Below, my latest piece in Guardian Comment, on education’s growing culture of overwork, and how it is affecting children and parents.
Do you know a ghost child? Are you possibly raising one? A report this week by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) pinpoints a worrying new phenomenon – the institutionalised infant, a whey-faced creature, stuck in school for 10 hours a day, the child of commuting parents possibly, wandering from playground to desk to after-school club without real purpose, nodding off through boredom and fatigue.
The sad thing is, as yet another timely ATL report brings home, the ghost child is increasingly likely to be taught by the ghost adult – a teacher grey with fatigue and stress, stuck at school for 10 hours or more a day, wandering from duty to duty in playground, classroom or after-school club. Both, it seems, are part of a culture that increasingly overworks our citizens, from a younger and younger age, in the often fruitless quest for job security and social mobility.
Read the rest of the article here.
Apologies for lack of website activity over the past few months (site statistics suggest a lot of you have been visiting this site during this period) but I am sure regular readers will understand – given the final illness and death of my father, Tony Benn, a few weeks ago – why I have been so quiet.
Am now, slowly, picking up the threads of life and work.
Below, then, a few upcoming public events/discussions.
Most, but not all, of these connect to the late March paperback publication of ‘What Should We Tell Our Daughters?’ For reviews of the book, see previous post.
But many of these discussions touch on more general feminist themes and are part of a wonderfully diverse and vibrant ongoing public debate on so many aspects of women’s lives.
Please come along!
April 16th,Blackwell’s Bookshop, Oxford, at 7pm.
April 22nd 7pm
Venue: Rich Mix (in the main space), 35-47 Bethnal Green Rd, London E1 6LA
Time: 22 April 2014 at 7pm
This is a free event, but RSVP is essential – book your tickets here. You can also watch the live stream online from 7pm
Apparently this event is now sold out, but there is a waiting list for those still keen to come.
April 29th 6pm Stratford Arts House/ part of Stratford on Avon Literary Festival
World War 1 – the War that Changed Women’s Lives.
Chaired by the writer Vik Groskop, our panel will discuss the impact of the war on women,
some of the women who had the most impact on social change for women and ask how much
further women have come on the road to equality. With Baroness Shirley Williams and novelist Judith Allnatt.
May 1st 6.30pm
Discussion with writer Anne Dickson on modern feminism, particularly looking at the role of men in current campaigns.
May 12th 7pm
Discussion on ‘What Should We Tell Our Daughters?’hosted by the wonderful independent hackney bookshop Pages.
May 13th 7pm
Smashing The Glass Ceiling: Women in the PUblic Sphere.
At the Working Men’s College, Crowndale Road, Camden.
Free lectures – reserve places by email or phone
Tel: 020 7255 4748
Will post further summer events in a couple of weeks: including a first ever visit, with the Local Schools Network, to the Sunday Times Education Conference and two events at the Edinburgh festival.
‘What Should We Tell Our Daughters? The Pleasures and Pressures of Growing Up Female ‘ was published earlier this autumn. Here are some of the comments that have been made about the book – and me! I am also doing a lot of festivals/talks and events; please check out this link http://melissabenn.com/2013/08/29/what-should-we-tell-our-daughters-autumn-events/ for accounts – and a few photos! – of events so far, and news of ones still to come. If you are interested in buying the book,you can do so from Amazon, here The paperback will be published early in the New Year……
‘Benn grapples eloquently with character, self, confidence, anger, the unquantifiable but elemental traits that make us human…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 are selves willing to hear, wishes and dreams we may never have imagined.’ – Sophie Elmhirst, Financial Times
‘A Bible for . . . Any young woman who has ever doubted herself, any brilliant mind who has ever felt unworthy for not carrying off the latest faddy fashion trend or sexualised beauty look, any modern-day Goddess who feels destabilised and lost’ – Caryn Franklin, All Walks blog
‘An intelligent and captivating read . . . you’ll want to lock yourself away and devour it from beginning to end’ – Emma Herdman, Psychologies
‘Wide-ranging, thoughtful, even-handed . . . Her forensic approach adds valuable nuance’ – Justine Jordan, The Guardian
‘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, Independent
‘In this thoughtful, impeccably researched, well-written and heartfelt book, Melissa Benn celebrates the advance of women’s rights and freedoms won over the last century in the West, reminding us of what we now take for granted, but simultaneously homes in on the outstanding or new issues of today for young women. She explores the nub of women’s lives – work, sex, love and motherhood – and why it is imperative that the future is different for our daughters’ – The Human Givens
‘Melissa Benn…is first rate.’ – Daily Telegraph
‘An excellent book… one of the most comprehensive overviews of the challenges facing British girls and women today. Her contemporary analysis, firmly rooted in experience rather than theory, is one of the book’s strengths. Benn has previously written on British education and her extensive knowledge shines through. This is an excellent study for everyone interested in contemporary women’s issues and in it Benn shows that the best feminist writing is no longer consigned to dull theoretical works… an essential read for girls, women, mothers and fathers. And it shows what we should teach our sons too’ – Laura Ellis, Morning Star
Below, details of some of the events I have been – or will be – taking part in over the autumn, as part of publication of ‘What Should We Tell Our Daughters?’ ( Unless otherwise stated, this will usually be the title of the session…)
Please come along – and join the discussion…
Friday 23rd August
6.30pm Greenbelt Festival
Venue: Cheltenham Racecourse, Gloucestershire
Monday 9th September
‘Finding a public voice’ Key Note Speech at Induction Day: Camden School for Girls, North London.
