Two middle-class women in their late thirties are having a friendly chat. Karen talks about her father and his chest pains, whereupon Pat reveals how her neighbour's indigestion was diagnosed as a heart attack. After some discussion Pat describes her friend's mother's blood-pressure problems, leading to an exchange of views about blood pressure and doctors. Pat then tells a story about the day the friend's mother fainted in the street. The two women go on to mull over how hard it is to persuade this woman to accept medical help.
This conversation may strike you as banal. If so, you will have serious doubts about this book, since it examines many hours of everyday conversations between women. The point of the book is precisely to challenge the prejudice that women's talk is trivial and unimportant. Jennifer Coates argues that these commonplace conversations have surprising depths and complexities hidden within them, and she uses the tools of discourse analysis with considerable skill to unpack some of this structure.
The book also has another aim, one that I found more problematic. Coates wants to celebrate women's friendship, and the book therefore sets out to show how women use language to build friendships based on exchange and support. The women in her sample, for instance, often repeat each other's words. Coates argues that the frequency with which repetition occurs across speakers signals solidarity between women friends: repeating each other's words is "a powerful symbol of the connection women feel with each other".
Solidarity - yes, certainly. But sexism, as Coates rightly emphasises, restricts women to certain roles in society and limits their behaviour. Women are required to do most of the nurturing and care-taking in our society: so if women have comfortable, unchallenging conversations with each other, are they not accepting these limits - indeed, are they not training each other for the roles that society expects women to play?
Coates counters this line of argument by highlighting the elements of women's talk that oppose the status quo. In one conversation, a woman says: "Women are just vastly superior", and the reply "Thank God I'm a woman and not like that" is accompanied by laughter and group acceptance. Coates says that this conversation draws on "a radical feminist discourse", but concedes that the amusement reveals doubts about the relevance of this discourse to the rest of the women's lives. In other words, this is the kind of powerless humour that is typical of many oppressed groups. It is resistance of a kind, but of a very limited kind.
Sexism works in part by telling women that they are trivial and unimportant, and in part by telling women that they are fine as they are. Coates does well to demolish the first message, but this can easily turn into a celebration of the status quo, which unfortunately reinforces the second message. She is right to take delight in "the extraordinariness of the everyday" in women's lives, but there is too little here about how sexism closes doors for women and restricts their lives.
The book left me feeling unsettled. That should be a good thing: after all, a feminist book that leaves a man feeling happy needs to be rethought. But paradoxically I am troubled at the thought that readers will feel satisfied: they may think that feminism is just about helping women feel better about themselves. Of course that is part of the picture, but feminism is also about challenging injustice and making people feel uncomfortable. What we have here is feminism without its cutting edge, and that is not enough.
Raphael Salkie is principallecturer in language studies, University of Brighton.
Women Talk: Conversation Between Women Friends
Author - Jennifer Coates
ISBN - 0 631 18252 7 and 18253 5
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £35.00 and £12.99
Pages - 324