Last weekend the Women of the World Festival (WOW) came to Exeter for the first time and it was two days full of incredible talks and panels featuring a range of inspiring women. WOW was created by Southbank Centre Artistic Director, Jude Kelly, in 2010 to mark the centenary of International Women’s Day and is described as “a major global festival that celebrates women and girls and looks at the obstacles they face, where hundreds of women’s stories could be shared, feelings vented, fun had, minds influenced and hears expanded”. It originated in London but has been growing as it has become more and more popular – hence us being treated to it on our doorstep in Exeter this last weekend.
The main hub of the festival was in Exeter Phoenix, the perfect venue, and had a wonderful atmosphere with live music throughout the two days and a number of stalls including one promoting compliments, others promoting causes and one run by the Women’s Equality Party which you could visit in between talks and events. Both Saturday and Sunday morning offered yoga classes, dance classes or you could participate in a morning run, a great way to start the day and get yourself ready to soak up all the interesting talks that would follow.
I kicked off the Saturday by going to a talk on intersectionality which was all about how we can and must all fight sexism without ignoring other issues including race, disability, gender and sexuality – a relevant topic as I think that it can be all too easy to forget the complexities of people’s diverse experiences. The panel for this talk included the creator of a Devon transgender support group, a playwright and activist, a social historian, and others, and was chaired by Jude Kelly, the creator of WOW. It was such a refreshing and interesting talk as the audience got to hear from a range of female experiences. What particularly opened my eyes was hearing from Emma Dabiri – a mixed race social historian who was born in Ireland – describe her school years and the fact that when she was a child it had never occurred to her that there was solidarity among women because first and foremost she experienced racism directed at her from both girls and boys. It was disappointing to hear how many women are still discriminated against but, it was also empowering to participate in opening this crucial dialogue, which was the theme of the whole weekend!
Following that, I spent the rest of Saturday afternoon going to talks on women’s mental health and consent. I found both really engaging and, again, don’t think I could have picked more topics as relevant to today’s society. You never would have guessed that two of the four panellists for the mental health talk had been last minute stand-ins because the original contributors were stuck in traffic, which is a real testament to the quality of conversation sparked not only by the panellists but also by audience members. It was this engagement that made the weekend truly special – everyone who was there (predominantly women but also a handful of men from what I saw) was so friendly, engaging, and wanted to contribute to the discussions and listen to other people’s opinions.
Moving onto Sunday, the highlight for me was a workshop run by The Parliament Project, a non-profit, non-partisan, voluntary organisation whose aim is to encourage women to run for political office across the UK at all levels, local or national. They pointed out that while most of the men who run for office tend to decide for themselves that they should go for it, most women would never think of themselves as being a good candidate and suggest that someone else encouraging them can make all the difference. Considering that only 32% of current UK MPs are women, the work that this group are doing is of huge importance and, even though I have no idea whether I’d ever want to go into politics myself, this was definitely one of the most memorable parts of the weekend for me as it felt so empowering to talk about the fact that women are capable and should put their voices out there to make a difference in politics.
If I haven’t already made it clear, I *loved* going to WOW and thought that they did an amazing job. I’ve only scratched the surface here with the kinds of amazing things that they arranged but, I hope that I’ve shown that WOW is an amazing organisation that’s enabling some of the most important and relevant conversations to our world to take place. If you ever have the chance to go, you should grab it with both hands – I had a really wonderful weekend.
– by Anna Hartley