( above, picture taken with the Camden Sixth Form leadership group – what a team!)
Thurs 19th September
“How to be Female and Awesome.’ 4pm Blenheim Literary Festival with Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman and Polly Morland, author of The Society of Timid Souls -Or How to be Brave (published by Profile).
Saturday 21st September – mid afternoon – Brighton
Labour Women’s Conference. Debate with Bonnie Greer and Caroline Criado-Perez on ‘everyday sexism and how to fight it..’ A thousand strong audience here; according to Harriet Harman, who spoke later in the day, this was the largest ever political meeting of women held in this country, certainly in recent times.
( You can just about spot the One Nation logo behind my head!)
Tuesday 24th September
Discussion on BBC Woman’s Hour about the book with Erinn Dhesi.
( Erinn and I just before we went into the studio: her first time on national radio, she was amazingly calm!)
Thursday 26th September – Publication Day!
‘Meet the Author’ Interview on the themes of the book with Nick Higham on BBC News 24.
Saturday 28th September,
Noon, Wigtown Book Festival
Venue: County Buildings Wigtown, Newton Stewart Scotland DG8 9JH
Daily Telegraph review of my session. Complete nonsense to suggest any of the men were shrinking in their seats. But hey – you’ve got to add colour to a report don’t you?
Thursday 3rd October
6.30p.m. City Books Event. Brighton and Hove Sixth Form College, Dyke Road, Hove BN3 6EG
Further info: email@example.com
Also on October 3rd:
10 pm. Discussion about the themes of the book on Nightwaves, BBC 3′s arts and ideas programme. The interviewer was Anne McElvoy, who was, as in all my previous encounters with her on radio, in a ‘spatty’ frame of mind. I think she thinks of me as the archetypal progressive lefty comprehensive-education- supporting ‘muesli eating’ feminist whom she needs to challenge at all times. My aim here, as always, is to demonstrate the grace, good humour and gritty combativeness that goes with my kind of politics.(All that muesli eating helps, I reckon…..)
Link to the programme here.
Sunday October 6th
Appearance on Fiona Phillips’ BBC London programme to discuss the book and the question of role models for young women. Below, with Fiona Phillips and Briony Kimmings, actress and playwright.
Link to programme here; my interview took place over the last half hour of the programme.
Monday October 7th
Guest on The Current, CBC’s breakfast show; discussion with Jen Gerson and Roxanne Gay on the theme of whether Miley Cyrus and Rihanna are empowered or exploited…..
Tuesday 8th October
7pm Blackwell’s Bookshop, Oxford
48-51 Broad Street
Thursday 10th October
Evening Event at Toppings Ely
Venue: St Peter’s, Broad St Ely CB7 4BB
further info: firstname.lastname@example.org
Friday 11th October
Lunchtime Key note talk to: the Association of Maintained Girls Schools, London.
Saturday 12th October
12.30pm Wimbledon Book Festival, with Viv Groskup
1 Archway Mews, 241 Putney Bridge Rd, London SW15 2PE
Tuesday 15th October
7.30pm Off the Shelf Literature Festival, Sheffield
for further details: Tel 0114 273 4716/0114 273 4400
Thursday 17th October
Event with Stella Creasy MP at Royal Society of the Arts on ‘What Should We Tell OUr Daughters?’
You can listen to the podcast here.
This is a full recording including audience Q and A.
Tuesday 22nd October
Evening Event with Newham Books and Helen Lewis, deputy editor of the New Statesman.
