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Reading and discussing Melissa Benn’s witty, wise and wide ranging new book as a working mother, aged 49, and student daughter, aged 19, has been enlightening and thought-provoking for us both. What Should We Tell Our Daughters? is full of facts and figures, illuminating anecdotes from women of all ages, and provocative questions.
How should women, across generations, discuss the pleasures and pressures of growing up female without inadvertently risking alienation or suppressing each other’s optimism? Even the simplest of feminist issues, the corrosive emphasis on women’s bodies and looks as manifestations of their worth and character, can be a minefield. Mothers wonder how to support their daughter’s self-image and identity – veering between denial of the importance of appearance (think of Bridget Jones’s tactless mother: “nobody will be looking at you, darling) and wanting to shore up fragile self-esteem (“you look beautiful, darling”). Neither strikes the right note, neither gives the right message, but what is the alternative? It’s complicated…
Complicated also is our wish to conform, to be good. Benn makes the point that this wish may underpin girls’ educational success, now outperforming boys at all ages, as well as our aspirations to be desirable (mostly this means thin), caring and competent. These aspirations spill into our wishes to be perfect in relationships – as mothers, daughters, sisters, partners, friends and colleagues. We balance these pressures to conform with our desire to fulfil the promises of first, second and third wave feminism: sexual freedom, independence, ambition and the right to be angry. We both, from our different vantage points, recognise our experiences and the pressures on us reflected in the stories told in this book: our need to acquiesce with ‘banter’ on public transport; the aggressive, sexist responses to anything we post online or Tweet; the risks we take when we are bold, outspoken, or simply ourselves.
We both value our own conversations, revelations and mutual intimacy, but Benn makes it clear that mothers and daughters cannot, within our own relationships, provide and teach ourselves everything we need – we’re each too limited. We need the broader experiences of womanhood to flesh out our dialogue. We need books like this. We need feminist magazines, news, statistics, friends, blogs, novels and lyrics – the big, messy world of women’s lives and reflections. We can’t, as mother and daughter, by ourselves easily access the expertise and wisdom of women from different walks of life, women who’ve chosen different paths, who stay home or leave school at the first opportunity, who don’t have children. And yet all those other women’s lives and experiences are relevant to us, can speak to us, and guide us; herein lies the value of Benn’s treatise.
Her book gives us a framework of issues: identity, careers, family, confidence, and a rich tapestry of data and voices woven in to these issues, from women young and old, successful women, and women whose lives have disappointed them – we need them all. And we also, of course, need to be talking to men – partners, fathers, sons, friends, and indeed male strangers on the underground, in our authentic courageous voices, letting them know how we feel, letting them know how they affect us, and giving them the courage to stand up to the pressures of growing up male.
Benn’s final chapter confronts us with the dichotomy of women’s position in contemporary society. Some of us are doing very well, freed of the old constraints, able to make choices, caught when we stumble or fail and supported by networks of other accomplished and capable women. But so many women and girls are still trapped – in bad relationships, in low expectations, in poverty, violence and despair. As Benn says, we risk a growing gulf between female ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, where it becomes more and more difficult to identify common ground across the divisions of entrenched economic inequality.
We need to embrace the pleasures and pitfalls of being female, and be honest about the pressures. We need to keep talking to our mothers and our daughters, to our sisters from every class, to women of different ages, religion, culture and lifestyle, even when we’re stumbling and ensure of what to say. And we also need to talk to men. Benn’s book is an excellent basis for these conversations…it certainly got us both talking.