WOW; What A Weekend!
Grow Talk by Sofy Robertson
Storm Callum was no match for the women, and men, who battled the conditions in order to attend the Women of the World Festival this weekend.
The Exeter Phoenix was a hubbub of activity with several talks and workshops running in various locations at any one point.
I began by exploring ‘The Marketplace’; a marquee set up outside the Phoenix. Inside were a number of stalls, run predominantly by women, selling hand-made jewellery, feminist literature and, my personal favourite, merchandise featuring Sandra Oh with ‘WWSD?’ (What Would Sandra Do?) and her now infamous one-liner from the series Killing Eve (2018): “d*ckswab” (if you haven’t watched it, you must.)
There was a real atmosphere of excitement as young girls ran past me in sequined capes with a pop-art style WOW logo emblazoned on the back. It was great to see so many women, and men, coming together of all ages to share their views and attend the talks.
Sarah Reis, an Exeter-based graphic designer who spoke on the Invisible Illness panel on Saturday morning told me:
“I had an amazing afternoon on Saturday at WOW; not only did I have the absolute pleasure of designing all the material and working with a great team, I was also invited to be a panellist on the Invisible Illnesses talk. I was able to open up about my Hashimoto’s disease and share how through nutrition, sea air and low impact exercise I feel so much better. I met so many inspirational women throughout the day who had been through so much and came away with a real sense of solidarity. I look forward to next year.”
Along the main corridor to the auditorium I paused, as many did, to look at the photos on the wall of inspirational women and read their stories. The fantastic thing about this art-style installation, was that these women were not famous. They were not the women that we would associate with feminist movements. They were everyday women, doing everyday things, but they were heroes of feminism too.
I caught up with Laura Doble, member of the all-female theatre company Scratchworks, based in Exeter. Surprisingly, Laura was not there to perform with her theatre group. Instead, she was happily taking it all in and told me:
“WOW festival is a wonderful experience to be in safe, open spaces where we can discuss topics such as female pleasure, toxic masculinity, body shaming culture and honest birth stories which can often be silenced in our society. As a theatre maker in an all female company, it is inspiring to see personal experiences shared and people’s bravery and honesty in discussing more challenging issues. I learnt more about sustainable sanitary products and bought my first moon cup! I also thoroughly enjoyed connecting with a wider feminist community in Exeter.”
Speaking at the beginning of every talk, and running around the Phoenix with great energy, were ‘WOWsers’; young ambassadors for WOW. They had set up a table in the market place armed and ready with a stack of parcel labels. Why? Well, when wandering around the venue I came across parcel tags on doors, above the sinks in the toilets, basically in any available nook and cranny that could be found. These labels touted phrases that the WOWsers had come across at school or at University, for example ‘Women can’t play rugby’, therefore arming young women with one of the most powerful tools possible: wit. These phrases were a call to the attendees of the festival to respond with their ‘sassy comebacks’. The sheer volume of these parcel tags made a significant statement about the gender stereotypes and sexist remarks that are made every day to young women.
Before attending, I had perused the brochure of events and found it difficult to decide what to attend- there was so much! From talks on suffrage, the (invisible) older woman and female pleasure the weekend promised to cover a vast range of issues, taboos and elephants in the corner. There was also plenty on offer for those feeling the need to do, rather than listen; African dancing, bicycle maintenance, self-defence workshops…
To save myself from writing a year’s worth of articles, I am writing about just two of the events from the weekend, as they in turn gave me enough ideas to write for the week, if not longer. My main article on Toxic Masculinity, a talk led by five men on Saturday, is available here. This talk, in turn, inspired several side articles that weren’t strictly in the confines of Toxic Masculinity. On Sunday, I attended One In Five: Women’s Mental Health; a panel-led discussion of the challenges facing women’s mental health and the topic of my second main article.
On both days, I left the festival feeling surprisingly buoyant. I had experienced such openness and honesty from the speakers leading the discussions as well as the audience members. WOW had created a safe space for these voices to be heard, for women and men to feel that they are not alone in their struggles. It is easy to get overwhelmed in our society of damning statistics over suicide rates and self-harm, of tweets and sound-bites from people in power trying to oppress the uprising of gender groups, race groups and people who think differently. We all need a little more WOW in our lives; to belong to a safe space or group, no matter how small, where honesty prevails.
There was much talk of ‘tips of icebergs’ in the discussion groups as representing where we currently are with gender equality, with mental health. The iceberg sank the Titanic, so for me, it is not a message of change, but of destruction. What WOW and movements like it are trying to do is open the conversation and invite more people to listen. It’s about changing attitudes, perspectives, stigmas and even laws. It is about creating a network, a movement, perhaps even a family of acceptance that we, as humans, surely cannot be the same. Our genetic make-up directs this. The iceberg is cold and unforgiving, more like the system of inequality that we are trying to break free from. We need a new metaphor, one that acknowledges that this movement must happen together, as Tom Ross Williams said in the Toxic Masculinity talk: “your liberation is intimately tied to mine.”