Below the first of a number of short extracts, that I will be publishing on this blog, from ‘What Should We Tell Our Daughters?’ – now out in paperback, and available from all good bookshops and, of course, from Amazon.
What about sex? Even young children realise, if only subliminally, that they owe their very existence to the act of sex; they are born from their mother’s all-too-human body. Eeeew. Disgusting. Etc. It does not prohibit discussion of ‘the facts of life’ but it certainly throws up a barrier between mothers and daughters (and even more so between fathers and daughters).Talking recently about coming out to her mother, the actress and comedian Sue Perkins said that the really difficult thing about it was the introduction of the idea that she was actually having sex, regardless of who with. That is the mortifying, if utterly obvious, fact in play. Despite these embarrassments, it is vital to get across the simple message to our daughters that only they can decide what to do, and with whom, and that a young woman who values herself is more likely to be valued by others.
I asked four friends, all of whom are involved in ‘communications’ in some way, how they dealt with this delicate issue:
Friend number 1: I answered any questions directly put to me about sex but didn’t talk about the act itself, or its effect on me, or sexual pleasure etc., and recently, a newspaper asked me to write a piece about my first sexual experience and I turned it down specifically because of my daughter. If I hadn’t got her, I would probably have written the piece. I told her about the commission and she said she’d be fine about me doing it, but I felt inhibited. I don’t think it’s part of the parent–child relationship, to talk about intimate experiences, UNLESS they come to you and ask. In which case, I would feel duty bound and indeed willing to discuss it. Something about boundaries here, I think.
Friend number 2: Despite having what I’d describe as a very open relationship with my children they were always very guarded about their private lives. And so as my two daughters were growing up I found myself wary of saying anything; since I grew up in a pretty sheltered environment and they didn’t. There was an unspoken understanding that in a way they knew MORE than me. Also they were both always ‘sensible’, late-ish developers, so no boyfriends till twenty-odd. They also read a lot, debated things like safe sex at school, and so I felt I had permission to have a very hands-off approach. I never felt I was ducking out. Instinctively I knew if I raised the subject of sex with them they would either shrug, laugh or scream. Oddly, I feel I can be more open with my teenage son on all these matters. He’s not as embarrassed as they were.
Friend number 3: When they were little, I gave them the basic facts of life – and tried to be quite honest about it. By the time they got to the early teen years, I was passing them basic material – booklets and things – on ‘what happens to your body in puberty’ but in a slightly shifty manner. I would sometimes sit with them when certain programmes were on late at night – those entertaining but ghastly shows about sex and bodies. I found them almost shockingly frank. There was this one TV journalist called Anna who took a sex education show around schools – and she would put naked men and women, of different ages, up on a stage – and get the children to talk about it. It was great actually. My daughters and I sniggered a bit but it was very instructive and I felt a weight taken off my shoulders. Once my elder daughter got involved in a relationship, at seventeen, it was harder. More books, I’m afraid. So I ordered a copy of Our Bodies Ourselves, the American bible of self-help feminism of the second wave (one of the very few available from Amazon) and said, ‘OK so I think this has important information which you need to know about.’ More laughter – but I noticed that they would flick through it and I heard them talking to each other. ‘Look at this chapter heading “What if I can’t come?” ’ and ‘Oh my god, there’s a chapter on masturbation’. And Iwould say – ‘Yes, very important theme’, and then run out the room. That was the best I could do – I mean, what parent is going to show their child how to masturbate? Or even say those few magic words, ‘Find your clitoris and make it work for you.’ I guess, if I’m honest, that’s the one message I would really like to get over.
Friend number 4: Looking back, I probably should have talked more about sex when they were younger. To tell them they have a right to sexual pleasure, a right to say no, that you’re not a slut if you sleep with a boy. They should learn how their bodies work. They should not be ashamed to ‘get to know their bodies’. I suppose one of the most important lessons is that there are different kinds of sex. And while I would say, ‘learn to masturbate’, because then you will know how to show others how to give you pleasure, it’s also OK to have sex, and not to come. Maybe you can only come fairly intermittently. The point is, there are different kinds of sex. I feel it is my duty as a parent, if I want to promote real happiness for my daughters, to be more honest about this stuff.
Below, my column in Education Guardian today.
A few weeks ago this newspaper published a piece by Sarah Vine, Daily Mail columnist and wife of the education secretary, Micheal Gove, explaining why they had decided to send their daughter to a London state school.
It was a funny and lively article, and I agreed with just about every word. I was particularly drawn to Vine’s argument about the importance of educating students with very different interests and talents alongside one another, her belief that state schools produce more rounded, socially open citizens and her surprisingly robust criticism of the exclusivity and excessive competition of so much of the private sector.
Yet as time has gone on, Vine’s article has unsettled me. Why? Am I being irrational or ungenerous, unable to welcome even the spouse of an uncompromising Tory frontbencher over to “our” side of the educational divide?
Read the rest of the article here.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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: email@example.com
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