Book review: What Should We Tell Our Daughters?, By Melissa Benn

From work-family pile-ups to the cult of hairless bodies: a spirited survey of women's lives today

Sheila Rowbotham
Friday 01 November 2013 20:00
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When the unmarried Mary Wollstonecraft travelled with her three-year-old daughter, Fanny, across Norway during the French Revolution, she expressed a dread that the little girl might be "forced to sacrifice her heart to her principles, or principles to her heart". Two centuries on, Melissa Benn too wants to expand possibilities for new generations of women. She situates the question What Should We Tell Our Daughters? amid contemporary women's complicated predicament.

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Benn examines extreme incongruences: women's increased visibility in the media and presence in high-powered jobs, alongside male violence and a sexualised popular culture. She shows how many women have become unemployed, while those in work struggle with longer hours. The jargon changes as fast as the technology: "work-life-balance" goes out of the window and in comes "merging". The latter means working mothers can leave at 5.30pm and get back on their laptops at 9pm. Mothers at home, bombarded by angst, are finding that even a modest degree of shared parenting is becoming a utopian dream because many men work excessively long hours.

Young women, anxious to rise, are presented with the option of "honey-moneying", a new term for the old trick of making your face your fortune. Both Wollstonecraft and Benn demonstrate this to be a perilously short-term proposition. Benn cites a study by Women in Journalism, "The Lady Vanishes at 45". This gendered difference in how old age is classified extends into other pressurised jobs such as public relations.

Women's anxiety about appearance was already being grasped as a market opportunity in the early 20th century by cosmetic firms. Now, as Benn documents, selling has penetrated actual body parts – not just face-lifts or breast enhancement but "thigh gap surgery". The mind boggles! She notes the curious inconsistency of American sex education in advising abstinence while seven-year-olds are being sold padded bras.

Benn steers us through this discomforting stuff, while scrupulously avoiding a simplistic "fix". She wants us to look carefully at the wider social causes before we start pronouncing. Moreover, she follows her own maxims of "deep, honest, hopeful, thoughtfulness" in trying to work out how women are responding. This is not as obvious as it might seem. Benn wryly observes how, despite popular etiquette books telling young women never to make the first move, the majority take the attitude, "Why wait"?

Reading her book made me ponder on the difficulty of assessing shifts in consciousness, especially about sex. To my relief many people in their twenties express a no-nonsense acceptance of lesbian, gay, trans and bisexuality inconceivable in the 1960s. Other changes, I confess, mystify me. For instance, I learned that young men now recoil from pubic hair. Benn suggests this squeamish delicacy on the part of the male sex arises from hairless pornography. But why does modern porn ban what was after all plentiful in old-fashioned porn? Is the porn industry in league with the manufacturers of razors and hair-removing creams?

Several women Benn interviews testify to the revival of feminist groupings and agitation – a vital legacy for the daughters of Mary Wollstonecraft. Recognising that feminism has differing political aspects, Benn's own inclinations are towards an egalitarian feminism which can challenge the impact of welfare cuts, envisage more humane working conditions and secure an education that develops the abilities of every child.

Alternatives to accepting things as they are can lurk in unlikely crevices. Ironically, some factors her interviewees describe as holding women back – listening, waiting to be sure a comment is relevant and doubting oneself – struck me as commendable anti-competitive values.

Benn's writing is profoundly reasonable, while infused with a spirit of creative rebellion, pleasure and fun. I particularly liked her reflective musings on her own pregnancy when she felt simultaneously "dismembered" and "energized", and her evocative account of repeating with her own daughters her mother's practice of waving her off to school. This is a good book for daughters, for sons, and indeed for all of us.

Sheila Rowbotham's most recent book is 'Dreamers of a New Day' (Verso)

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