Cast your mind back, if you will, to the heady year of 1996. The Spice Girls had just hit the charts, Dolly the Sheep was busy being cloned in a lab near Edinburgh, and a generation of schoolgirls were weeping over the demise of Take That.
But while Ginger, Posh et al were making a lot of noise about Girl Power, one group of women didn’t think female voices were being heard when it came to the things that really mattered.
The Women’s Communication Centre (WCC) was a voluntary organisation dedicated to promoting female perspectives in public debate, and they felt that so-called “women’s issues” were consistently marginalised in UK politics. Either policies didn’t reflect women’s real concerns, the WCC felt, or politicians refused to acknowledge that women’s lives differed from men’s at all. And so they set out to discover what British women really sought from politicians.
In cafés, libraries, banks and community centres across the UK, they distributed postcards that asked one simple question: “What do you want?”
And the response was extraordinary. The WCC received some 10,000 replies from women offering unprecedented, intimate insights into their thoughts, opinions, hopes and needs. They wanted to see an end to sexual harassment, affordable childcare and the freedom to be themselves. They wanted proper sex education and better representation of women in media, politics and industry. They wanted equal pay.
Now, 20 years on from the first What Women Want campaign, the Women’s Equality Party (WE) has revamped the historic initiative in an effort to find out what women want from politics today.
Read more: The feminist legacy of the Spice Girls
“In 2016 it remains a radical act for a woman to talk about what she wants,” says WE leader Sophie Walker. “For the last twenty years women’s interests, safety, careers and family lives have been given a back seat in politics.”
This lack of attention to women’s wants and needs, says Walker, “means that little progress has been made on issues that disproportionately affect women”.
Just like the original campaign in 1996, WE are asking women to tell them what they want from politics. But since it’s now 2016, answers on a postcard are no longer required. Instead, WE are asking women to submit their “wants” via their website. The responses will then be discussed at the party’s first conference in November, and incorporated into future policies and plans.
“I am more convinced than ever that the time for change is now,” says Walker. “Women are telling us what they want – and unlike the political mainstream, WE are listening. And WE will act.”
What did women want in 1996?
The Women’s Equality Party has exclusively shared the responses from the original What Women Want campaign with Stylist.co.uk, and looking at these 20-year-old postcards is a frequently sobering experience. Has so little really changed for women since 1996?
A call for the abolition of the “Tampax tax”, for example, only serves as a reminder that George Osborne never followed through on his pledge to scrap the 5% VAT on sanitary products. (Instead, he announced that the proceedings from the tax would go exclusively towards funding women’s charities – a pledge which many criticised for its insinuation that women, rather than society at large, are responsible for vital women’s services.)
Another of the 1996 respondents said that she “[wanted] to be able to walk down the street without being whistled at or sexually harassed” – a sentiment that’s still, with a kind of dreary inevitability, shared by many women today. A 2016 YouGov study revealed that some 64% of British women of all ages have experienced sexual harassment in public places, a figure that skyrockets to 85% among women aged 18-24.
The call for “support for women being abused and harassed by their partners”, meanwhile, prompts mixed emotions. Late last year saw the long-overdue introduction of legislation in the UK that criminalises “coercive control” – that is, the emotional and psychological torment that takes place in an abusive relationship. It represents a recognition that domestic violence does not only occur in shade “physical”, and that can only be applauded.
But this change in the law occured against a backdrop of steadily intensifying violence against women. It was revealed in September that violent crimes against women in England and Wales are currently at a record high, and Alison Saunders, the director of public prosecutions, has warned that social media is increasingly being used by men to threaten and control their partners.
And according to a recent report by Women’s Aid and Welsh Women’s Aid, government plans to cap housing benefit could mean that more than two-thirds of specialist domestic abuse refuges in England and Wales will be forced to close.
Clearly, we’ve still got a long way to go. And so if you want to make your voice heard, you can tell the Women’s Equality Party what you want right here.