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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Commons Confidential: Could Corbyn's El Gato kick Larry out of Downing Street?

The No 10 cat fight.

A rolling revolt is gathering speed, as the suspicion grows that Theresa May called her snap poll to escape potential by-elections, should the Crown Prosecution Service find that her MPs were involved in electoral fraud during the 2015 campaign.

A growing number of Tory MPs are informing HQ that they don’t want a battle bus visit. Driving the rebellion is the hard-boiled Andrew Bridgen, who made his cash by selling prewashed spuds to supermarkets. “I’m going to post party workers on every route into my constituency,” growled the veg baron, who is defending an 11,373 majority in Leicestershire, “with orders not to let any bloody bus on to our patch.” Here’s an opportunity for Tory command to raise a few bob: flog tyre-bursting spike strips to candidates.

Fur would fly in the unlikely event that Jeremy Corbyn moves into No 10. The more optimistic among his entourage fret over whether the moggy El Gato could cohabit with Larry the Downing Street cat. Corbyn muses that El Gato is a socialist, sharing food with a stray that turned up in his north London garden. If Labour wins, I understand that El Gato is the top cat or Larry is out with May. Jezza’s first call wouldn’t be to Donald Trump or Angela Merkel but to Battersea Dogs and Cats Home.

George Osborne’s £650,000 BlackRock sinecure is jeopardised, I hear, by his London Evening Standard editorship. An impeccable source whispers that the world’s largest investment fund, controlling £4trn of loot, anguishes over possible conflicts of interest. BlackRock hired Osborne to nurture high-net-worth clients, who are suddenly wary of divulging secrets to an ambitious hack. Perhaps the super-rich should relax. He is incapable of recognising a story, even missing Standard deadlines with his resignation as a Tory MP.

The word is that Ukip’s seven-time loser Nigel Farage declined the chance to risk an eighth loss to retain his £800-per-hour LBC radio gig. The Brexit elites’ Don Farageone needs the money – a chauffeur-driven Range Rover with tinted windows won’t be cheap.

Corbyn’s war on dandelions is on hold during the campaign, with green-fingered comrades tending his allotment. Cherie Blair was accused 20 years ago of mentally measuring up curtains for No 10. Corbyn quipped that he is tempted to measure flower borders to plant runner beans. Labour’s No 10 would certainly be no bed of roses.

What will retiring MPs do? Middlesbrough South’s Tom Blenkinsop informed colleagues that he might join the army. My hunch is that at 36, with a Peaky Blinders haircut, the general secretaryship of the Community trade union is more likely.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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