UEA ‘War Of Words’ Speech

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UEA hosted their first progressive media conference yesterday, entitled ‘War Of Words’. I cautiously/gratefully accepted their invitation to speak alongside Sophie Van Der Ham (Young Greens Co-Chair) and Tori Cann (UEA Lecturer from Norwich Feminist Network) on a panel discussing ‘Women, Politics and the Media’, chaired by Asia Patel. I’d been invited on behalf of Belle Jar, an online magazine I began writing for in 2012.

Although I perform in front of audiences in improvised comedy shows, I find public speaking a bit of a nerve shredder. Fortunately, both the panel and the audience were clued-up and compassionate; so it was an intense but incredible 60 minutes of discussion and debate. Tori, Sophie, and I spoke about female politicians, the lack of respect for female voices in the media, and my personal favourite; female anger. The post-debate adrenaline has flushed my memories away, but I wanted to share the speech I prepared (and nearly screwed up multiple times whilst reading aloud).

I urge you to follow Belle Jar, The Norwich Radical, Tori and Sophie on Twitter too!

*** For those who prefer pictures to words, Antony Carpen kindly recorded the speech. Video is at the end of the blog!***

“I would not be here at this event today without the encouragement, enthusiasm, and efforts of other women. I am speaking on behalf of Belle Jar; an online publication created in 2012 by two university students, Louisa Ackermann and Juliette Cule.

Louisa & Juliette created Belle Jar to provide a safe online platform for feminist discussion and debate. Belle Jar exists to inform and inspire; covering the humorous to the humanitarian. The magazine has 2,716 likes on Facebook, and 1,921 followers on Twitter. The site was also nominated for a Guardian Student Media Award, and was the only publication of its kind to be considered in the student website category. As a team, we have been to The Houses of Parliament to discuss issues surrounding the representation of women in the media, and our website continues to publish news updates and articles which seek to inform and challenge our readers.

But Belle Jar is more than a website; it is a support system; a network of voices that work together to help counteract the misogyny which dominates the national media, and impacts our everyday lives. When I submitted my first article to the site in 2012, I had no idea it would bring me to this stage today. Without the internet, I may not have found Belle Jar. Without Belle Jar, I would not have found Louisa or Juliette who have given me the courage to use my voice here today.

I believe in the power of small stories; they are crucial to the structure of larger narratives. My small story is that I used to fear the potential in my own voice. As a teenage girl, I was forever anxious about its volume and its content to the point where I rarely spoke up in school, the playground; anywhere. When Louisa & Juliette suggested I speak at UEA today, my initial reaction was “I’m not qualified for that, I can’t” – Juliette kindly told me not to listen to my imposter syndrome, to go, use my voice, and spread my story. This is the encouragement many young women are lacking in their teens and early twenties. No-one is saying “Go for it, learn as you go!” – instead, it feels like they’re whispering “You’re a girl, what do you know?”

Like many young women, I hesitated when I initially began identifying with feminism. It was intimidating; a movement with an extensive and difficult history which people often told me had ‘gone too far’. It’s easy to believe these things when there’s an absence of support, or no voices offering you an alternative outlook. Fortunately, through social media I found a corner of the internet where girls and women were having similar kinds of experiences. They were being open about their anxieties by speaking about personal experiences of sexism on the internet. Juliette affectionately dubbed Belle Jar as ‘baby feminism’ – a place where those who are at the start of their interactions with the movement can read, discuss, and write about what it means to them. This kind of interaction is essential for modern girls and women. It keeps us connected, inspired and most importantly; comforted in a world where misogyny overshadows many of our attempts to assert ourselves.

To quote Jude Kelly, (Arrtistic Director at The Southbank Centre & founder of the annual Women Of The World Festival); the media is “amoral at best, or immoral at worst, with regards to women”. Women’s appearances, achievements, and mere existences are often undermined by journalists and editors. Just last week, The Sun Newspaper reported the alleged rape of deceased soldier Cheryl James as a ‘romp’, and insulted her death by branding her a ‘Suicide army girl’. Once my initial disgust had subsided, I shared the post on Belle Jar’s Facebook page, and Juliette posted a link to the The Independent Press Standards Organisation website, so our readers could complain about this insulting attempt at journalism. The speed at which social media allows people to distribute information, and act on issues such as this is incredible, and Belle Jar and other publications like it utilise this tool effectively.

