This past Friday, my Ph.D. was officially conferred. I am officially Dr. Monique Kwachou. A holder of a doctor of philosophy in development studies with a specialization in feminist studies and education. I’m not at the apex of my career, but with this terminal degree I’m assumed to have achieved a great deal, assumed to have ‘succeeded’.
I’m here to tell you that such assumptions are faulty at best and outright lies on several days a month. Not because I am ambitious and want more, but because the definition of a successful woman in our society makes it impossible for that to be achieved merely by education or professional achievement.
My doctoral research focused on the fear of overeducated women in our society, women assumed to be empowered and portrayed as being ‘too much’ within our patriarchal contexts. I asked of the women I interviewed: how empowered are you really? How much power did their higher education afford them in the face of the gender inequalities all women experience?
In sum, the answer is not that much. Why? Well there are many reasons (read the book when it’s out), but the one that is relevant to this post is this: Our educational/professional achievement is not enough to undo collective conditioning. Like Eminem and Rihanna sang: we have made friends with the ‘monster’ inside of our heads- the monster being internalized sexism apparent in notions that our value as women lies in what we can endure, or that we must be superwomen to be deserving of fair treatment/appreciation.
So many of us women are ‘friends’ with such notions serve to oppress us and it is hard to fight the lie you have been raised to believe as truth…
Last year a friend and I discussed a tweet that raised the issue of African women being tested based on their ability to endure. I cannot find the tweet, but in it, a guy suggested ‘testing’ women with a very small amount of money or by inviting them over to a dirty apartment to see if they would be able to do much with little/take the initiative to clean up after him and therefore display their ‘marriageability’. Well, that tweet gained traction and thankfully a lot more men and women are recognizing how idiotic such a ‘test’ is.
Still, the idiotic notion behind that tweet isn’t always as obvious and it remains deeply imbibed in my (and many other women) subconscious that we must do the most/do it all is a sign of being a good/worthy woman. Worthy of what? Worthy of equality, worthy of love, worthy of being chosen.
When I was 16 and suggested my cousin and I be registered at British Council for the holidays to go spend time reading there during our long vacation. I was told that it would be better for us to go be apprentices at a salon to learn how to braid because as future mothers we should know how to do our daughter’s hair without needing someone else. When I got into the university, an older friend mocked my desire for wanting to buy a blender because an African woman should know how to use the grinding stone. And don’t get me started on how I often baked cakes and gifted people but hid the fact that I had baked the cakes using cake mix rather than from scratch… because we are in a society that looks down on gifts/love if you didn’t suffer for it. We are in a society that belittles women who have C-sections saying “is that even real labor”.
Don’t get me wrong, knowing how braid, use the grinding stone, bake from scratch…none of these things are wrong. Honestly, I appreciate being able to use a grinding stone because our power company is so useless- but I wish we called it what it was: a necessity brought about by our collective poverty and underdevelopment as a nation rather than make it look like some talent that should add points to womanhood. Knowing how to braid hair is a great skill, but that too should not be expected of me if it is something I can afford to delegate.
Yet, women are expected to know how to do it all, to bake and ice the cake, to cook all the traditional dishes, to be able to be a home tutor to the kids, do the laundry till it shines, the worship leader in the home… oh and be a veritable seductress in the bedroom.
These expectations are not laid out directly, they are built over time. We don’t even realize we have imbibed them. Socialization is a sneaky thing, we build our value system based on what reactions we get from the least things. For instance, upon returning home with my master’s degree I offered to prepare the pounded yams at my uncle’s home where I was visiting- he comes in and sees me doing this and puts on an exaggerated show of relief saying I’ve restored his faith in me, that he had feared I was a lost case because I was furthering my studies, but given that I could make pounded yam I was obviously still an ‘African woman’…
I scoffed at him then, but it stayed with me, that to too many people I would be ultimately valued based on whether I fit what they perceived a good woman is. Not on my own values. So it just comes to you one day that you feel shame/inadequate/like you’re failing for not being able to do something.
The voice in your head, the product of years of conditioning shames you for not having cooked pepper-soup to visit an uncle or for paying someone to fix the njama-njama at the market. One day, you wonder “why do I feel this odd shame at not knowing how to make Achu soup? It’s not even something I would like to eat on the regular”? Or perhaps you will realize just how much you have been conditioned to expect to do it all when you come in contact with more liberal women- who see no problem with having a laundry machine, with having someone over to their home to do their hair or who would rather pay for two seats in the taxi than to be squeezed… You will look at them as extravagant and “too much” then it will occur to you that this is what you fear will happen if you do those things. It is not that we believe that we ought to do it all, it is that due to poverty and patriarchy we have made being a superwoman a virtue. But honestly, no one needs a heroine (superwoman) if there isn’t a problem.
When feminists advocated for women’s rights to the productive sphere they used the argument we can do it all. The only way we could win the argument for women’s rights to productive labor and spaces was to prove to men in those spaces (and women gatekeepers) that we could do both. That we could be both homemakers and corporate executives; both doctor and mother. So we basically tried to cajole patriarchy; like “honey-do let me work, you’ll still have a hot meal on the table at night and the kids will be even better raised— because I’m a superwoman”.
So – because it was easier to convince men we would upgrade ourselves and them (and look good doing it), we sold the idea of being superwomen. And this is the curse we now suffer from.
Our collective praise of superwomen and ‘strong women’ is a result of our negotiation of oppression. We praise those who survive, rather than question/reject what puts them in a position of having to survive. It’s great that I can do both, but why do I have to? It’s great that I can be independent (VERY GREAT O!) yet, I must acknowledge that the reason being independent is so great is because being interdependent (which is the true ideal) is impossible, inequality doesn’t permit true interdependence. I wouldn’t have to do it all if I fought the notion that made me feel like my worth lies in my ability to.
And this is what I, as I reflect on my recent accomplishment have been thinking about; how we let patriarchy win when we meet the standards of superwoman. It’s a sneaky trap.
And so I am committing to unlearning the constant desire to want to do more, be more to be deserving. I am learning to appreciate that I am a strong woman (because I have been forced to be) yet I am re-defining what that strength means for myself. And above all, I am normalizing luxury in my life. Because I did not break the glass ceilings only to crawl back down to the ground floor to prove that I can endure what my grandmother did. Our ancestors wanted better for us.
So, dear reader, if you too have broken any ceilings. Commit with me to resisting the urge and pressure to go back down. In all that shuttling between the ground floor and top floor, we wear ourselves out. Selah.