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?

Photo: Jonathan Cape
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Who’s the daddy? Two memoirs that examine the complexities of fatherhood

Both Fathers and Sons by Howard Cunnell and Fathers by Sam Miller chase what can never really be known.

About three-quarters of the way in to his striking memoir, Fathers and Sons, Howard Cunnell writes about a support group he attends at the Tavistock Centre in London with his son, Jay, who is trans.

He observes the other boys, their “look” – short hair, shaved at the back and sides, low-slung jeans, Converse trainers, caps. He observes their expressions and manner: “a lot of looking down, faces set to blank, whether out of fear and unhappiness, or an approximation of the hard mask boys often wear”.

Then he observes the other dads, “all of us trying hard to look like there’s nothing unusual about being here . . . recalibrating our speech and body language to masculine when we talk to our new sons”.

He calls Jay “mate”, ruffles his hair and pretends to punch him, that manly sock on the shoulder that signals a certain kind of defined gender identity. He asks himself, “What do the dads who don’t come think? The ones who think there’s something wrong with their child?”

He has no answer to those questions: only his understanding of what it feels like to be judged, or to imagine such a judgement. Fathers and Sons begins not with Jay but with Cunnell’s own early history, with the sense of permanent loss and recrimination he suffered when his father abandoned the family – he, his elder brother, Luke, and their mother. In his childhood in Sussex, his mother’s love is no cure for the wound he carries with him always: “I want other boys to like me because that might give the lie to what I know about myself. That I am worthless. That’s why my dad left.”

The reader understands, then, that from his earliest days Cunnell, a novelist and academic, has been haunted by the absence of masculine love, forced to ask himself why that particular lack should leave such a hole in his life. When his beautiful daughter becomes – with suffering and struggles – his beautiful son, he is again accosted by those issues, this time from the other side of the generational divide.

What does it mean, a father’s love? Does it signify something different to a daughter from what it does to a son? Perhaps so, but then every love has a different shape. Sam Miller’s memoir, Fathers, comes at paternity and the question of what it means to be a father from a no less arresting angle.

Miller is the middle child of Karl Miller, the founding editor of the London Review of Books and great British littérateur who died in 2014. Miller, Sr wrote two volumes of memoir of his own, Rebecca’s Vest (1993) and Dark Horses (1998). But as Sam discovered when he was a teenager, he is not, in fact, Karl Miller’s son, but the product of an on-again-off-again affair his mother, Jane, had with a family friend, Tony White – who died suddenly at the age of 45 as the result of a blood clot in his leg. Fathers is Miller’s heartfelt attempt to come to terms with his complicated family, to consider the meaning of fatherhood and to grasp at the ghost of Tony White.

Where Karl and Jane Miller lived a mostly settled life in Chelsea, Tony, a friend from their university days and widely loved by their circle of friends, was a wanderer. A talented actor and footballer, he worked as a translator, a lamplighter, a lobsterman in the west of Ireland.

From his own memoir, it seemed that Karl Miller loved his friend unequivocally, despite the affair between Tony and his wife. Sam quotes Karl’s description of Tony on the football field. “Tony was big and strong and eager, forever being cut and gashed,” Karl Miller recalled. “His rich dark eyes, boundless generosity and zest and his lavish brushstrokes on the field of play held us together.” It is clear to Sam that his father’s affection for Tony ran deep – and this book also explores the seeming mystery of masculine love.

Tony is a shining figure, always out of reach and, after his death, he seems even more unreachable because his biological son is his spitting image. When Sam finds a photograph taken at a Christmas party that his parents gave the year before he was born, it gives him a fright: it shows Karl, staring straight at the camera, with Tony standing, half hidden, behind him. “The head in profile appears to be me, as a grown-up – some 13 months before I was born . . . The upper parts of our faces are almost identical. And I just can’t understand how more of my parents’ friends did not guess I was Tony’s son.” They might have guessed without speaking, of course.

Both of these books, in very different ways, chase what can never be known. Cunnell’s is the more artfully written, a meditation as much as a memoir, the fragments of his life presented with a novelist’s eye for detail and language. The author uses pseudonyms for those close to him, but that does not make the book any less honest.

There is plenty of darkness here – as Cunnell grows to manhood, he seems to be heading for self-destruction, his restless life marked by violence and heavy drinking – and yet his account is suffused with light. The light of the Sussex Downs that washes his childhood; “tin-coloured clouds” racing across the moon when he finds himself in Mexico; light that gleams from page after page, “a floating frame of light” that shines over Jay’s bed when he was a small child. These images of brightness, of sun and shadow, make a prism of the book. Narrow ideas of what makes a father, what makes a son, are opened out into a rainbow of possibilities.

Miller, who worked for the BBC World Service for nearly two decades, takes a much more documentary approach, searching for evidence, photographs and letters, which nearly always fail to give him the answers he seeks. No wonder, for he seems to be alone in the world:

I came across no likeness, no one in literature or in life, who seemed similar to me, who was brought up as the middle child of a married couple, and then learned his father was not really his father, and that the two men were friends and remained friends. I have not yet met my double. And my situation, my story, seemed both unusual and, in the way it played out, surprisingly uncomplicated.

Or, as this book proves, as complicated as any life. His quest for a deeper understanding of his paternity is punctuated by his accounts of the months and weeks before his father’s death, a time to which he returns in his mind, painting a loving portrait of father and son. Something is missing, and yet nothing is missing.

Perhaps Sam Miller’s memoir offers more of a sense of completion than the author knows. Fathers is a book that circles around itself, asking questions that can have no answers, looking for truth where none can finally be found, and it is all the more moving for that. 

Erica Wagner’s latest book is “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” (Bloomsbury)

Fathers and Sons
Howard Cunnell
Picador, 224pp, £14.99

Fathers
Sam Miller
Jonathan Cape, 250pp, £14.99

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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