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Benn was born in Hammersmith, London. She has three brothers, including Hilary Benn and Stephen Benn, 3rd Viscount Stansgate. She attended Fox Primary School and Holland Park School and graduated with a first in History from the London School of Economics. Benn spent several years working at the National Council for Civil Liberties, as an assistant to Patricia Hewitt, later Secretary of State for Health in Tony Blair's government, and then as a researcher at the Open University, under Professor Stuart Hall, working on deaths in custody.
Her first novel Public Lives was published in 1995, described by writer Margaret Forster as "remarkably sophisticated for a first". In 1998 Jonathan Cape published Benn's Madonna and Child: towards a modern politics of motherhood which caused some controversy. Several reviewers, notably in The Guardian and The Observer, criticised the book while the Literary Review called it "a reflective, rich and rewarding investigation into the ...conditions of mothers' lives". The Guardian featured Benn as one of a number of Britain's leading feminist writers at the time.
In 2004, Benn co-edited, with Clyde Chitty, A Tribute to Caroline Benn: Education and Democracy, collecting various papers relevant to the campaign for comprehensive education, an issue in which her mother had been a prominent campaigner. In recent years, Benn has become an outspoken advocate for comprehensives and a critic of many aspects of government policy on education. In 2006, with Fiona Millar, she published an influential pamphlet entitled A Comprehensive Future: Quality and Equality for All our Children, which was launched at the House of Commons in January 2006 at a meeting addressed by the former leader of the Labour Party Neil Kinnock and a former Secretary of State for Education Estelle Morris.
In 2010 Benn helped form the Local Schools Network, a pro-state schools pressure group. In 2011 she published a book, School Wars, which studied the UK's post-war comprehensive education system.
- Sexual Harassment at Work (NCCL pamphlet; 1982)
- The Rape Controversy, with Tess Gill and Anna Coote (NCCL pamphlet; second and third editions only, 1983, 1986)
- Death in the City with Ken Worpole (non-fiction; Canary Press, 1985)
- Courts and Sentencing (Children's Legal Centre pamphlet; 1987)
- Public Lives (novel 1995)
- Madonna and Child: Politics of Modern Motherhood (non-fiction; Vintage, 1998)
- A tribute to Caroline Benn: education and democracy (non-fiction; Continuum, 2004)
- A Comprehensive Future: Quality and Equality for all our Children (non-fiction; Compass, 2006)
- One of Us (novel; Chatto and Windus, 2008)
- School Wars: The Battle for Britain's Education (non-fiction; Verso, 2011)
- What should we tell our daughters?: The pleasures and pressures of growing up female (non-fiction; John Murray, 2013)
- "About Melissa Benn". MelissaBen.com.
- Abrams, Rebecca (8 March 2008). "Antigone: the New Labour years". The Guardian. Retrieved 2012-11-18.
- Birch, Carol (14 March 2008). "One of Us, by Melissa Benn". The Independent. Retrieved 2012-11-18.
- Beckett, Andy (1 September 2011). "School Wars by Melissa Benn – review". The Guardian. Retrieved 2012-11-18.
- "The Fred & Anne Jarvis Award - press release". National Union of Teachers. 6 April 2012. Retrieved 4 September 2012.