Venue: Wanstead Library
Wednesday 30th October
Lady English Lecture
Melissa Benn: ‘What should we tell our daughters? Equality and feminism in the 21st century’.
St Hilda’s College
Wednesday, October 30, 2013 – 17:30
Jacqueline du Pré Music Building
You can watch the video of the lecture here.
Saturday 16th November
2.30pm Chorleywood Bookshop Festival
With The Guardian’s Hadley Freeman
More details here: http://www.cwlitfest.org/events.html
Sunday 24th November
3.30pm Folkestone Book Festival
Wednesday 27th November
Bristol Festival of Ideas, Watershed. 6.30 pm
Sunday 1st December
Cambridge Winter Wordfest with Alison Wolf, author of The XX Factor. Venue and time TBC
more details: Cambridge Wordfest, 7 Downing Place, Cambridge CB2 3EL
T: 01223 515335
I shall also be doing a number of talks and debates in early 2014 – in Cardiff, the Lake District, Plymouth, East London among many places – to mark publication of the paperback of ‘Daughters.’ Details will appear on this website soon.
What Should We Tell Our Daughters?
By Melissa Benn
A manifesto for modern womanhood – and a guide through the perils and pitfalls of parenting girls
We have reached a tricky crossroads in modern women’s lives and our collective daughters are bearing the brunt of some intolerable pressures. Although feminism has made great strides forward since our mothers’ and grandmothers’ day, many of the key issues – equality of pay, equality in the home, representation at senior level in the private, public and political sectors – remain to be tackled. Casual sexism in the media and in everyday life is still rife and our daughters face a host of new difficulties as they are bombarded by images of unrealistically skinny airbrushed supermodels, celebrity role-models who depend on their looks and partners for status, and by competitive social media. The likes of Natasha Walter and Katie Roiphe deal with feminism from an adult point of view, but our daughters need to be prepared for stresses that are coming into play now as early as pre-school. This is a manifesto for every mother who has ever had to comfort a daughter who doesn’t feel ‘pretty’, for every young woman who out-performs her male peers professionally and wonders why she is still not taken seriously, and for anyone interested in the world we are making for the next generation.
ISBN: 9781848546271Publication date: 26 Sep 2013
Five man today appear in court, charged with the rape and murder of a still unnamed medical student on a bus in Delhi at the end of last year. I know I am not alone in continuing to feel haunted by the deep sadism, and even deeper sadnesses, of the Delhi case.. It feels like an act from another moral or temporal world which in many ways it is.
At the same time, there is an uneasy sense of fear and familiarity, particularly as the mother of two independently minded teenage girls, used to monitoring their safety out and about in the streets of one of the world’s largest capitals.
Is mine the luxury of pointless, pampered worry? Not if we trust UK government estimates that an astonishing 80,000 women are raped and 400,000 sexually assaulted in this country every year. And as any parent anywhere knows – particularly at that heart stopping moment in the early hours when a mobile phone signal is temporarily unavailable – the consequences for girls of serious sexual assault is inevitably life changing.
But there is a fine line between what we might call maternal care and patriarchal control, as the Delhi atrocity has only highlighted. There, the political elite initially responded with alarms about ‘dented’ and ‘painted’ women and the risks of an ‘adventurous spirit’ or even, the possession of mobile phones by young women; that is, until a groundswell of anger has forced culture and country to re-examine the true burden of guilt in this and countless other similar cases.
Here, while we pride ourselves on our greater freedom, particularly for women, we talk less of our fears, restrictions or compromises. But our attitudes are often surprisingly similar to that we reject from distant patriarchs or mealy mouthed conformists.
Certainly, our ambiguous response to the dangers that exist for young women has led to a kind of informal policing – in more than one sense. The wealthy can grant their children the much prized freedom of movement through unlimited access to secure taxi services. Meanwhile, the slightly less affluent, offer themselves – frazzled middle aged people, with winter coats pulled over their crumpled pyjamas – as late night drivers of last resort.
But for those who lack material or psychological resources, or who actually believe that girls should not have the same freedom of boys, there is a vast amount of forbidding or covert guilt tripping going on. I have lost count of the stories of parents – particularly mothers – who give their teenage girls earlier curfews than their younger brothers or who simply beg their daughters not to go out or not too late, to stop the responsible adult ‘worrying themselves sick.’