It’s easy to dismiss efforts like this as acts of ‘keyboard warfare’ and reduce them down to ‘trying to look like we’re doing good’ without actively striving to change women’s representation in the media. Even small publications like Belle Jar are not free from critics and trolls. We have been labelled ‘anti-men’ and I have personally been branded both a ‘superficial little girl’ and a ‘dumb chick cunt’. Internet abuse is equally as real and damaging as street harassment, and women on the internet are subject to higher levels of vitriol in comparison to men. Louisa, Juliette & I went to an event about ‘Outspoken Women’ with featured classicist Mary Beard, and journalist Laurie Penny. Mary said she found the internet ‘revelatory’ because it exposed the pre-existing misogyny inherent in society, and Laurie dubbed modern women’s online opinions as ‘the mini-skirt of the internet.’

Being an outspoken internet feminist can be both confusing and exhausting; but there is so much to support, and so many supporters who are ready to incite change, that you don’t have to apply yourself to every area of the movement. There is no such thing as a perfect feminist. As women, we are taught from a young age to burden ourselves with the responsibilities of others. Whilst compassion is not to be discouraged, it also leaves us little time to explore our own ideas and develop our own beliefs. Feminist scholars and activists have repeated the phrase ‘the personal is the political’ and it is an essential thing to remember whenever you feel that sexism is undermining or devaluing your opinion.

Belle Jar gave me the support I needed in my early twenties when I was starting to engage with feminism and its goals. It was my spring board in to politics, and introduced me to the issues surrounding abortion, FGM, Sex Education, and street harassment. In the introduction to Laura Bates’ ‘Everyday Sexism’ Sarah Brown writes that “Girls who read, lead.” I began reading Belle Jar articles, which then led me to contribute ideas of my own to the site. I stand before you now as a representative for the magazine, and a friend of its fearless and dedicated creators.

Something as simple as reading an article on the internet can set you on a path of discovery and empowerment. Belle Jar are always looking for new writers, and welcome all kinds of contributions. Please get in touch, and if anyone would like one of our sassy business cards; feel free to come and see me at the end of this discussion.”

Kim Gordon ‘Girl In A Band’

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Girl In a Band was the first book I read after I finished my final university assignment back in June. I’d been waiting to read Kim Gordon‘s memoir since I’d scanned through extracts of it online, and the wait was entirely worth it.

Her writing stirred me. As I made my way through her recollections of childhood, art school, and the music industry; I felt like the luckiest fly on the former Sonic Youth bassist’s wall.

Below are some of my favourite quotes from her memoir:

‘Extreme noise and dissonance can be an incredibly cleansing thing.’

‘I always hated making mistakes, hated getting into trouble, hated not being in control.’

‘Art, and the practice of making art, was the only space that was mine alone, where I could be anyone and do anything, where just by using my head and my hands I could cry, or laugh, or get pissed off.’

‘I was immersed in art, but unformed and trying anything and everything.’

‘They say you always learn something from relationships, even bad ones, and that what your last one lacked, or you missed out on, is what you’re primed to find in the next – unless, that is, you insist on repeating the same pattern over and over again. The codependent woman, the narcissistic man…’

‘Culturally we don’t allow women to be as free as they would like, because that is frightening. We either shun those women or deem them crazy.’

‘I was, and still am, more of the push-everything-else-under-and-let-it-all-out-in-the-music kind of girl. Otherwise I’d probably be a sociopath.’

‘A band almost defines the word dysfunction, except that rather than explaining motivations or discussing anything, you play music, acting out your issues via adrenaline.’

‘Girls with guns, girls in control, girls as revolutionaries, girls acting out – why is that such a perennial turn-on to people?’

‘The most heightened state of being female is watching people watch you.’

‘If you’re at all anxious, the city acts out your anxiety for you, leaving you feeling strangely peaceful.’

‘An Unending kiss – that’s all we ever wanted to feel when we paid money to hear someone play.’

‘The best kind of music comes when you’re being intuitive, unconscious of your body, in some ways losing your mind: the Body/Head dynamic.’

(Image courtesy of: https://33.media.tumblr.com/42544f7ab0a26f843221e663ea1ede67/tumblr_n7mfpj3pgX1syobvco1_500.gif)

What I Learned From Watching The E! Channel, 30 Hours a Week, For 2 Months

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The most most surreal job title I’ve ever had is a ‘Channel Monitor’ for the E! Entertainment Channel. I try to avoid watching any kind of reality TV because I heard a rumour (probably on E! News) that it splits your soul in half, but I was being paid to watch Keeping Up With The Kardashians and other such programmes for 30 hours a week. Only a fool would turn that opportunity down.

Unbelievably, I grew to really quite like The Kardashians (I’m as shocked as you are), but there were some programmes which really made the job….difficult. Ultimately, I learned a lot from my time as an E! Entertainment channel monitor, and I’d like to share my knowledge with you now:

1. I Am Cait was an amazing platform for unknown trans women to talk about transgender issues, and Caitlyn’s transition nearly made me cry at my desk on multiple occasions.

2. Kendall Jenner is an absolute sweetheart, and one of the most naturally beautiful people I’ve ever seen.

3. Khloé is my favourite Kardashian, a hilarious person, and the best aunt in the world (see this list for further proof of her greatness)

4. Paige from WWE Divas is a porcelain predator.

5. E! News should be re-named ‘This is E! News and we have sensationalised everything to the point of fiction, but will be selling it to you as stone cold fact for the next 60 minutes’

6. There is such a thing as a ‘Revenge Bod’, and Kourtney Kardashian apparently has the most ‘smokin’ example of one right now…

 7. Hollywood encourages both hatred of the self and hatred of others. Whether it was ‘disguised’ as comedy on a vicious episode of Fashion Police, or as an article on E! News about a celebrities weight/status/sexuality/relationship – Hollywood seems to rely on playing on people’s anxieties in order to thrive.

8. Most importantly – none of this really matters – turn off your TV, go outside and get some Vitamin D. Reserve E! for hung-over Sundays, employment opportunities, and Kardashian catch-ups.

(Image courtesy of: http://weheartit.com/entry/121472793)

My Open University Experience

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What do you do when you hit eighteen and go to university to study Drama & Literature, and realise you’ve made a whacking-great mistake? Well, I’ll tell you.

You spend a solid month in your campus bedroom, panicking in silence. To distract yourself from the anxiety, you listen to Kings of Leon’s ‘Sex on Fire’ and spin in circles on your swivel chair. You occasionally venture outside, wandering to Tescos to buy rotisserie chicken (and DVDs, so many DVDS). You try to ignore the state you’re in, but feel like imploding when anyone asks you: ‘How’s uni going!?’ You let the panic build, and build, until you finally realise; I have to get out. I have to get out – NOW’.

You eventually find the courage to tell your parents this. You tell your Mum first (she’s just forked out for a celebratory Pizza Hut on her first visit to see you). She’s shocked, concerned, and goes home to tell your Dad. He picks you up from the train station later that night, with half the contents of your bedroom packed in to your bags. You insist to them both you’ll do absolutely anything if they let you quit university, and move back home.

They try to talk you out of quitting, but eventually oblige you because they love you, and they’re concerned your skin now has the texture of a rotisserie chicken. You break the news to friends and teachers: almost everyone thinks you’ve made a life-altering mistake, but you know you haven’t, regardless of how awful it feels (and how chicken-like your skin has become).

The above is what happened when I quit university in 2008. I came home with a sense of simultaneous relief and dread to reassess my options. I was an A-grade Drama and English student at my secondary school *BLOWING MY OWN TRUMPET ALERT*, as well as prefect and Head Girl (a title I wish I’d never accepted). When the news spread that I couldn’t hack university, it was an absolute shocker. Clever Kate had failed. Oh dear…

I was out of work for three months, so I hit-up the job centre for pennies. I was distraught, I felt like I was the only teenager on earth who didn’t enjoy university. I didn’t know what to do. Fortunately, I found a part-time job after three months of panic, got off benefits, and realised I still had that burning desire to learn, to know more. I started to consider higher education again, but knew I couldn’t handle another campus university. I looked to The Open University for inspiration and that’s exactly what I found.

I discovered a network of like-minded students and skilled tutors whose united goal was to achieve educational and personal success. I began studying English Literature with The Open University part-time in 2009, and last week I finished my final module. My first act as a deadline-free adult was to play David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’, full blast, prancing round my bedroom. For the entirety of the song I felt infinite. When the music stopped, I wanted to cry. Six years of my life, over.

I began reminiscing with an intensity that would shame Uncle Albert from Only Fools and Horses. I remembered how hard it was to convince people that The Open University was a real university, and that I was a legitimate student (difficult to do that when you’re reading/crying over Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit as part of your children’s literature course). Friends and family made jokes about my ‘fake’ degree, but I took it all in my stride, because I was running this educational marathon for a reason. I was studying the same books as my friends who were studying literature on campus universities, and like all other students I had essays to write, deadlines to meet and exams to stress about. I will graduate with a BA Hons degree in English Literature in September. That’s right: a real degree.

My degree took six years instead of the traditional three because I opted to study part-time. This meant I could gain financial support, so I avoided accruing hefty student debts. I kept my part-time job, and this funded all of my weekends at The Pink Toothbrush (90% of the weekends in a year), and several trips down to Brighton to see my friend John, who was studying at Sussex University. I’ve managed to squeeze a lot of living and laughing in between my deadlines and work schedule, but there were times when I genuinely thought I might implode from the stress of it all.

These were dark days. I was not prepared for the crippling loneliness of being an Open University Student. My ‘days off’ were actually days on the books, on the laptop, on the edge of sanity, trying to cram in as much information as my little walnut brain could take. There were days when I’d stare blankly at my laptop screen, silently willing my grey matter in to action. It wouldn’t respond and the frustration was ridiculous; I’d panic, talk in a gibberish rage to my Mum, then run upstairs to cry for a solid thirty minutes. I’d snot out all the fear, have a pep talk with my reflection, then return to the laptop to write like a beast.

Fortunately, encouraging emails from tutors and student forums bursting with similar ‘I CAN’T DO IT, HELP ME!’ messages reassured me that it was normal to feel paralysed and lonely when deadlines approached. (I also discovered that power naps were the ultimate ally on deadline days, and this made the crying/snot less frequent).

Anyway, enough complaining: now for the praise.

I have always relied on literature to help me process things. I cite Roald Dahl’s Matilda as one of my earliest and closest friends (I’ll allow a 10 second laughing break here). She knew books weren’t for ‘boffins’ (classic year six banter) and that your mind is an immensely powerful instrument that needs to be tuned, and re-tuned with all kinds of new information. It’s this desire to devour the written word which made me choose The Open University and why, despite my initial traumatic entry into higher education, I never gave up.

Regardless of what was happening at work or in my personal life, I always felt that I could hit the books and everything would be fine. The quiet, inner knowledge that I was consistently working towards something kept me going for six strong years. I knew the literature I read was improving me, whether academically or emotionally. People who insist they ‘don’t read’ don’t realise what they’re missing. I’m all for living in the real world and putting yourself in the way of experience, but vicarious experiences are equally as valid. I’m glad I have travelled through the minds of some of the most intelligent writers in the English language in the company of The Open University. (If you think I’m nuts, a recent study has proved readers of fiction tend to have higher empathy levels aka are really quite nice, lovely people)

It was this unfathomable self-belief that made me set the following target for myself: in my last two years of studying, I promised I would score a minimum of 70% on all assignments. In between the working, panicking, and being hung-over I excelled this target, scoring between 80-85% on my essays. Sometimes I had to ask for extensions (ill health played a major role in this), and sometimes I had to sit up until the wee hours, then wake up at 5am before an 8 hour day at work to meet the seemingly unachievable deadline. Now, all of that sweating and studying is over, and I’m strangely sad that the student chapter of my life has come to a close (but let’s face it, it’s about time). It’s time to set myself new targets, preferably ones that don’t have deadlines too.

If you find yourself in the same situation I did when I first considered university, or if you feel you’re stuck and unable to change something; please don’t panic. Please don’t think you’ve ruined your life, and for the love of God: PLEASE DON’T WASTE ALL OF YOUR SAVINGS ON ROTISSERIE CHICKENS. Stand up, take a deep breath, accept it’s not working and look at The Open University’s website. If you’re hesitant about starting, my advice is to pick a module that appeals to you, and go for it.

The Open University is D.I.Y for the mind. With the tools they give you, you’ll be able to build something useful, sustainable and concrete. If you want it, you can have it, all you have to do is apply yourself and keep going, regardless of how hard it gets. You can do it, and you won’t regret trying.

(Image courtesy of: http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_mbwjua7zXz1qi86x2o2_500.gif)

19th May – World IBD Day 2015

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Bowels are important – we all know that – but today is World IBD Day; so they’re extra important for the next 24 hours. This day has been set aside on the calendar to raise awareness of Irritable Bowel Diseases, particularly the two most common in the UK: Crohn’s & Ulcerative Colitis.

I was diagnosed with mild Ulcerative Colitis when I was 12. I’ve been quietly living with it for 13 years and have rarely spoken about the hospital appointments, blood tests, endoscopies, and medication I endure in order to stay well. I’ve always struggled with telling people about the illness, but after reading the stories from other sufferers on the Crohn’s & Colitis Facebook page, I realised I am blessed to only suffer the occasional relapse; some people are slaves to this cruel condition.

Reading these stories, however, gave me the courage I needed to say ‘Come on Bob, it’s not that bad, don’t let it hold you back! – and that’s the revelation I’ve decided to share with you today, on World IBD Day.

I wrote a blog about how I’ve let Ulcerative Colitis dictate my decisions not to go to music festivals, but this year, I’ve decided to GO FOR IT. I’m off to Isle of Wight Festival in June and then to Bestival in September. Me & my bowels are being brave – and I don’t give a s**t about anything else.

More Lessons From The Laughter Academy

In a previous blog post I spoke about the trials and triumphs of pushing myself back in to performing on stage with The Laughter Academy. I have just performed in my third set of improvised showcases, and I want to share what this course in particular has taught me.

1. You can get through anything if you’re willing to laugh about it

Occasionally, I’d rather implode than discuss the things which make me want to punch holes in the sky screaming ‘I DEFY YOU, STARS!’ in a Romeo-esque rage (see gif below). The ‘things’ vary. I might be distraught watching the Snickers I paid 70p for get stuck during its fall to the bottom of the vending machine. I might be riddled with self-loathing about the decisions I’ve made whilst living by the mantra: ‘What would Courtney Love do?’

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What stops me from having a Shakespearean-style breakdown? Laughter; genuine laughter, fake laughter, nervous laughter, evil laughter. The sound of a laugh – like the effortless sound of a human heart beat – is beautifully reassuring. Week after week, The Laughter Academy has kept my laughter levels at optimum capacity.

2. You can get away with anything if you do it with conviction.

I’ve been wearing the same Dr Martens for five years and the same pair of denim cut-off shorts for six. I consistently wedge in jokes about feminism and having a bob cut. I’m boring, yes, but I’m boring with conviction, and that’s what makes it okay!

If no-one laughs at the joke, that’s okay too; power through until the next punch line and don’t lose focus. This works in all situations; keep bloody going, regardless of how wearisome or embarrassing it might seem. The Laughter Academy has supported my comical outbursts and forced me to think outside of my bob-shaped box.

3. Time is precious – don’t take it for granted

Time flies: whether it’s the short time I’m on stage or the extra hour I stay behind in the pub after class. Lessons and showcases seem to last only moments, which is why they need to be cherished. I have made friends at The Laughter Academy who encourage me to pursue my ambitions. They won’t let me give up; even when I am convinced I should.

(Gif courtesy of: http://33.media.tumblr.com/4defd892aab30fd27d4e355ffe395d32/tumblr_n4el29Po661qj4315o1_500.gif)

WOW – Women of the World Festival 2015

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‘Our life experience – that’s our expertise’ – Jude Kelly

I have so much to say about my experience at The Women of the World Festival this weekend, but in the interest of a) getting some sleep, b) catching up with university work, and c) making up for the meals I had to skip; I’ve tried to be as brief as possible (although condensing it down feels like extinguishing an already exploding firework).

The Women of the World Festival (WOW) was founded five years ago by Jude Kelly, the artistic director of The Southbank Centre. It is designed to champion the artistry, activism and achievements of women from all walks of life. I had previously attended stand alone events, but I had never attended the entire weekend. This year, I felt it was time to immerse myself in to everything the Festival had to offer.

(Before I forget: editor, friend, and all round excellent human, Louisa, spoke at the Cambridge WOW festival on Sunday about the creation of the Belle Jar website. Read her blog here!)

On Friday 6th March at 9:30am, Jude Kelly opened the festival by reminding us even if we don’t consider ourselves to be activists, by turning up to WOW; we had become active in the campaign for gender equality. She then began the festivities with the first event: ANNIE LENNOX IN CONVERSATION. I was so excited to see Lennox speak, that I arrived 30 minutes before the Southbank Centre opened. Turns out, ‘Sweet Dreams’ are made of £2.50 cappuccinos, a lot of patience, and thorough time keeping.

Lennox joked that when she was younger she thought she couldn’t be a feminist because she was ‘too vain’. She wanted to be aligned with the cause, but often felt intimidated and ‘not good enough’ because she enjoyed expressing herself by wearing make-up and high heels. What a relief it was to hear someone, who I regard as beacon of hope and power, admit that they too had experienced anxiety about their own place within a feminist world. Jude Kelly kindly pointed out this was a typical reaction from young women to feminism, and arguments which state feminists shouldn’t wear make-up, or be feminine, are an irrelevant distraction from the true feminist cause: to gain equality.

Lennox opened up about her personal life, and shared her belief that women naturally feel a lot of pain, emotionally and physically. She revealed her first experience of motherhood – giving birth to a still-born son – was the ultimate combination of these two types of pain. I felt a terrible urge to cry when she said this. What stopped my tear ducts from leaking, however, was the way she explained what this personal tragedy had taught her.

It had opened her eyes to the tragedy of every day life, and cemented her own personal belief that she must help, she must make a difference to women in a less fortunate situation. She channelled her pain in to activism, and as a result she raised immense funds and awareness around the issues of poverty, HIV and AIDS. Jude Kelly summarised Lennox’s outlook beautifully:

‘You must realise your own potential, then you can open doors for other people.’

Feeling high on life after hearing Annie Lennox share her experience and insight, I stayed to watch Jude Kelly chair the BLURRED LINES discussion with news presenter Kirsty Wark, journalist Hannah Pool and BBC Newsnight editor Ian Katz. Their discussion considered the impact of misogynist behaviour on the internet, and how women in the public eye are generally trolled, and criticised more violently than men. The debate also highlighted the Campaign4Consent, which was set up by seventeen year old school girl Lily and her friends, in order to get the issue of consent on to the UK school curriculum.

In the queue for the next event, WOW QUESTION TIME, I met another girl who had come to WOW by herself. We struck up a conversation, and after introducing ourselves properly, realised we shared the same first name (Kate, not Bob). I don’t usually buy in to the fate/mystical universe thing; but I’ll admit that meeting another Kate at an event which made me want to burst with feminist glee is pretty cosmic. Unfortunately, due to excessive interest, we didn’t get in to the event, so we attended a discussion entitled THE WOMEN WE LEAVE BEHIND instead.

