Review: Women of the World Festival, Exeter

The ‘Women of the World Festival’ (WOW) was founded in 2010 by Jude Kelly, and this year marked the 2nd annual WOW Exeter event, which welcomed female artists, writers, politicians, comedians, activists and more to discuss and celebrate their achievements. The varied activities on offer over the weekend sought to inspire future generations while also discuss the issues limiting women’s full potential. Founder, Jude Kelly wrote,

“I founded WOW – Women of the World Festivals in 2010 because I felt we needed a place to get together, to talk and discuss in a spirited, frank and inclusive way about all the barriers and possible solutions to achieving a gender equal world and also create an understanding of the intersections that further divide us. WOW Exeter is a festival – not a conference or a symposium – because we want to attract and celebrate women and girls from all walks of life. Despite the gravity and seriousness of the issues that hold us back, we aim to build a place of warmth, shared respect and fun.”

To increase the accessibility of the weekend event to all women, the festival provided numerous sessions accompanied by British Sign Language interpreters, a crèche facility alongside a welcomed babe in arms policy, and disability access into every venue. This created an inclusive atmosphere amongst every attendee from the offset. In terms of the financial accessibility, the WOW festival provided several free events or alternatively a reasonably priced day or weekend ticket, securing their promise of celebrating, “women and girls from all walks of life.”

Over Saturday and Sunday there was an extreme plethora of events on offer to every attendee, with an average of 4-5 sessions running at the same time. The days ran from 9am until 6pm, squeezing in an average of 30+ individual events, varying from African Dancing to discursive panels on Women and the Criminal Justice System, from Speed Mentoring on how to ‘Be Your Own Boss’, to How To Change a Tire.

On Saturday I attended, ‘Yes! Yes! Yes! A Modern Guide to Female Pleasure’ by Ruby Stevenson and ‘The Invisible (Older Wo) Man’ which was a paneled talk in the afternoon. The session held by Ruby was more than a guide to female pleasure but an in-depth education to female anatomy and biological taboos. Also known as the “Condom Queen”, Stevenson gave her talk in a completely non-prejudice vocabulary, allowing for all genders to feel included and important within the discussion. Stevenson began by asking us all to stand up and for us to sit when her statements on sexual education no longer applied to us. The first statement was “were you shown a diagram of your internal reproductive organ…were you provided basic sex and relationship education” concluding with, “were you ever taught about female pleasure” at which point not one individual was left standing. This visually poignant act drew on how poorly we, as a public, have been educated on female satisfaction. The rest of the talk based its conversation around body and sexual positivity, with such lines as “pubes are fantastic” and “stress and anxiety are murderers of sexual pleasure”, both perfectly reassuring and extremely empowering statements. One quote shown on a latter slide that truly encapsulated the talk and the majority of the weekend was, “We are all the same, We are all different, We are all normal” written by Emily Pilkaski.

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Unlike, ‘Yes! Yes! Yes! A Modern Guide to Female Pleasure’, my next activity evoked less of the festival’s ethos of, ‘a place of warmth, shared respect and fun’ (Jude Kelly). The paneled talk, ‘The Invisible (Older Wo) Man’ was meant to be discussing, according to the pamphlet, “Where are the older women in popular culture? Why are they suddenly overlooked once they get to a certain age?” However instead, the conversation steered away from an atmosphere of ‘shared respect’, as the paneled members entered heated discussions amongst themselves and the audience, void of any specific topic. The audience, who were mostly of similar age to the panel, voiced their opinion of feeling lesser than and wrong for not being a ‘super women’ or of the same prolific talent. How do we begin inclusivity and empowerment for ‘invisible’ women when we only spotlight a handful of those deemed superior? For this important topic of conversation, the audience would have benefited from a discursive space, where the panel and public were on an equal foot to then converse. As such, no woman in that auditorium would then have been made to feel ‘invisible’; leading to the very topic of conversation to be physically indulged.

On Sunday, I attended two more panel talks, ‘One In Five: Women’s Mental Health’ and ‘Looking to the Future: Women, The Environment and Equality’. The former was chaired by CoLab’s Fiona Carden with speakers including The Blurt Foundation’s Jayne Hardy and World of Self Care’s Georgia Dodsworth. The talk demanded a call to action on; better primary care, for mental health to be equal to physical health, the importance of self-care, and the need to broaden the conversation of mental health across all generations. The panel provided a positive and personal appeal to all of the aforementioned topics, ensuring individuals felt at ease to share their own problems and solutions. One pressing issue from the talk was the lack of diversity on the panel, with anxiety and depression being the main focus of conversation. Every disorder has a different and unique coping mechanism, meaning that a great deal of their personal advice did not apply- however the sentiment and atmosphere the panel created allowed the public to offer a more varied discourse on other disorders.

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The ‘Looking to the Future: Women, The Environment and Equality’ also provided an educational atmosphere with the speakers including Sancho’s Dress’s Kalkidan Legesse and Zero Waste Angola’s Antonia Prata. Legesse perfectly elaborated on the crisis of Fast Fashion, examining the causation from consumerism and the accountability of businesses, while Prata emphasized the success of sustainable energy as our main source of power over the last 15 years. The two provided a positive spin on how far we have come while simultaneously pointing out the magnitude of change that still needs to occur. However, the discussion would perhaps have benefited from a STEM representative to provide examples of solutions rather than unveiling our current crisis and thus leaving the audience at a loose-end.

The final activity I attended was a, ‘LGBTQIA+ Discussion Group: Living in Devon’ where we sat in a small circle and openly shared experiences, projects, and queer safe spaces. Some of those mentioned included: The Roots Foundation, DIY Exeter, Being Human Festival, and the future collaboration with the Ramm to “Queer the Museum”. With a 3% rise in hate crime in Exeter and concerns of rural isolation, this group provided a sincere understanding and empathy to every individuals experience- truly creating, ‘a place of warmth’ (Jude Kelly) and an optimistic look on the future.

Overall, all of the sessions at the WOW festival either attempted to or succeeded at battling issues and carving a path to future possibilities- emphasizing Emily Pilkaski’s words, “We are all the same, We are all different, We are all normal”.

-Lorna Hemingway 

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