Portrayal Of The African Woman’s Reality In Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys Of Motherhood


Using contemporary African literature to discuss gender as an ideological social construct, this paper explores the nature of gender construction and its performativity in Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys Of Motherhood. By portraying the lived experiences of gendered subalterns, Emecheta writes woman to present woman’s standpoint and positionality to contest the realism depicted by many male authors for years. Knowledge is constructed from a feminine perspective to tell the story of woman from a woman’s perspective to right the wrong done to womanhood by some male writers in their unsuccessful attempt to portray woman.


Feminist philosophy has over the years concerned itself with gender and the importance of perspective. Alcoff, posits that, ‘feminist philosophers have also moved into the terrain of representations, discourse, and cultural productions’ and Currie has affirmed that, ‘prior to the 1960s, sexual difference was seldom considered to be a significant feature of the social world; knowledge was primarily and normally constructed from an androcentric perspective which treats the masculine as the norm. Historically, this amounted to the omission of women as social actors.’ This phenomenon brings about a bifurcated consciousness or knowledge of their world in women, resulting in woman’s identity being linked to the concept of positionality.

Kolawole (1997) observes that the marginalization of women was encouraged by most male writers in the early phase of African literature resulting in most of the female characters staying on the fringes of the plot. This sidelining of women has inexorably resulted in the silencing of the feminine voice in the literary world. However, over time, women have been given access to education which has generated the awareness in them to strive for equal access to opportunities and recognition just as men enjoy. Now, women are resolute in their desire not to pander to the whims of the legacy according the male species an education which unavoidably makes the literary world a man's world. Women are unwavering in their desire not to be silenced any longer. Cixous thus proclaims, “Women should break out of the snare of silence”. Women like Cixous and Awa Thiam have been instrumental in influencing women to write. In her groundbreaking article, “The Laugh of the Medusa” (1976), Cixous states categorically:

I shall speak about women’s writing: about what it will do. Woman must write herself: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies – for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal. Woman must put herself into the text - as into the world and into history - by her own movement.

For Cixous, then, it is high time women carved a niche for themselves in the literary world by writing, an activity women have been driven away from by men to serve a fatal goal. This is an act she refuses to condone, so women should write to describe their own history and experiences and not continue to leave that all-important responsibility to men to keep on misrepresenting women as they have continually done to benefit themselves. She passionately and unequivocally urges: “Write, let no one hold you back, let no one stop you; not man [. . .] woman must write woman. And man, man”. With these words, Cixous could not have put it any better than this, after all, who better than woman can write woman, herself, woman's lived experiences from a woman's perspective?

The aim of this study then, is to take an in-depth look at how Buchie Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood contests the version of reality about women which is supposed to have all the brute facts that have over the years been portrayed in many male authored literary texts. Emecheta's writing in the novel under study, demonstrates Cixous' prescription for women's writing which is that women must write in a different way from men in order to assert their identity and concerns and invariably, present the version of women’s reality shaped by woman’s experiences. In effect, the concept of idealism is realized when woman’s voice brings in multiple versions of reality which is dependent on our beliefs, shaped by our positionality and standpoint. The nature of women’s reality is laid bare with the influx of women’s voices to contest the reality in male voices which have dominated the literary scene.

Many scholars have argued that gender is a social construction produced and performed through repetitive acts which become an ideology people contribute to in order to maintain that gender order. Society and culture are credited with influencing and molding the identities of men and women according to the constructed stereotypes of masculinity and femininity. Hence, Beauvoir (1997) asserts that no one is born a woman, rather, one becomes a woman.

Tyson (1999) postulates that whereas traditional gender roles portray men as rational, strong, protective and decisive, women are cast as irrational, weak, nurturing and submissive. Women are assigned the role of children bearers and so they deliver them, raise them and nurture them as well as entire families and the care of the home. So, the ‘natural’ thing is to see men construct things out of wood and metal while women construct things out of fiber.

