What Should We Tell Our Daughters?, by Melissa Benn

An eloquent study of girlhood and youth

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What Should We Tell Our Daughters? by Melissa Benn, John Murray, RRP£20, 352 pages

When Melissa Benn was young, her mother would stand at an upstairs window and wave her off to school, “a shadowy talisman, a smiling harbinger of good luck”. Benn continued the tradition with her own daughters, and though they are now in their late teens, she still does it on occasion, in secret, embarrassed – or at least aware of the mortification she would cause if spotted. The graft of motherhood is complete and yet the compulsion to protect remains. It’s a moving image – the mother at the window who cannot quite let go, the baton passing from grandmother to mother to daughter.

What Should We Tell Our Daughters? takes its place on a crowded shelf. There has been a surge of feminist energy in recent years and the fruits have been rich and various. Benn pays tribute to her sisters, from authors light, dark and vagina-preoccupied (respectively, Caitlin Moran, Rachel Cusk and Naomi Wolf) to young bloggers such as Ellie Mae O’Hagan and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett. She is wary of being “confessional”, however: autobiographical work, she writes, “can feel essential and fascinating but it is not necessarily radical”. It is a gentle riposte to more than one of those authors above.

She insists instead that it is vital to investigate the “public discourses”: the social and economic patterns, the raw politics that determine our lives. The result is a “hybrid work” that ranges from discussions of austerity to memories of teenage rebellion, such as the time she pinned up posters round the family home of women in postures of domestic drudgery (her father, the politician Tony Benn, “rightly [pointed] out that as I seemed to do so little housework myself, what exactly was the basis of my complaint?”).

The drier aspects of her subject are marshalled efficiently, with analysis of British think-tank reports on wage inequality and US labour market statistics on the underemployment of black women. Benn, a journalist and novelist whose last book was a defence of comprehensive education, refuses to neglect the situation for women at the bottom of the pile. While giving “corporate feminism” its due airing, she rightly notes its myopia: Facebook boss Sheryl Sandberg’s instruction to “lean in” is all very well for women already on a managerial trajectory but has little relevance for the cleaner on a zero-hours contract unable to earn a living wage.

The book springs to life once Benn leaves the numbers behind. In a closing chapter, “How Should A Women Be?” (another nod, this time to Canadian author Sheila Heti), Benn grapples eloquently with character, self, confidence, anger, the unquantifiable but elemental traits that make us human. She calls on literature – Middlemarch, The Portrait of a Lady – as a “more useful guide to ... the difficulties of being and growing up female”. And it is through a moving portrait of the great novelist Penelope Fitzgerald that she illustrates the “casual diminishment” of women by men – a form of discrimination so commonplace as to be almost unremarkable. When Benn writes pointedly that such “diminishment does wonders for one’s inner determination, I have always found”, you want to cheer: the public discourses might be important but it is her own voice, when allowed to filter through, that animates them.

By the time this review is published, I will, all being well, be a mother of a daughter (I write this, vast, at nine months pregnant). Inevitably, I read Benn’s book with my unborn, unknown child in mind: what will I tell her about this world, how to navigate it, how to survive? Benn offers a raft of possible answers but it is her call to the mind and the soul that I will outright steal: “I believe we owe our daughters curiosity: the chance to be, or become, strangers, even to us, as we inquire of, and show ourselves willing to hear, wishes and dreams we may never have imagined”.

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