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5 July 1996

Whose Values? Whose Visions?

'I'll take it to bed with me', gushed Marcelle d'Argy Smith, former editor of COSMOPOLITAN magazine. 'I'll put it into John Major's hands right now', said Tessa Jowell MP, Shadow Minister for Women, before marching off to 10 Downing Street with a group of 'sisters'.

Jowell and D'Argy Smith were amongst the guest speakers at the 'Values and Visions' press conference, a high-profile event on Monday 1 July at which the little-known Women's Communication Centre launched its analysis of the 'What Women Want' survey. The survey, carried out throughout last year following the Fourth UN World Conference on Women, aimed to find out what British women really wanted from life and to make their voices heard.

If you believed the hype, as substantial reports about the document filled both the tabloid and broadsheet press on Sunday and Monday, you would think that the 'What Women Want' survey had really succeeded in putting women's 'wants' on the agenda. Yet after a closer look at the survey, something rings false. Bans on pornography, rights for lesbian mothers, sustainable development and an end to female genital mutilation are not the kind of things you imagine your average woman on the street would spend much of her time worrying about.

The point is, of course, that 'What Women Want' is not a survey of your average women on the street, but of a very select constituency; and the 'Values and Visions' embraced in the report are more like the values and visions of Tessa Jowell and her cronies than of the majority of women in Britain.

A quick look at the methodology behind 'What Women Want' shows that the survey could never be representative of the views of the majority of women. The survey was carried out by the distribution of thousands of little green and blue postcards, with the question 'What do you want?' on the back. Those who chose to participate in the survey were invited to scribble their 'wants' in seven ruled lines, add a stamp and return to the Women's Communication Centre. Just in case respondents got stuck, the back of the post-card was filled with little pointers: 'peace', 'a clean environment', 'space to walk', 'love and happiness', and so on. The post-cards were then distributed by a variety of means, but principally by women's groups and networks, and right-on companies and bodies like the Body Shop and the Cooperative Bank, all of whom supported the survey. So anyone who chose to take part in claiming 'What Women Want' would already be the kind of women who had a predisposition to making her opinions known, and shopped at the Body Shop or banked with the Coop.

When the cards came back, 6080 of them were imputted into a data-base and searched for key words. On the basis of the different concerns voiced by the respondents, 'Visions and Values' was produced, based entirely on quotes taken from the different cards. So, apart from a vague assessment of the most recurrent words in the data-base, the report's authors gave no indication of the different weight attached to women's 'wants'. The report places positive body images, fairer pensions and 'a man with the tongue of a chameleon who can breathe through his ears' alongside an end to poverty and 'curbs on the power of global capital', and hails them all as equally representative of women's wants and needs.

To those who carried out the survey, the fact that all the respondents' concerns were given equal weight is not a problem. A point stressed throughout Monday's press conference was that there could be 'no single voice for women' as they have numerous divergent experiences and concerns. Likewise, 'Values and Visions' makes no bones about the unscientific character of its methodology, boasting proudly that it is a 'qualitative survey' - ie it is concerned with how women feel more than the 'hard issues and facts' (p129). The report also stresses that it asked for no more personal information than respondents' name or address: therefore no analysis was made of the data according to 'age, race or class'.

The extent to which the unscientific, unrepresentative conclusions drawn by 'Values and Visions' was taken on board by the press implies that the 'hard facts' of women's different experience does not matter. From the Guardian to the Mirror, all seem to accept the assumption that the preoccupations of 6000 middle-class feminists can be flagged up as representative of women's concerns and used as the basis for a 'women-centred' agenda of the future.

Unfortunately for the rest of us, who don't give a damn about body image or pornography and have better things to do than fill in post-cards, the hard facts do matter. To pretend that the concerns of a select group of women are the same as the concerns of the other 30 million or so women in Britain simply gives Tessa Jowell and her friends in the Labour Party an opportunity to dress up their policy in the language of 'responding to women's wants'. Whatever else women want, we could do without the kind of 'Values and Visions' put forward in this report.

Further details: Jennie Bristow is convening a course on 'Gender, Culture and Relativism' at The Week conference in July.
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