To all intents and purposes, this is probably the reason for my eight-year old daughter’s smug response to a question I posed to her. She asked me if a girl could be a carpenter and I asked for the reason for that question and she told that she was playing an imaginary game in which a girl wanted to be a carpenter but everybody laughed at her. When I asked her why people were laughing at the girl, she replied with that look little girls get sometimes which says ‘Can Mummies be that dumb?’; “It’s weird for a girl to be a carpenter, isn’t it”? The script society has written for her is that it is not feminine to be a carpenter. It is rather masculine to be a carpenter. This construction begins as soon as a child is born so that he is socialized and taught the script that goes with the gender they have been assigned.

It is against this backdrop that this paper seeks to argue that this concept of gender as an ideological social construct is realized in Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood and benefits patriarchy, resulting in an inequality of power that denigrates women.

Synopsis of Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood

Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys Of Motherhood (1979) traces the struggles of Nnu Ego, an African woman, through barrenness to fertility. After failing to conceive in her first marriage, she is second time lucky when she marries Nnaife. Nnu Ego struggles in abject poverty infertility, hunger, and exploitation and an unfulfilled marriage to raise seven children with very little reward and appreciation from them. The novel undermines the socially and culturally constructed traditional roles for womanhood which results in emotional, psychological and financial abuse and damage for women. This practice of tagging assigned roles to people result in gender being a subjective social construction fashioned to justify patriarchy.

Representation of the African Woman’s Reality

Gender as an ideological social construct abounds in the novel so much so that through the character of Nnu Ego we are introduced to her culture and society’s construction of womanhood and how it justifies and benefits patriarchy. Two days after Nnu Ego’s marriage to Amatokwu, her father, Agbadi expresses his pride that his daughter ‘has been found an unspoiled virgin’; ‘has not shamed us’ and his friend Idayi declares, ‘There is nothing that makes a man prouder than to hear that his daughter is virtuous’.

The cultural construction of womanhood for Nnu Ego’s society is one who has not ‘allowed herself to be tampered with’ though the ‘tampering’ itself is done by the very men who expect to enjoy an ‘unspoiled virgin’ for themselves and their sons which then benefits them. Great importance is attached to this prescription for womanhood to the extent that the family of the woman who is found to have conformed to the script receives full kegs of palm wine while those who deviate, in accordance with Tyson’s (1999) idea of patriarchy placing women on a pedestal, receive kegs only half full.

Nnu Ego’s cultural and self-constructed expectations of motherhood to which she is subjected and to which she subjects herself leads to her mental breakdown after her marriage to Amatokwu. Aside being chaste till marriage, a woman’s true value becomes known once they are old enough to marry and conceive children, in particular sons. So, while women are extremely important in one way, their status is completely lost, or is never gained, if this maternal expectation remains unfulfilled. When Idayi, Agbadi’s friend is greeted by the children in the house, he responds to the boys, “…you will all grow to be kings among men” and to the girls, “…you will all grow to rock your children’s children. This is what Nnu Ego knows to be the traditional gender role of a woman.

After months of marriage and no child, she feels she is ‘failing everybody’ and cries to her husband who only leaves her to find a solution on her own because it had become her problem and hers alone. This constructed expectation as a proof of Nnu Ego’s womanhood then justifies Amatokwu suddenly treating her with contempt and tells her, ‘if you can’t produce sons, at least you can help harvest yams. It also benefits him in the sense that their childlessness does not have to be a burden for him to carry but the woman’s.

Nnu Ego is overjoyed when she discovers she is capable of conceiving after all. Her new-found ability to bear children does not only satisfy her maternal longings and fulfil social expectations, it provides her with the only form of feminine identity she is permitted, or can contemplate: motherhood. For Nnu Ego, motherhood is a social construct which has at its core a duty to her father, husband and children. She hinges on her maternal body for identity, status and personal welfare so that her one wish is to bring into the world as many healthy sons as she can who will care for her in old age.

