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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Elusive sharks, magic carpets, and other summer radio highlights

American singer Beth Ditto on BBC 6 Music is hands down the guest presenter of the season.

A trio of things to divert us as we drift into the dog days: the Norwegian non-fiction hit Shark Drunk makes a perfectly dreamlike Book of the Week (BBC Radio 4, weekdays, 9.45am). Its author, Morten Strøksnes, navigates the waters around the Lofoten Islands looking for a Greenland shark, a highly elusive and languorous creature that can reach 200 years in age and has fluorescent-green parasites covering its milky, sad eyes.

Strøksnes is frequently distracted by the strange summer beauty of the islands. Like a naive hero in a dark-edged John Bauer illustration, he is helplessly drawn to their tiny shores, wandering through forests of rowan dripping with chlorophyll or sitting among a species of pretty yellow flower with a fragrance that has earned it the label “arse-wiper gut grass”. Oh, happy picnics!

Then, to a discussion about the “saucy bits” in One Thousand and One Nights on the BBC World Service’s The Forum (1 August, 9am). Dipping into the massive, ancient Indian/Persian collection of stories about flying carpets and genies reminds me a little of surfing the web – it’s a book that contains so many voices. Such a mixture of moralising and immoral behaviour and tall tales. On and on it goes. (The title in Arabic, Alfu Laylatin wa-Laylah, means “endless”.)

How about this? “The porter saw a girl with eyes like a wild heifer, a neck like a cake for eating and a mouth like the sea of Solomon.” A neck like a cake for eating. Phenomenal lines rush past in a gleefully gurgling whoosh, like water let out of the bath.

Finally, hands down the guest presenter of the summer is the American singer Beth Ditto, with her two-hour stint on BBC 6 Music (28 July, 7pm). Clicking her fingers, speaking with a wink, never short of a compassionate anecdote, Ditto has a unique knack of introing a song as good as Planningtorock’s “Living It Out” by increasingly raising her voice as the music starts thrumming beneath, and then louder still, like someone with her hand on the door of a holiday-island nightclub, excitedly shouting instructions at you before everybody bursts in, minus several flip-flops, and heads straight for the bar.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue