Highlights from WOW 2015

10 Mins read

Did you make it to WOW 2015? If you didn’t, you missed out on a great week!

Sorry, World of Warcraft fans – we’re talking about the Women of the World Festival. Held at the Southbank Centre, the festival celebrates the achievements of women and girls, with a wide range of events over the week leading up to International Women’s Day, with talks, music, art, workshops, good times, shenanigans and of course, plenty of inspiring women.

How come Southbank Centre started this now global phenomenon? Jude Kelly, artistic director at the Southbank centre, and creator of WOW Festival told the Huffington Post:

“I was meeting women from right across the world, from places such as Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan, who were clearly suffering real hostility and I thought how we in Britain were being hypocritical. We were acting like those countries had a different set of battles, but we have domestic violence, we have sex trafficking, we have all kinds of issues that are unsolved. Somebody got me the vote, somebody got me education, and I had a feeling that I also had to make life better for future generations of women, so they have the best chance of reaching their potential.”

WOW is now in its fifth year and the festival has become a worldwide sensation, attracting visitors from all over the world during its run from March 1-8. @mollyturnley and @astridmadberg went to Southbank to get a piece of the action. Here are some highlights from the week:

Monday March 2

Women and Politics – This talk was in the Purcell Room, and women across the political spectrum came to discuss what they would like to see happen if their parties get into power in 2015.  

Guests included Katie Ghose, CEO of Electoral Reform, Stella Crasy MP (Labour), Margot James MP (Conservatives), and Jo Swinson MP (Liberal Democrats), and the event was chaired by Jude Kelly, artistic director of Southbank Centre. The discussion touched on a wide range of subjects including sexist media coverage of female politicians, quotas, and whether they were for or against, gay rights, wage gaps, paternal leave, childcare, getting women into politics, and much more. They answered questions from the audience, who got to vote for a number of proposals discussed by the politicians.

One of our favourite moments from the event came when Catherine Mayer, editor at large at Time Magazine, got up from the audience and suggested that a women’s equality party be formed, and subsequently encouraged everyone to come to the bar after the talk to discuss further.

Yes, why not! It’s worked for Sweden, so why not give it a go in the UK? And by the looks of it, Mayer is already working on it!

Thursday March 5

The Queen Elizabeth Hall was transformed into a boxing gym for the critically-acclaimed performance No Guts, No Heart, No Glory. Based on interviews with Muslim female boxers, the production explores what it’s like to be young and fearless.


The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe in the Purcell Room had four African refugees sharing their stories of survival. With the help of actors and singers they turned tales of suffering into a theatre of humanity, and the audience seemed deeply moved by the performance.

Friday 6 March

WOW saw Annie Lennox discussing humanitarian issues in the The Clore Ballroom at Royal Festival Hall, she also talked to BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. You can listen to it here:

Other Friday fun included a WOW+ Stylist Magazine Question Time on politics, a Bloomberg talk on Women in Business, a discussion about domestic abuse, a talk called How To: Be An MP, a Bloomberg talk about women in journalism, a speed mentoring workshop, a talk about black LGBTQI rights, a panel discussion on why gender equality is not just a women’s issue called Stand By Your Woman, the I’MPossible conversation about black women in business and much, much more. Phew! Abi Wade also stopped by to play some music.

Friday also had a talk at the Clore Ballroom with broadcaster Lauren Laverne and Sandie Okoro, talking about ambition, role models and the tools they’ve used at the turning points in their lives:

There was then a free performance by Lady Leshurr at the Front Room in Queen Elizabeth Hall. The Birmingham-born MC, singer and producer has been making music since she was six years old; her distinctive flow complements her strong vocals and harmonies – and she can spit over just about anything.

She has previously spoken out against the way the music industry pit women against each other, something that has led her to turn down a deal with Atlantic Records. The label wanted to pit her against Nicki Minaj but Leshurr wasn’t up for any fake fights.

Speaking to The Guardian she said, “It pushes the gaps between us – girl rappers are afraid to work together because we get fixed in these imaginary competitions. The industry just doesn’t know what to do with women.”   Performing at WOW 2015 Leshurr exuded confidence and positivity and the crowd responded accordingly. Our favourite bit was seeing a couple of elderly ladies in the audience bobbing their heads to Leshurr’s rap, and how one of them leaned their cane against a table to get up and do some some serious hip-grinding. Our mobile video does not do justice to her talent, but here’s a taste of Lady Leshurr’s WOW 2015 performance:

Follow @ladyleshurr on Twitter

Saturday March 7

Saturday was jam-packed with diversity and inspiration. Events included – Afrikan yoga, British women’s weightlifting, author Shami Chakrabarti talking about her book On Libertyactivism and how to set-up grassroots campaigns, disability and feminism, fashion and feminism, transgender rights, sexism in video games, effects of pornography, domestic abuse, racial stereotyping and its effects, and readings of new plays and books. 

The very popular The Butch Monologues (the UK’s first female butch group – ‘It repositions the negative, socially-threatening concept of female masculinity into a place of pride’) was another highlight, as well as anti-FGM campaigning, Eleanor Marx & Sylvia Pankhurst in conversation, women and immigration and human rights activists to name just a few.  

Our highlights of the day:

How To Get Published 

A masterclass, run by best-selling novelist and co-founder of the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, Kate Mosse OBE (@katemosse), and founder of the Everyday Sexism Project and judge for the Bailey’s Prize this year, Laura Bates (@EverydaySexism), helped with all stages of getting published as a novelist. From getting an agent, tips for writer’s block and Mosse and Bates explaining their own very different writing styles, were all very useful.