This conversation centred around the women and girls who live in countries where western foreign policy, interventions, and civil unrest are consistently detrimental to women’s rights. The insight of panellist Feruz Werede, a human rights activist, was particularly poignant. She spoke about the human rights abuses that are affecting women and girls in Eritrea, the country where she was born. This abuse includes trafficking of girls and women, and harvesting their organs for sale. I felt wretched with ignorance. Why wasn’t this being reported in the international media? Was anyone trying to help these women? Feruz explained that Eritrea’s laws and government are intensely secretive, and getting aid in and out of the country is not always possible. Fortunately, organisations like Equality Now are trying to put activism and legislation together, in order to help the women and girls who face atrocities like this, and to bring closer attention to the global issue of violence against women both at home, and abroad.

‘Often, the media is amoral at best, or immoral at worst, with regards to women’ – Jude Kelly

The next events on my agenda were about WOMEN IN JOURNALISM (which bestowed me with a FREE goodie bag) and HOW TO WIN AT B/VLOGGING. It was after these events that I realised it was almost 4pm, and I hadn’t eaten since 7am. After a hasty dinner, I concluded my first day at WOW back in the hub with Jude Kelly, who was interviewing broadcaster Lauren Laverne and HSBC’s most senior lawyer, Sandie Okoro. I enjoyed Lauren’s stories of being in a band, and trying to ignore sexism in the music industry by cracking jokes, and thinking of herself as Iggy Pop. Sandie Okoro revealed that when she was seven, she told her school teacher she wanted to be a judge and the teacher cruelly replied: ‘little black girls from Balham don’t become judges’. Okoro urged the audience to ‘Think big. Ambition is free’, and her own advancement in the legal business has proved this. I left the Southbank Centre feeling full of potential.

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I awoke on Saturday 7th March full of fire, and ready for another day at WOW. I attended the MAN UP OR MAN DOWN workshop, which discussed sexist language and how to combat it. As well as being informative, the banter was top notch. The girls and women in my group were laid back and supportive. I didn’t feel judged or like I’d ‘got it wrong’ – a notion which many of the speakers addressed when they were speaking about female potential. They were keen to remind us that this is how patriarchy encourages women to feel – and that even acting as an equal often feels like ‘misbehaving’ (Jude Kelly).

I flew from one language based event to another: HOW TO GET PUBLISHED, chaired by author, founder of The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, and all round literary hero, Kate Mosse. Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project was also involved in Mosse’s talk, and both women provided fascinating and useful insight in to writing and publishing both non-fiction, and fiction books. Mosse urged us to claim the title of ‘writer’ regardless of a publishing deal, and to write every day, to work at it, to normalise it; to make it less intimidating. Female perspectives and female stories are important, and the job of the female (or male) writer is to have their ‘eyes down, on the page’, sharing those personal experiences.

Next on my agenda was a CONSENT WORKSHOP, which was introduced by Laura Bates, before being led by Susuana Antubam, the National Women’s Officer for NUS. Susuana spoke about the I Heart Consent campaign which she is currently running in universities and colleges, and we had group discussions about the true definition of consent, and the numerous issues surrounding rape culture.

When I was at school (only 6/7 years ago), no-one was talking about the issues of consent in sex education. I learnt about the biology of sex – but that was it. It seems ridiculous that I didn’t know I could say ‘No’, and not have to justify myself. I discussed this with two girls in my group who were studying for their GCSEs, and I spoke to a woman who was attending the workshop so she would be able to give this information to her grand-daughter. The workshop  solidified my belief that women are now feeling brave enough to say ‘no’.

On Sunday 8th March, I awoke with that fiery excitement still burning inside me (and without a hang-over!) and gunned it back to The Southbank. It was International Women’s Day, so everything felt like it had an extra-feminist edge. I went to EMILY DICKINSON: PRESENTED BY POET IN THE CITY, which involved a panel discussion about Dickinson’s poetry, and live readings of selected poems from the glorious Juliet Stevenson. I briefly met with my friend and fellow Belle Jar writer, Juliette, before she went to THE EDUCATION EMERGENCY event and I attended the BEING A MAN talk.

