March 8 is International Women’s Day, and Cambridge will be celebrating women and their achievements by hosting Women of the World (WOW) Festival: a day of inspiring debates, workshops, poetry and more on topics from domestic violence to women in sport. There’s even a Beyonce dance workshop.
WOW Festival originated at London’s Southbank Centre in 2011 and comes to the Junction in association with the University of Cambridge. Sigrid Fisher is Cambridge University’s head of equality and diversity and is responsible for putting the world-leading institution’s equal opportunities ethos into practice.
“The WOW model celebrates the achievements of women and addresses the challenges facing women and girls,” says Sigrid. “Improving situations for women can only be beneficial; it’s not in anyone’s interest to prevent women from reaching their potential: who knows what that person could contribute to the world?”
Cambridge has become the first place in England to host a WOW festival outside of London. Sigrid continues: “Founder Jude Kelly came to speak at the university and we found out that she was interested in taking WOW outside of London. We told her we’d love to have it. If Cambridge is a leading institution, it needs to be shouting a very loud message that under-representation of women or discrimination against women is not OK and needs to be changed.”
‘The WOW Festival celebrates the achievements of women and addresses the challenges facing women and girls’
The festival, which is open to everyone, will welcome speakers from all walks of life and industries. “We’ve got Natasha Walter doing a talk, ‘From Twitter to Westminster’, looking at the rise of social media activism,” says Sigrid. “Sharing the platform with her is Lucy-Anne Holmes from No More Page Three. The focus is on women in social media who bring about change.
“Professor Pauline Rose, who is an expert on international education, will also be speaking. She’ll have Zoah Hedges-Stock on the panel, who was part of the traveller community and got a first from Cambridge.
“We’ve also got something on women who’ve been hidden by history – for example, lesbian suffragettes, women in the forces and black feminist activists.”
Men and feminism will also be a focus, as will women in business and, more specifically, women in science. Sigrid explains: “I don’t think enough people are aware how many women are behind important discoveries and how much they’re doing out there in the world.”
One such woman is space scientist Monica Grady, who will be appearing at the festival. You may remember her as the lady who got very excited about the Rosetta comet landing in November las year, and rightly so: she built one of the instruments that was integral to the mission.
“We also want to look at issues surrounding being a woman or girl, from a biological point of view, across the ages. Like changes in attitudes to body hair and how, not that long ago, it was considered shameful to have a period. There’ll be a chance WOW founder Jude Kelly for people to talk about their own inter-generational experiences.”
And the Beyonce dance workshop?
“It burns 400 calories per hour, apparently!” smiles Sigrid.
“The aim, by 2018, is to have WOW Festivals all across the world. It should be a positive experience for women and girls of all ages, and men too, and a comfortable place to explore gender equality issues. We hope that audiences will hear things they hadn’t thought of before and go away feeling inspired and more connected to these issues.
“The festival is designed to allow a multiplicity of perspectives. It doesn’t blame anybody and we don’t take a position on a topic, we introduce a subject, then try to have a broad discussion. At the London WOW, they had Lucy-Anne Holmes from No More Page Three on the same platform as Katie Price, which I think is wonderful. As Jude Kelly, who started WOW, said: ‘If you truly believe in the diversity of women, we must let the diversity speak.’”
Asked how Sigrid views the progress being made in terms of gender equality, she replies: “Issues of equality are always on the move and progress is definitely being made. Women speaking loudly about these things helps. You don’t have to look very far back to see that there has been massive improvement. It wasn’t too long ago that women weren’t entitled to own property or have an income, and there are women around for whom that has happened in their lifetime. And it’s only recently that gay couples have been able to get married. Some of these changes have been quite immediate and can happen as a result of public opinion.
“We have to be mindful also of the fact that this is International Women’s Day and that whilst we might be able to point to ways in which we’ve progressed here, there are still some serious problems for women worldwide and we need to make sure our commitment isn’t just to ourselves but to the world that we live in.”
What’s on at WOW:
12 noon: Is Feminism in Fashion?
With major magazines and influential celebrities on board, it seems as though feminism is back in fashion. Find out how and why attitudes to feminism have evolved with activist and designer Katharine Hamnett.
3pm: Women’s Bodies, Private Places
What a piece of work is a woman! Share your experiences and listen to a panel of exterts as they discuss everything from boobs to body hair, and changing attitudes towards women’s bodies.
4pm: Making Waves
In recent years there has been a marked increase in active feminism and debate about women’s issues, from No More Page 3 to campaigns against the detention of refugee women. Natasha Walter invites a panel of speakers to discuss these issues and how we can make a positive change in the world. Tickets £5.
6pm: Dance Like Beyonce
Learn how to move like the pop goddess herself with Seen on Screen. No sportswear needed: just turn up for a fun, fierce dance session to Run the World (Girls). Smoke machine included. All welcome.
8pm: The Fair Intellectual Club
A new play by comedian Lucy Porter, The Fair Intellectual Club is a story of three young women in Edinburgh who formed a society in 1717. Together they studied literature, science and philosophy with the aim of discovering “what we might attain unto if we were as industrious to cultivate our minds as we are to adorn our bodies.”
The Fair Intellectuals took an oath to preserve the absolute secrecy of their organisation but were betrayed by an enemy within, who exposed her sisters to ruin.
Porter based her play on the original manuscripts of the Club and achieved sell-out success at its first performance in Edinburgh, 2014. Tickets £7-£9.
WOW Festival, 8 March, Cambridge Junction. For individual events, go online.