This ideology of motherhood Nnu Ego has influences her to work exceptionally hard for a meagre amount of money to be able to feed and educate her children. It is this same unrelenting and enduring self-sacrificing devotion to her duties of motherhood in addition to societal expectations of that construction that becomes her undoing. It turns into an emotional bondage from which she cannot escape so that after her first child and son Ngozi’s birth, she has 'a sense of fulfillment for the first time in her life' and is contented “that her old age would be happy, that when she died there would be somebody left behind to refer to her as mother'. Immediately after he dies in infancy, she publicly attempts suicide by trying to fall from a busy bridge. A bystander comments that she is not mad but that, 'She has only just lost the child that told the world that she is not barren'. This proclamation results in the whole crowd of onlookers agreeing “that a woman without a child for her husband was a failed woman”.

Later in the novel, Nnaife's younger wife Adaku tells Nnu Ego, 'In Ibuza sons help their father more than they ever help their mother. A mother's joy is only in the name'. With this wisdom-filled statement, Adaku, the symbol of the voice of Black feminism, states the fact which has eluded Nnu Ego all along, that the joy of motherhood is only an illusion; that the joy itself does not reside in the children themselves, but in the status that motherhood brings.

As soon as Nnu Ego sees her second husband Nnaife, we are introduced to her own ideas about what constitutes masculinity. She says that 'with a belly like a pregnant cow' and his hair not closely shaven like the men in Ibuza, he looked like a widow mourning her husband and marrying him would be like living with a middle-aged woman. Nnu Ego and the society in which she lives see a middle-aged widow as a woman with no value. Husband-less and past her childbearing years, her worth as a woman is virtually non-existent. In a society in which domestic servitude is equated with femininity, Nnu Ego cannot accept Nnaife as a parody of a man because the gendered masculine jobs she knows bear no resemblance to what Nnaife does, so she angrily declares, ‘…a man who washes women’s underwear. A man indeed!’ She struggles throughout their marriage with respecting him because he does not conform to her socially constructed ideas of masculinity.

Eckert and Mconnell (2003) argue that women are viewed as passive, gentle, weak, timid and emotional and this socially constructed ideology of femininity is seen in Nnu Ego’s mother ,Ona, who “sat and curled her long legs together in feminine modesty” and when she hears of Agbadi’s accident, “the more vulnerable personality underneath her steely mask came out.” Though she “managed to combine stubbornness with arrogance” which was contrary to society’s expectation of what it is to be feminine, she still submits to the gender role society has written for her and tells Agbadi of their daughter, Nnu Ego before she dies, “Allow her to be a woman.”

She is labelled “a bad woman” because she is “A woman who was troublesome and impetuous, who had the audacity to fight with her man before letting him have her.” and Idayi, Agbadi’s friend “never had any love for this wild uncontrolled woman”. Following Eckert and Mconnell (2003), society expects her to be passive, gentle and timid and with her not behaving that way, she is seen as deviating from the accepted norm. It is for this reason too that Agbadi tells her, “allow yourself to be a woman” and “… all you do is to think like a man”.

In consonance with the above traditional gender roles assigned to women, Agunwa, Agbadi’s first wife performs so well that Agbadi says to his two grown sons when she dies, “Your mother is a good woman. So unobtrusive, so quiet... make sure her slave and her cooking things go with her”. Agbadi praises her because she has lived her life performing her traditional gender roles of being weak, nurturing, submissive and without any needs herself but to satisfy those of her husband and children.

Eckert and Mconnell (2003) further argue that society’s script for men is to be strong, aggressive and rough so to be allowed to stay with Agbadi and care for him herself after his accident, Ona has to behave like a man by fighting to achieve that while all the other wives “were shooed away” and by so doing get to be “together with the men sitting around Agbadi”.