Kate Mosse OBE and Laura Bates.

It was a talk by inspirational and successful novelists perfect for any aspiring writer needing tips and guidance. Laura Bates created the Everyday Sexism project in 2012 and it was soon named “one of the biggest social media success stories on the internet”.

Bates’ first book Everyday Sexism was published in 2014. Bates is a pioneering feminist and has a very active social media presence; her book wouldn’t exist had it not been for the constant contact of women worldwide sharing their sexist encounters, as well as rape and domestic abuse stories. During this talk, Bates gave some reassuring advice on her own experiences of writing a book – “The idea of writing a whole book felt daunting and ridiculous. I knew how to write an article, but not a book, so I broke it down to articles.”

She also shared some amusing information on her current writing style – “I write on a treadmill now” – after she knew she needed to stay physically fit and write consistently, she decided to combine the two.

Kate Mosse OBE, non-fiction and short story writer and broadcaster, best known for her novel Labyrinth, had the perfect voice for a university lecturer: articulate, engaging and outstandingly knowledgable. Mosse provided the audience with some inspirational and useful advice – “5 minutes [writing] a day is better than no minutes at all…it’s about making yourself fit for purpose…be brave enough to question if your writing is serving a purpose”.

Mosse spoke of making writing a “normal” and familiar act, so a writer becomes comfortable and fluid with their own writing process, “the only way you will grow as a writer is to write and write and write…until you trust it, you will not be able to find your own voice.” Mosse on her own writing style – “When I sit down to write I don’t do anything else at all…I write until I can’t write any more.”

Eve Ensler In Conversation With Jude Kelly

Ensler, best known for her groundbreaking play The Vagina Monologues in 1996, is a truly inspirational feminist, activist and writer. She is the founder of V-Day – a global movement to stop violence against women and girls – and One Billion Rising – to end violence and promote gender quality globally, mainly through the use of dance and the positive effects of dance as an expression.

Jude Kelly was evidently honoured to have Ensler at WOW Festival 2015, and Ensler’s eloquence when speaking of her activist campaigns, her battle with ferocious cancer and her work for women and girls worldwide was captivating.

Ensler speaks of violence against women and girls across the world still being “a major epidemic” that needs to be addressed now, which is exactly what she intends to do through her activist campaigns, but only with the help of people throughout the world will this be possible.

One Billion Rising focusses on positive energy and the reclaiming of women’s bodies. Ensler has witnessed women “reclaim space and feel pleasure” through dancing, and she believes dancing is the ultimate release of bad energy.

Caitlin Moran, Bridget Christie and Shazia Mirza

The big trio in conversation with Jude Kelly was arguably one of the main highlights of the whole week at WOW 2015. They deliberately asked the audience not to film or take quotes out of context from the talk, and this created a level of respect and lack of iPhones waving around in the air, which was a godsend. 

Caitlin Moran needs no introduction, but I’ll introduce her anyhow. Author of How To Be A Woman, Moranthology and How To Build A Girl, a Times columnist, feminist and personality. She graced the sold-out Royal Festival Hall stage to speak to Jude Kelly first, one to one. Moran spoke of her bizarre Wolverhampton upbringing, the beginnings of her career as a journalist and as a feminist author.

Bridget Christie then entered stage-right: a comedian, “comedy puritan” and creator of the Radio 4 series about feminism Bridget Christie Minds The Gap. Christie spoke of her struggles as a woman getting into stand-up comedy, but successfully breaking into “the alternative comedy circuit…the nicey, lefty, communist, Marx-y circuit” and, interestingly, of the use of language in comedy and feminism and her belief that people choose to be offended – “nothing should be a no-go area…but there should be no confusion as to what your motives are in doing so”. 

Shazia Mirza also joined them onstage. Mirza is an award-winning British Muslim stand-up comedian and columnist for The Guardian. Mirza spoke of the awkward and racist problems she’s encountered with producers, asking her to be a “professional ethnic minority” and to “make [her writing] more Muslim…and Muslim it up a bit”. The concoction of Moran, Christie and Mirza worked swimmingly. The three of them told anecdotes and addressed issues with wit and humour; a difficult skill to have when it comes to talking about gender equality. A reminder that feminism is no longer a ‘big, scary’ word, but a word that should be embraced and celebrated, with a simple definition: equality of the sexes. 

Sunday March 8

The strongest in the pack returned for another healthy dose of WOW talks and debates, and WOW provided the people with what they wanted, and then some. The last day of the festival saw some familiar faces, some famous faces and some lesser-known, extremely-talented faces. Topics of the day included: the evolution of Mumsnet on its 15th birthday, Human Rights Act, a celebration of Emily Dickinson’s poetry (with readings from Juliet Stevenson, star of Truly, Madly, Deeply), talks on life after rape and sexual assault, #upforschool, dementia, eating disorders and women in sport. Watch Jude Kelly and @laurenlaverne discuss music, sexism, motherhood and Iggy Pop at #WOWLDN

Men also took part in WOW 2015 – Southbank has previously organised the Being a Man Festival (BAM) where men of all ages and backgrounds have held conversations and Q&As on what it means to be a man in the 21st century, and this idea was brought in as a panel discussion to WOW 2015. Held in the Red Room, the panel included poet Anthony Anaxagorou, writer and broadcaster Ekow Eshun and psychotherapist John McKeown

In this clip Anthony Anaxagorou talks about the lack of good role models for boys:

What a week – we’re looking forward to next year!

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Featured image by Christopher Nunn courtesy of the Southbank Centre

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