Telling Daughters, and high profile examples of the Peter Principle

Melissa Benn’s new book What Should We Tell Our Daughters? dives into a heady mix of issues: body image, pornography and sex, self-esteem, motherhood, ambition and quite a few others.   The book has a lot of forthright argument, but is not as prescriptive as the title might suggest.

One of the  book’s many good and encouraging features is the way it expresses the ambivalences which parents feel – – about what lessons they should try to pass on to the next generation of young women to help them fulfil themselves in different ways.   It speaks more directly to mothers, but fathers are very much there in the picture.  (Declaration of interest: Melissa and I have tapped each other for insights for our respective books;  one unambiguous outcome is that she has got on with writing hers with a great deal more competence than I have….)

WSWTOD is quite explicit about how difficult it can be to distil the different lessons from experience into a coherent message, and particularly to reconcile the forces and impulses which pull in different directions.   In the chapter about motherhood, rather ominously headed ‘Breakpoint’, we read: ” ‘Ambivalence’ is one of the most useful words in the lexicons of the new mother or indeed the mother full stop. ”  Melissa  goes on to describe how reluctant she is to try to convey to her daughters how hard it can be to manage the mix of motherhood and life (professional and personal ) – and how reluctant her daughters have been to hear it.

” I believe we owe our daughters curiosity: the right to be, or become, strangers, even to us, as we inquire of, and show ourselves, willing to hear wishes and dreams we may never have imagined or of which we may not even approve…..The kind of question we should be – always – asking our daughters are:  ” What really animates and interests you?”..And perhaps, later on in their lives, we might ask helpful questions such as “What compromises are you prepared to make – and how can I help you to figure out which compromises are worth making?”   The advice seems to me to apply to sons just as much (though I have only daughters)  but is less likely to include the compromise question. That, surely, makes it hard for everyone, and not only for parenting reasons.  Compromises are the stuff of life, and not acknowledging the need for them will almost always cause problems.

The chapter on work  (most relevant to the PP) has much wisdom, including on how to promote women’s ambitions appropriately.  It  includes some powerful and poignant insights from Estelle Morris.  As you may recall, Estelle got further up the political pole than all but a handful of women.  Uniquely, she chose to resign from her position as Secretary of State for Education – a post which might have seemed to be her dream position, as a former teacher – and to explain that she was doing it because she did not feel wholly up to the challenges it posed.  This provoked a storm of ambivalent reactions:  some supporting her for being so honest, others excoriating her for letting women down by not toughing it out and especially by giving her reasons for resigning.

Estelle Morris now provides mentoring for young women,  “I will ask, ‘How did it go?’  I always say to women, ‘What’s your ambition?  How far do you think you can go?’….Also, when they have a problem I can help them to see it in a wider perspective.  I can ask: What’s the next step?’ “.

Contrast Estelle’s decision, and explanation, with Gordon Brown’s tenure as prime minister.   I do not know how far Gordon perceived that his obsessively desired occupancy of the premiership had taken him a step too far, but it’s a story with many elements of a Greek tragedy as he clung desperately to power, to his own cost 9and that of his party.   Both Estelle and Gordon are very prominent examples of our friend the Peter Principle;  but what a difference in the ways they handled it.


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