Dangarembga opens the novel diving immediately into a feminist agenda by having the main character, Tambudzai (Tambu) proclaim that while her journey stems from the death of her older brother, her “story is not after all about death, but about [her] escape...; about [her] mother's and Maiguru's entrapment; and about Nyasha's rebellion.” Nervous Conditions is a story of women succumbing to and struggling against a society that devalues women. While women worked in the fields seeding and harvesting crops for consumption alongside male family members in the domestic sphere, many of them achieved some public autonomy by tending their own small plots, often passed on from their mothers, from which they would go to bus terminals to sell to white tourists their harvests. Tambu attempts to do this on a small portion of her mother's garden in order to raise money for school fees or else she will have to discontinue her studies. Studies that her older brother and her father believes are a waste of time on her. They have a traditional, marginalized view of women that dictates that their goal is to secure a husband as her father suggests questioning and heeding: “Can you cook books and feed them to your husband? Stay at home with your mother. Learn to cook and clean. Grow vegetables.”
Tambu's successful uncle returns to Rhodesia after several years in England attaining a Master's degree in hopes of helping the rest of his family rise from poverty through education. After the mysterious death of her brother who was chosen to be his family's academic savior, Tambu's uncle still wanted to make good on his mission. However, his deciding to take Tambu back to his school and to live with his family was treated more like a consolation prize than a gift. Tambu never let the negative attitudes of the men in her family deter her sober attitude towards getting an education.
Tambu's cousin and her uncle's daughter, Nyasha, represents the female challenging gender roles as well the traditional dynamics of parent child relationships that typically demand a high degree of respect from children for their parents. Tambu tries to reconcile her feelings for the now “Anglicised cousin” whose behavior she classifies as “embarrassing” and “disrespectful.” Yet, she sees the weight which Nyasha is rumbling under as she unsuccessfully teeters between the British manners and language she had become attached to and her traditional Rhodesian family life. As one of a number of times, the issue of menstruation and sexuality comes up when Nyasha offers Tambu a tampon because she becomes wary of the use of the more cumbersome menses rags. While this also ushers in the shift towards a more western mindset regarding odors and cleanliness for Tambu, the repeated idea of menstruation as “nastiness” and Nyasha's mother, Maiguru's belief that “tampons are offensive” and that “nice girls didn't use them” is a testament to the trivialization of female sexuality and reproduction.
Maiguru, Tambu's aunt, is the ultimate representation of the trapped woman as she keeps quiet that she has attained the same level of education as her husband. What she does do is dote on him and their daughter as expected of a wife. Much of Nyasha's angst and rebellion comes from the from the fact that her mother has been socialized to a stereotypical gender role even after she achieved a high level of education in spite of her family's chagrin.
Tambu's journey into young womanhood and towards freedom are very much shaped by the women in her family who are at various places and stages with their statuses as women in a patriarchal society.