In line with Eckert and Mconnell (2003), that it is feminine to be desirable or desired by men, Ona reasons within herself that “she should regard herself as lucky for two men to want to own her” - her father and Agbadi. Women are seen as weak, fickle-minded and emotional so Umunna, Ona’s father says to Agbadi when he is asked if he wants his daughter to go back on her promise, ‘She is a woman so I don’t see why not. …I’m not asking her to violate her word.’ Umunna here means that as a woman it would not be surprising if she changes her mind because that is society’s construction of the state of the female mind, unstable, irrational, indecisive whereas traditional gender roles cast men as decisive.

Agbadi, Nnu Ego’s father enjoys a very privileged position of honour in his society because “He was a great wrestler, and was glib and gifted in oratory… “physical prowess determined one’s role in life, people naturally accepted him as a leader”. This supports the argument postulated by Eckert and Mconnell (2003) and Tyson (1999) that men are viewed as strong, protective, decisive, aggressive, rough, sex-driven, brave, rational and impassive. Agbadi as a man benefits from these constructed roles for men because he is highly regarded in his community by his wives and others. Agbadi, as a man is expected to act out his traditional gender roles so Ona tells him, “You have borne the pain like a man”. And he in another instance tells her, “… a woman whose heart is made of stone to stay and watch men remove my splints and not drown me with tears. Here, Agbadi is confirming society’s constructed manhood as strong and brave.

These roles for manhood lead Idayi to tell Ona, “If Agbadi were to lower himself to thank you, I am sure you would stop caring for him. You need a man, Ona, not a snail. In performing those same roles, Agbadi is very insensitive to his other wives when he makes love to Ona in the same compound they are in and so has no qualms shouting back to Idayi, “I am only giving my woman her pleasures” and “Agunwa is too mature to mind that. Why, if she behaved like that what kind of example would that be to the younger wives? These instances support this paper’s position that gender as an ideological social construct justifies inequality and benefits patriarchy because Agbadi can afford to be insensitive and cruel to his wives and women treating them anyhow.

Nnaife, Nnu Ego’s second husband tells her when she asks him to take care of their second child and son, Oshia, “But, woman, you have to look after your child. That at least is a woman’s job.” The constructed role of women caring for the children justifies and benefits Nnaife as a man and it makes him think to himself, “Women were all the same.” “Women were so stupid!” Nnaife thought of his employer, Dr Meers, “What kind of intelligent man cannot keep his wife quiet?”. He tells Nnu, “You know a wife is not supposed to do that.” Nnaife echoes all the constructed roles for women and the script they need to perform to be seen as women.

Cameron (1995) in reminding us of an old feminist poster that said ‘‘If being a woman is natural, stop telling me how to do it.” supports the argument that gender is not something we are born with, not something we have but something we do and perform. That is why Nnaife will tell his wife what a woman’s job is and what a wife is not supposed to do.

He says to Nnu Ego, “The day you mention Amatokwu’s name in this house I shall give you the greatest beating you have ever had.” He proves the point Tyson (1999) makes about men punishing women when they slip.

When Nnu Ego goes into labour for her first child and son, Ngozi, she and their neighbour and friend Cordelia struggle alone while the men enjoy their sleep. It is after all the hard and ugly work has been accomplished that “Nnaife would be woken from his masculine slumber”. Cordelia says, “Call the men to enjoy their triumph.” The men benefit from the constructed roles assigned to gender resulting in inequality for the women.


To conclude, it can be seen from the foregoing that this concept of gender as an ideological social construct is realized in The Joys Of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta, which benefits patriarchy, resulting in an inequality of power that denigrates women. The text undermines patriarchal ideology which socially constructs women into powerless and marginalized roles while hailing and maintaining male dominance. This conclusion can be drawn because Nnu Ego dies, virtually a pauper and a lonely soul by the roadside after all her inexorable struggles at fitting into the strait-jacket of the socially constructed woman. However, Emecheta succeeds in presenting the multiple realities shaped by woman’s beliefs so that with the different standpoint, there is a fuller accounting of reality and strong objectivity.


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09 March 2021
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