What Should We Tell Our Daughters?: The age after innocence

Is feminism capable of addressing the differences between women, as well as those between women and men?

The dust jacket of Melissa Benn’s book isn’t shy about suggesting that you’ll find answers to your feminist parenting woes within. “The dark art of male condescension – how to recognise and counter it”, promises the blurb, and “How to curb pornography – and the threat of New Puritanism”.

Yet this is no self-help-style troubleshooter. All these and more enticing how-to promises are not so much unfulfilled as left to spin urgently like bobbins dangling from the big question posed by the title: what should we do, what should we do, what should we do?

In point of fact, who is this “we”? When the book feels warmest, “we” seems to be a sorority of mothers such as Benn: feminists concerned about how they can prepare their daughters to negotiate the world. The book circles subjects such as girls’ susceptibility to the twin rigours of academic pressure and anorexia, and their chances of negotiating the career-crushing intrusion of childbearing and rearing. There are several discussions about violence against women but only one mention of female genital mutilation and none of forced marriages or honour crime. “Our daughters” feels like a narrow clan sometimes.

What Should We Tell Our Daughters? is not part of the trite genre of feminism that urges women to “have it all” but it certainly speaks from a milieu in which having it all wouldn’t be unimaginable. That does not mean the book limits its view to middle class anxieties alone, though. Benn touches sharply on the idea that while feminism has helped to spur huge advances in equality between the sexes, we also live in an era when the chasm of possibility between the bestand worst-off is widening drastically. Is feminism capable of addressing the differences between women, as well as those between women and men?

Addressing the manifesto of Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, Benn rightly notes that “the majority of young women are left out of the lean in discussion altogether”. She questions how much common cause can be made over a feminism that specifically celebrates “exceptional women”: the chief executive, the politician, the investment banker super-mum. This political insight unfortunately doesn’t quite translate into a big theory.

Although there are nods to the impassioned agitating of Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer, and there is an inspiring passage about the power of women’s anger, this is not an angry book but an exercise in restrained pragmatics.

So, it is a shame that Benn’s pragmatism isn’t always strictly grounded in the best data. She is very widely read and when she describes the huge file of newspaper clippings she has assembled in her research, I can well believe it. This can read more like a work of collage than one of synthesis – a news story, a data point wrenched from some place or other and a case study, all clustered together. There is sense in the assemblage but Benn doesn’t subject anything to quite the scrutiny it deserves. Over and over, statistics that had their birth in press releases (for Netmums, Scottish Widows or Girlguiding) surface as though they were neutral markers of truth.

Statistics of slightly questionable origin do not derail the book, because they don’t direct the argument so much as adorn it. But they are a niggling distraction that we could do without, because the times when Benn drops the desultory number-crunching and offers analyses of television shows, books and conversations are the times when What Should We Tell Our Daughters? comes closest to answering its own question.

Frustratingly, we have to wait for the conclusion for that, when Benn finally turns to the long-promised subject of advice from mothers to daughters, quoting Anne Sexton and Mary Wollstonecraft. (“I dread lest she should be forced to sacrifice her heart to her principles, or her principles to her heart,” Wollstonecraft wrote of her own daughter, fixing exactly the dilemma that Benn has spent a whole book to come to.)

What Should We Tell Our Daughters? might have been more complete if it had been more partial. Partial in the sense of selective: if Benn had ditched the clumsy efforts at comprehensive evidence and instead approached her subject through the close reading at which she excels, I suspect the book would have uncovered more. And partial in the sense of taking sides, too: the question, “Is this good for women?” is too often put aside in favour of the question, “Can this be changed?”, when asking the first question harder might give more impetus to finding the answer to the second.

It might feel like a lie to tell our daughters (and our sons) that they can remake the world in better shapes but it is the kind of lie that is more likely to become true for being persuasively told.

Sarah Ditum blogs for newstatesman.com

Merry dance: bringing up girls is a balancing act

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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From probiotics to poetry: how Rachel Kelly keeps depression at bay

Kelly describes herself as a people-pleaser and yet 12 years ago she fled her own Christmas party, crushed by a deep depression. Now she's written 52 Small Steps to Happiness.

Rachel Kelly describes herself as a people-pleaser and yet 12 years ago she fled her own Christmas party, crushed by a deep depression. Hours later, she returned to her home in Notting Hill, west London, where her husband helped her to bed. The party continued downstairs – the Camerons and Osbornes were present, joined by the family’s other high-flying friends. “The struggle was over,” she wrote in her 2014 memoir, Black Rainbow. “I had tried and I had lost.”

Kelly’s suffering came as a surprise to many. A journalist at the Times, with a successful husband, beautiful house and healthy children, she had achieved everything she had wanted. But her mental health declined after the birth of her second child in 1997 and it took years of medication and therapy to recover.

Kelly’s latest book, Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness, describes the strategies that have helped her stay “calm and well” ever since. Drawing equally from science and art, each chapter (one for every week of the year) offers salves for both body and mind, from probiotics to poetry.

When we met one recent evening at a café near her home, Kelly barely remembered to drink her water, so eager was she to share her experiences. She hopes that her new book will be for “those of us who, at times, find life stressful, or who wish to try to feel a little steadier”. It’s the kind of book she wishes she had read before becoming ill. “I’m a believer in prevention rather than cure,” she said. “I do a lot of work in schools, where we have a massive problem with teenage mental health. What makes me feel so exhilarated is that there really are things you can do.”

Having seen depression from both sides, as a sufferer and a campaigner, she is acutely aware of the stigma that mental illness still carries, particularly among people working in middle-class jobs. “If you’re unemployed or facing real social deprivation, there’s an expectation that you might get depressed. But in that middle cohort – of lawyers, bankers, doctors – there’s a lot of pressure, yet it’s hard to admit you might be suffering.”

Challenging such stigmas is vital. The head of the charity Mind estimates that 75 per cent of people with mental health problems do not receive any treatment. The number of those who do has continued to rise: the NHS issued roughly 53 million prescriptions for antidepressants in 2013, an increase of a quarter in three years. In some cases “antidepressants can be life savers”, Kelly told me. For others, “it’s empowering to take responsibility for what you can do yourself”. In her own case, she found that useful strategies came not only from professionals but from family, friends, readers and those who took part in the workshops she runs. She has found the words of poets helpful. It was a poem, “Love (III)”, by the 17th-century clergyman George Herbert, that she credits with kick-starting her recovery: “Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back.”

Pointing to work being done by the Royal College of Music and a new charity, ReLit, which promotes the use of imaginative literature in treating stress and anxiety, Kelly is hopeful that the bonds between well-being and the arts will grow.

“The NHS rightly has to be evidence-based,” she said, “but I’m absolutely certain that the arts have an important part to play in mental health and we’re beginning to see the research that proves it.” Though Kelly spoke cheerfully about her experiences, her present life is not without anxiety. Like anyone, she worries about the future. “I suppose if I wish for something, it’s for my children to avoid what I went through,” she said. “You wouldn’t wish depression on anyone.”

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror