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WOW: Women of the World Festival - Southbank Centre

For International Women’s Day 2019, The Women of The World foundation held their annual WOW Festival on March 8 and 9 at the Southbank Centre. The WOW Foundation is, since this year, an independent foundation from the Southbank Centre. The initiative, founded by Jude Kelly nine-years ago, has spread to a world-wide movement advocating for gender equality all around the globe — WOW has held 65 festivals in over 15 countries.

This year featured an incredible lineup of speakers at the Royal Festival Hall, including Julia Gillard, the first female prime minister of Australia, Scarlett Curtis, author of Feminists Don’t Wear Pink (and Other Lies) and Maisie Williams, the actress best known for playing Arya Stark in the hit show Game of Thrones.

The festival lasted two days, with day one entitled “What Now?” on March 8 and “What Next?” following up the next day. Both days were ASL interpreted.

“What Now?” Consisted of both a recap of the year since the previous festival in terms of gender equality and women’s rights, as well as a global discussion about contemporary feminism. The day started with an introduction by Jude Kelly, founder and chair of the festival, and a speech by Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, who received loud cheers as he kicked of the festival with, "I am the Mayor of London, and I am a proud feminist".

The first panel, “Big Ideas”, was a definite highlight of the festival, and included talks with Gina Miller, who has been an activist for over thirty years, Jordan Stephens, part of the music duo “Rizzlekicks”, who spoke diligently about the effects and causes of toxic masculinity, and author Scarlett Curtis. Curtis spoke movingly about her mental health journey and how feminism impacted this; the author suffered from severe anxiety and was unable to leave the house for years and not a single self-help book she had read helped her feel better. Eventually, she decided to read Women, Race And Class, by activist and academic Angela Davis – a book which Curtis claimed to have changed her life. It made her realise that although she might not have had a reason to want to feel better for herself, it had to be for the sake of community. “I encourage everyone who wants to pick up a book on how to become a better you, to pick up a book on how to become a better us”, said Curtis. She praised Davis, which was an ingenious set-up for the rest to come in the festival: Jude Kelly proudly announced the upcoming conversation with Angela Davis herself multiple times throughout the festival.

Julia Gillard at WOW Festival, ©Southbank Centre, 2019

Another highlight of the first day was Jude Kelly in conversation with Julia Gillard, the first female prime minister of Australia. Gillard is currently chair of the Global Institute for Women Leadership at King’s College. Gillard spoke eloquently and passionately about misogyny and her experiences of it in politics: “we need the word misogyny because there is something beyond sexism happening to women. We need it for those circumstances”. Gillard was powerful in her standpoints, and her talk presented a refreshingly personal, realistic perspective on the effects of external pressure in politics on a person, specifically on women.

The second half of the first day started with a beautiful cello performance by artist Ayanna Witter-Johnson, featuring a slideshow of female pioneers in all industries who have since passed away. “I see you in me”, Witter-Johnson sang with a clear voice. The performance showed how truly interdisciplinary and diverse the WOW festival is, transcending boundaries of the usually restrictive themes of panel talks and conversations, because that essentially is what feminism is about: a call for action on all fronts. Equality on all fronts.

Maisie Williams was an interesting addition to the festival, and the audience had clearly anticipated her arrival: a loud cheer went through the room at the mention of the popular tv show Game of Thrones. But, although Williams was enthusiastic about her new social media platform, Daisy — focusing on promoting creative entrepreneurship online — she also seemed quite nervous. Two girls from the Mulberry School got on stage to interview her. One asked, “you once said that people are either a sexist, or they’re normal. Do you want to explain this further?”, to which Williams replied, “instead of labelling people as they should be [referring to feminism], I suggested to label them for what they’re not". This answer seemingly did not fall completely in the right place, as the audience stayed overwhelmingly quiet, where it usually burst out with applause. Regardless, Williams was enthusiastic about the festival and she gave some interesting insight in her life as an actress in her conversation with Kelly. Kelly mentioned how they were both quite small, and when asked whether that had an effect on Williams’ daily life, she confidently answered, “I’ve always loved being in a room with someone who underestimates me. And then completely proving them wrong.”

Maisie Williams at WOW Festival, ©Southbank Centre 2019

“What now?” Ended in the afternoon. Later that day, the Royal Festival Hall opened its doors for the one and only Angela Davis. This event required separate tickets, and had a different audience than the WOW festival itself. I dedicated a separate article to Davis’ event, which you can read about here.

The next day of the festival revolved around its title, “What Next?” In her second introductory speech, Jude Kelly notable said: “Anger is great propeller, but love is an even greater ingredient for transformation.”

A witty performance by comedian Sandi Toksvig kicked off the second day, and set the tone for part two of the "Big Ideas" series with a panel of speakers including Helena Kennedy QC, barrister and author of the book Eve Was Shamed: How British Justice is Failing Women, and Munroe Bergdorf, LGBTQ+ editor at Dazed Beauty. “Everything changes. Words need to reflect the containing changes in society,” Bergdorf says in the panels’ conversation about definitions regarding identity. On intersectionality, inclusivity and diversity, Jude Kelly recalls her conversation with Angela Davis the previous night as she says, “the word is not the doing.”

The highlight of the second day was Jude Kelly in conversation with singer Lily Allen, who recently brought out her book, My Thoughts Exactly. Allen was confident and witty in her answers. She recounted her experiences with a stalker and criticised the lack of effort the police put into maintaining her safety, claiming they did not take her seriously. She reflected on it in the larger context of similar issues that women face every day. “I have this incredible support system. […] I have family, friends, money and lawyers, and there are still problems. Imagine what else is going on.”

On why she wrote her book, Allen replied that it was a response to feeling chased – both figuratively, by the pressure of the media and the expectations of what it means to be famous, and literally, by her stalker. “I thought: I’m going to tell you everything, so you can’t get me anymore,” Allen said, and jokingly added, “and of course, I’m getting paid.”

Lily Allen and Jude Kelly in conversation at WOW Festival, ©Southbank Centre 2019

Other talks during “What Next?” included speakers, such as India Martin, who wrote the book, Why I Don’t Talk With White People About Race”, and a panel with Mayor Vonda Malone and Dr Sandra Philips, on indigenous rights in Australia.

In conclusion, WOW is an extremely relevant, engaging festival, covering many industries and topics. At the end of day two, it felt a bit overwhelming. The amount of information given at the festival is eye-opening, although maybe a bit too much to immediately take in. But as I look back and reflect on these past few days, the one thing I keep thinking about all I have seen and learned is: "wow". I have never experienced an audience as engaged as the one at this festival: people cheered, clapped and hollered throughout both days, radiating an inexhaustible energy, hope and motivation for the future and future change. I, for one, cannot wait to see what Jude Kelly has planned next for this foundation, and I highly, highly recommend attending the 10th anniversary festival next year.

Edited by Evangeline Stanford, Digital Editor

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