Women of the World (WOW) is an eight-day festival of talks, debates, music, film and comedy celebrating women, which kicks off on Sunday. Sandi Toksvig chatted to founder and director Jude Kelly about women changing the world, through policy, humour and a well-deployed hammer.
In 2011, Jude Kelly launched the Women of the World (WOW) Festival in London. In five short years, it’s grown exponentially, and this year will be filling the Southbank Centre, where Kelly is artistic director, with more than 300 speakers and 200 events that celebrate and promote women. Sandi Toksvig has been involved in WOW since the start, so Standard Issue asked these two brilliant women to tell us all about why and WOW.
Sandi Toksvig: Why did you start the WOW Festival in the first place?
Jude Kelly: Three things: I was talking to so many young women who were coming to me, saying, “I’m not a feminist, but… I have all of these problems about work/life balance, about negotiating pay, about how my sexual partners treat me, about how I feel about advertising’s depiction of women…” A litany of things. “Is it me or is the world?” There were so many of them that I began to think that to leave them stranded, because they didn’t have the continuation of a movement that said “it’s not you – it is the world” is unfair. When I was young, I was able to cling onto something called the feminist debate, about women’s roles. Five years ago, that discussion was much more disparate.
The second reason I started it was because as one of the most senior women in culture, I wouldn’t be where I am if someone hadn’t got me the vote. I wouldn’t be where I am if I hadn’t got girls’ education and so, since the story isn’t finished about equal rights, how am I doing my bit to get young girls from unlikely backgrounds into positions where they can fulfil their dreams?
And the third reason I did it is because, if you look around cultural spaces, which, let’s face it, are telling the stories of humanity – the films, the books, the dance shows, the music – all of it is pretty much saying that theology was right: first there was a man and then a woman helped him. That idea that women aren’t primarily creative, as in making the thing, starting the thing, being able to describe the thing on behalf of other humans – they can only do it on behalf of other women – that is a story which has really got to change.
Although culture can sometimes look like a sideline of the world, it’s what civilisations leave behind. And women’s history has been so untold – in every field, but also in the creative field. Here we have a safe space for discussing difficult things – I wanted to make sure the Southbank Centre did that.
ST: How do you make sure that the men don’t feel excluded? I don’t think they do, but how do you make sure of that?
“Politically, if we put women’s issues first, everybody would do better: the children would do better; the men would do better, it would be a better system for everybody.” – Sandi Toksvig
JK: Well, first of all, it’s a festival where girls and women – if you are one or you know one – are celebrated and promoted and we all look together at what obstacles are stopping them realising their potential. If you’re a father or a grandfather, or you’ve got a sister or a niece or you’ve got a girlfriend, a mother, then why wouldn’t you want to make the world an equal space? It’s as relevant as racial politics. It’s as relevant as homophobia. Those issues didn’t remain as being only of interest to the people who are directly suffering the discrimination. So the call out is to say: boys and men, what we’re talking about is changing our world. Not changing women’s worlds, but changing the world.
ST: It’s interesting because the Southbank, which is post Second World War, the motto for it when it was first built was “women and children first”. Is that right?
JK: It was. That was an instruction to the architects and the designers. What it meant was that the war had been such a horrific example of technology and barbarity colliding, and so much of it had been driven by the idea of, I suppose I want to say male aggression, the idea of appropriation and ownership and a particular kind of tyranny. They wanted the Southbank Centre to deal with light, greenery, water, softer ideas – more elemental, more spiritual, more about the wholeness of society. And they said if you design around the idea of women and children first, it will work for men too, but if you only design it for men, it won’t work for the rest of the population.
ST: And that’s what I think now, politically: if we put women’s issues first, everybody would do better: the children would do better; the men would do better, it would be a better system for everybody.
JK: You’ve done a lot of research in your international work about this evidence, haven’t you?
ST: Yes. And you see it in every single board. Credit Suisse did a big survey on this and they looked at all the boards where women had joined companies and every single company did better. So if you were a very Tory-minded capitalist person and you only wanted to look at the financial return – the bottom line – on putting women on the board, then financially you do better.
Now I’m not interested necessarily in the financial returns on this, but I am interested culturally, and there’s no doubt whatsoever that women have borne the brunt of the recession, have borne the brunt of the cuts and yet what we’re seeing, which is very interesting, is the highest increase in men’s suicides that we’ve had for generations. It isn’t just that the women are suffering: there is a knock-on effect and the whole of society is suffering. The most likely cause of death in young men at the moment is suicide. That is a sick society that we need to fix and I think one of the ways we fix it is to make things better for women in the first place.
