focused on a very specific class in a particular culture, her argument resonated with women all over the world – as evidenced by the number of writers who responded to her.

Now, as an American woman she’s already seeing a lot of changes in the workplace – many people are taking her seriously. But here in Nigeria, feminism is a lot like sex – everyone does it, but no one wants to admit it. Here, both men and women assume that childcare will fall to the woman – and many women accept that as both their pride and their duty. However, we live in a world where most middle-class families require dual incomes to survive – in fact, there is a growing stigma against highly-educated women who “just sit at home” – women are required to have a career or business interests that extend beyond the home.

This is why we have domestic help – because the cost of labor is so cheap here – it’s impossible to run a typical Nigerian home without an extra set of hands. Erratic water and electricity supplies means that women can’t reliably turn to gadgets such as washing machines, vacuum cleaners and microwaves that have helped reduce the amount of domestic chores for women in the West. Most of our traditional foods are complex and difficult to prepare, and our tropical climate requires means we have to put extra effort into cleaning to keep our homes looking decent. But because a woman’s life and labour are so little valued in Nigeria, a lot of domestic help are subject to exploitation – from being woefully underpaid, to verbal, physical and sexual abuse.

I agree with Marie; it’s not about asking whether women can have it all, women don’t really have a choice. It’s about changing how we view work and family, how we view the roles of men and women and creating structures of support that allow women – and men – to take better care of themselves and their children.

As for me, I may have to admit to myself that there are some paths that I won’t be able to follow. There are other ways of getting the perks of an academic career than going through the gauntlet that is getting a doctorate. In the meantime, I’ll continue to join my other feminist sisters to make sure that my daughters won’t have to face my dilemma.


  1. I think Nigerian women are held back by the fact that they are not (or are not willing to be) as ruthless as Nigerian men when it comes to child care.

    Nigerian men think nothing of walking out the door and abandoning a small child in the house with the assumption that the woman will see to its safety.

    Nigerian women on the other hand are extremely hesitant to do this. And this is why they make sacrifices while Nigerian men get ahead.

  2. What you're describing may be a little extreme, but one of the problems of patriarchy is that men are encouraged to view childcare as a primary function of women. This often leads to fathers who have poor or non-existent relationships with their children. It's a problem in Nigeria and in many heavily patriarchal countries all over the world.

  3. Wow...this is interesting, Chinelo, to say the least. I am a wife and mother in Nigeria and I can identify with some of what you've said. I admit that in my moments of sheer frustration my daughter's nanny has borne the brunt of it verbally. Life as a woman in naija is a hard gig...and the men certainly dont make it easier.

    1. My dear, e no easy o! That's why I'm a feminist. I want to see men and women on an equal footing in all spheres of life.

  4. "both men and women assume that childcare will fall to the woman – and many women accept that as both their pride and their duty."
    This is the crux of the matter. Western countries have seen improvements in gender equality issues because women shout about these things. African women are almost as much to blame for the perpetuation of patriarchal ideology as our men are. Although I recognize that we've been programmed since childhood to be subservient to men, I've met far too many educated, intelligent women who don't have the liver to say "nope, not doing that" to a man. In fact, the worst part is that these women are appalled that I don't view domestic chores as my duty and god-appointed responsibility. Frankly, I think African society has been poisoned in this regard by Westernization and religious pollution. If we want to see a shift in the patriarchy, women have to roll up their sleeves and push that boulder aside.

    -end rant-

    1. While I don't want to blame the victim here, I completely agree with you that a large part of the problem is the way women are socialised. However, I think as the pressures of modern society make these roles more and more problematic, you'll see more women starting to speak up and challenge boundaries. We just need to keep working for that to come sooner rather than later.

  5. my apologies, i dont have an opinion on the article, but i love the artwork. did you create it yourself? or did you borrow the image? just curious

  6. This is a popular representation of Black Feminism. I didn't create it, but I have seen it in use all over the web.