By Catherine Anne Jacobs
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What Should We Tell Our Daughters?by Melissa Benn

This article is over 8 years, 0 months old
Published by John Murray, 20.00
Issue 387

Melissa Benn spent two years researching and writing this review of women’s lives that takes in raunch culture and pornography, education, eating disorders and professional achievement.

The questions asked are: “How do we explain and end the sexism that is rampant in society?”, “How can young women be raised with the self-confidence to discover who they are and what they want to be?”

Benn is very clear-eyed about the middle class who drive their children to pass exams, earn money and be attractive in order to reflect well on their parents.
The result is miserable young people, especially girls. For there are no academic achievements that can make them feel secure or good enough so they struggle with self-doubt and eating disorders.

There is some interesting material here, although some of it feels a little old. Ariel Levy first published her book on Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture seven years ago. But Benn looks at the effects of austerity on women and reveals the difference class makes to their ability to fight them. And it’s good to have a more up-to-date, if fairly brief discussion, of how capitalism can co-opt elements of women’s empowerment. As she says, for capitalism, Fifty Shades of Grey is “fifty shades of profit”.

However Benn is not critical enough of Tory women MPs. It’s true that Ann Widdecombe was subjected to vicious sexism, but she was also trying, with Louise Mensch and others, to roll back abortion rights. This is why many left wing women criticised Widdecombe and Mensch – not because Mensch is an attractive woman in the media.

The final chapter begins with a quote from two women authors of a New Statesman article that says young women are not interested in feminism, which is quickly debunked with examples from the Slutwalks and student activism.

However, a particularly annoying detail is that after pages on the detrimental affects of endlessly judging women on their looks, Benn describes writer Rebecca West as a “dark-eyed beauty” and Germaine Greer as “strikingly lovely”.

The conclusion is that girls, young women and boys must be talked to and argued with about their lives.

This isn’t a bad idea – it’s just an inadequate solution. Many of us have raised daughters who do have a fierce sense of self and strong ideas of what they won’t stand. But they are still oppressed, underpaid, overworked and cannot buy individual solutions.

Fortunately many women see the solution as allying with working class men who want better life for themselves too.

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