JK: At WOW, I’m interviewing Christine Lagarde about the next millennium goals. There is clear evidence that the millennium goals need to contain the need to educate and give economic power to girls and women, in every aspect: in agriculture; in health; in education. Thinking about girls and women in all aspects of government policy, not just as an add-on.
ST: There’s no question that all the micro-financing projects that are working in the – I don’t know the right term for it – developing world are aimed at women and actually work very well. And now not just micro-financing, which is loans to women, but also micro-savings and the difference that can make to a family. Even if you are one of the poorest people on the planet, if you save the tiniest amount, what it does for self-esteem, what it does for the confidence in those families and how they then can eventually go on to create their own businesses or their own abilities to sustain their lives is absolutely glorious. But it starts with the women. It always starts with the women.
“If you look around cultural spaces, which, let’s face it, are telling the stories of humanity – the films, the books, the dance shows, the music – all of it is pretty much saying that theology was right: first there was a man and then a woman helped him. That is a story which has got to change.” – Jude Kelly
JK: Five years ago, when I wanted to start WOW, I remember coming to see you and saying Sandi – friend, advisor, confidante – what do you think? And obviously you said yes, this is the time. Why do you think that WOW has been the vehicle in this country? What are the ingredients?
ST: What I love is the range: it’s everything from how to deal with Afro hair to female genital mutilation to silly jokes that I do – and rather serious things, too, like putting things into historical context. I try very hard every year to remind us why we are where we are and how we make sure we don’t go back to a time when women were treated even more badly. But look at Britain now: what are we, 26th in the world in gender equality? Iraq is ahead of us, which is unbelievable.
JK: I’m not quite sure how they measure it, but in terms of women in parliament, that representation of women at parliamentary level, yeah.
ST: So what I love is the wide-ranging discussion and that you can be challenged.
JK: Talk to me a bit about the history of women. Right from the beginning you’ve led this programme, the finale, Mirth Control. Obviously the title’s a play on birth control, and you are absolutely saying humour is a key political instrument for getting people to think about things that are difficult and uncomfortable.
ST: It is the oil of women’s lives. People always say, “ooh, women aren’t as funny as men”, so here’s a little test you can do: if you ever go to a formal event, go and stand outside the gentlemen’s lavatory as the door opens and closes and you will just hear the quiet murmur of the urinal. Go and stand outside the door of the ladies lavatory at an event where no one has ever met before, as the door opens and closes, and you will hear laughter.
JK: That is true!
ST: I believe it is the thing that greases the lives of women. I have yet to go through a till with a woman cashier and not have a laugh about something. It’s critical. When you make people laugh about something, I think they remember it. I think they remember it in a way that perhaps they don’t if you’re bombastic or just trying to persuade them in a serious manner.
JK: One of the things that I’m very proud about with WOW is the number of small initiatives, or thoughts, that began there and how they’ve turned into major things. Take Nimco Ali and Leyla Hussein: Nimco gave a talk in year one of WOW about being a survivor of FGM and then she and Leyla formed Daughters of Eve and it’s gone on to be a really important international charity.
ST: Well if William Hague can talk about FGM then I feel it’s become mainstream.
JK: I remember last year you gave a talk about Florence Nightingale and the reality of who she was and somebody in the audience has subsequently set up a charity to do with disabled women and health because of your discussion that female leadership in this area has been there and it isn’t new and Florence Nightingale is an example.
ST: And that she is misremembered as this lovely lady with the lamp, which is not the truth at all. She was actually known as the lady with the hammer and I much prefer that. It’s because the medicines were kept in a locked box and they were consigned there for officers only. And this made her so angry on behalf of the average soldier that she took a hammer and she smashed the lock and the men were forever grateful. The lady with the lamp is nonsense – it was made up with by a Times journalist – and we must remember her as the lady with the hammer because that’s a woman getting things done. That is not a woman just drifting about the wards in the dark.
Sandi Toksvig hosts Mirth Control at the Royal Festival Hall on Sunday 8 March. This year’s line-up includes award-winning comedian Sarah Millican, opera-singing sensation Angel Blue, West End star Sharon D Clarke, classical music conductors Sian Edwards and Alice Farnham, and MOBO award-nominated singer/songwriter Ayanna Witter-Johnson.
WOW runs from Sunday until March 8 at the Southbank Centre, London
Sandi currently hosts 15-1 on Channel 4 and News Quiz on Radio 4. Sandi has written over twenty books and is a columnist for Good Housekeeping.