The panel included poet Anthony Anaxagorou, writer and broadcaster Ekow Eshun, psychotherapist John McKeown, and artistic director of The Red Room, Topher Campbell. They spoke about the aversion to emotion that is encouraged within masculinity, and patriarchal culture, and the way this damages men and boys of all different ethnicities and sexual orientations. Whilst there were no concrete conclusions on how to solve negative, inherited masculine attitudes; the efforts of the panellists in their professional and personal lives, were encouraging and uplifting.

I made my way to The Queen Elizabeth Hall to see YOU’VE BEEN FRAMED, a discussion about WOMEN’S MENTAL HEALTH. This was the most revelatory discussion of the weekend. Artist Bobby Baker, and Chair of National Hearing Voices Network, Jacqui Dillon, spoke at length about their personal experiences of being diagnosed with mental illness. Whilst both women were inspirational, I found Jacqui’s story particularly poignant. Jacqui was born in to a family that associated with a paedophile ring, and consequently, suffered sexual abuse from an extremely young age. When she reached her twenties and decided to seek professional help, but she was told by psychiatrists she was ‘psychotic’, and had imagined the abuse. They refused to accept Jacqui’s psychosis was a natural reaction to intense, and prolonged trauma.

Fortunately, Jacqui eventually found professionals who were willing to accept the truth; which is why she is now able to tell her story to strangers like me. Jacqui and Bobby’s discussion highlighted something crucial: psychiatrists and societies often re-frame people’s natural responses to trauma, and diagnose them as mental illness. They pathologise or medicalise natural reactions. They don’t always consider the social context may be the true issue which needs addressing, not the reaction of the individual.

My weekend at WOW was coming to a close, so I took a seat at the final discussion and caught up with Juliette again. The discussion came in two parts, firstly, Jude Kelly offered her thoughts on the subject WHY WOMEN STAY. We stay, quite simply, because there is nowhere else to go. Women across the globe are immobilised in so many ways. In her introduction to Laura Bates’ book Everyday Sexism, Sarah Brown states that ‘women who lead, read’. Two thirds of the world’s women can’t read – how can they be expected to get anywhere without a basic education? Jude Kelly urged us to keep calling out sexism, to keep being exhausted and irritating in our own circles, because the world is slowly starting to realise that empowering women, means empowering the world.

The second part of the discussion, entitled FUTURE FEMALE: THE ECONOMIC CASE FOR GENDER EQUALITY ACROSS THE GLOBE, featured a live Skype session with Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, and a further discussion with Jude Kelly and BBC Radio 1’s Gemma Cairney. Christine insisted gender equality matters so much, because it makes economic sense. She also raised the following point:

‘We used to be called the fair sex, but for the fair sex, it’s a very unfair situation’.

This unfair situation was then addressed by campaigner Eloise Todd, who was promoting the newly launched Poverty is Sexist Campaign. This is one of the many organisations dedicated to improving women and girl’s economic independence across the globe. Finally, Christine answered Gemma’s question: What three pieces of advice would you give to your twenty-five year old self? Christine’s reply was simple:

  1. Grit your teeth and smile.
  2. Don’t let the bastards get you down.
  3. If you’ve tried everything, and it doesn’t work, leave; they don’t deserve you.

The applause at the end of the discussion was deafening, and I was both elated and exhausted to have been witness to such a glorious Festival.

I’ve spent the last two days typing out just a fraction of what I encountered this weekend at WOW. This weekend has proved to me there is an immense power behind the sharing of personal experience, the sharing of statistics and information, and the sharing of art and creativity. Whether this is shared in the form of debate, lectures, or a bit of banter; I believe by spreading the word, signing the petitions, and documenting the speeches; we can help alter negative perspectives on feminism.

The power of the individual story is only as powerful as the individuals who listen to, and re-tell that story. That’s what my weekend at WOW helped to re-enforce. I’m already looking forward to next year.

P.S. For anyone who wants to hate on this by saying ‘Women get their own Festival, what about men?!’ – You can attend the Being a Man Festival (BAM) later in the year. Give me a shout when you do, I’d like to come with!

P.P.S. This post is definitely the opposite of brief. Oops.