And it is not just parents who take this view. Last summer, around the time of one of the Slut Walks in central London, I had a furious argument with with a very old friend, who is both child-free and feminist. While I celebrated the courageous refusal of younger women to alter their clothing when out in public, my friend, her face stiff with disapproval, countered that it was crass stupidity for today’s adolescent girls to believe that they could walk the streets in buttock-grazing shorts, unaware of what they might provoke.
Once the shouting had subsided, we came to an edgy understanding of the tricky terrain we were spatting over. Younger women are right to claim their freedom of movement but am I, as a parent, being irresponsible if I don’t point out the potential dangers? Should the frequent ( and often amused, it has to be said) mutterings of adults about revealed cleavage and cut-off shorts and all the rest of it be fashioned into some kind of parental guidance, if not command?
Well, of course, in real households, that happens ( ‘ Put on a coat’, ‘ Never walk home alone’, are two of the sane, if tame, favourites.) But it is surprising, and depressing, how often such ‘guidance’ feels as if one is simply teaching girls to conform.
Re-reading ‘The Female Eunuch’ recently, surely now best taken as a bit of social history, I was struck by the echoes between some of the comments I have heard from the mothers of teenagers and Greer’s typically stern analysis of the varying means of old fashioned gender control. Greer rages powerfully against parents who instil fear of the dangerous, dark stranger in their teenage girls, with often stark psychological consequences. In today’s parlance, parents are more likely to talk about ‘ all those bloody psychopaths out on the streets.’ Same difference huh?
I’d like to think we could do all this better in the early 21st century. While it is impossible to ensure our daughters’ absolute freedom and safety perhaps we think more about the trade off, the balancing point, than parents of old? Talking about our own experience is always helpful, including making the simple point that our daughters may be in the greatest danger from men that they know. Or that they think they know.
Equally important is public debate, and rebellion, of the kind we are now seeing in India. It is why I will be joining the protest against sexual violence to be held outside the Indian High Commission in London today, , and will urge my teenagers to come along too. Here is one way to honour the life and death of that unnamed 23 year old woman, but also to ensure that her unimaginable suffering might, in some small way, effect change.
At the same time, such collective action links us to the long and honourable heritage of feminism when it comes to combatting violence against women. It reminds us, too, that there is always greater safety in numbers, now more than ever with the increasing globalisation of dissent. Our collective daughters will , of course, come up with new ideas; they will find fresh ways to fight old battles. Anger, protest – and mobile phones – will be essential to that task.
Protest Against Sexual Violence in India – 7th January 2013, 4-6pm outside the Indian High Commission, London, WC2B 4NA
If you didn’t catch it the first time, you might be interested now?
School Wars: The Battle for Britain’s Education
The story of the struggle for Britain’s schools, and a passionate call for education as a public good.
School Wars tells the story of the struggle for Britain’s education system. Established during the 1960s and based on the progressive ideal of good schools for all, the comprehensive system has over the past decades come under sustained attack from successive governments.
From the poorest comprehensives to the most well-resourced independent schools, School Wars takes a forensic look at the inequalities of our current system, the damaging impact of spending cuts, the rise of “free schools” and the growth of the private sector in education. Melissa Benn explores, too, the dangerous example of US education reform, where privatization, punitive accountability and the rise of charter schools have intensified social, economic and ethnic divisions.
The policies of successive British governments have been muddled and confused, but one thing is clear: that the relentless application of market principles signals a fundamental shift from the ideal of quality education as a public good, to education as market-controlled commodity. Benn ends by outlining some key principles for restoring strong educational values within a fair, non-selective public education system.
And here are some of the reviews:
“In this polemic, Benn sets herself up as a one-woman commission of inquiry, analyzing the social, political, and financial case for comprehensive schooling in a climate of spending cuts and a culture of privatization.”
– The Times
“This is a tremendous book. It is a passionate polemic about the most important policy divide of the day … It is powerful but also reasonably argued … [and] marks her out as one of Britain’s foremost advocates of comprehensive education.”
– Anthony Seldon, Observer
“Benn’s book could well be an important watershed. It is a clear-sighted re-statement of why universal, comprehensive education is – obviously – the best option. It should, and hopefully will, be taken as a rallying call to the left.”
– Phil Beadle, Independent
“An exceptionally well-informed, cogent, and spirited account of the debates over secondary education in Britain.”
– Stefan Collini, Nation
“If you read just one book on education this year, then make sure it’s School Wars by Melissa Benn. Brilliantly researched and compellingly written.”
– Roy Blatchford, Director of the National Education Trust
For more reviews and discussion of the themes of the book, please go to Verso’s website.