Interview: Jude Kelly, Women of the World (WOW) founder
For International Women's Day 2019, we speak to Women of the World (WOW) founder Jude Kelly about feminism in today's society and the ongoing fight for women's rights
In 2006, Kelly was appointed artistic director of the Southbank Centre – the UK’s largest arts centre – a role which saw her stage an array of high-profile annual festivals, including Art of Africa and Being a Man. For many, this would be the peak of a career. But Kelly felt there was more work to be done. She grew concerned by all the young women she was meeting who had come face-to-face with sexual discrimination but didn’t have a collective vocabulary for their problems.
Women of the World Festival, Southbank Centre
‘2010 was a year in which people believed women had already achieved equality,’ she explains. ‘We had the legislation and style of an equal society, and young women had been told that the job [of feminism] had been done. But they didn’t have equal pay and they didn’t have respect in lots of ways.’
Kelly has defined herself as a feminist since a young age. ‘I developed an interest in feminism at university. It partly came out of the fact I wanted to be a theatre director but I was being told that women didn’t do that sort of thing,’ she recalls. ‘So for the sake of self-preservation for my own dreams I became a feminist.’
It was when Kelly conceptualised Women of the World Festival that her perspective on – and commitment to – feminism shifted. ‘I’d supported the things that had happened [in the feminist movement] but I didn’t feel I’d done any heavy lifting up until that point,’ she says. ‘By that time, I’d had a big career and I’d had lots of my dreams realised. I knew that couldn’t have happened unless other women had helped me in the past.’
Young activists at Women of the World Festival in 2017
Originally, Kelly planned to organise a one-off festival commemorating the achievements of women from around the world. ‘I created the festival to mark the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day,’ she recalls. ‘I put it in the context of celebrating everything that women had achieved.’ ‘But as soon as I started to explore all the ways discrimination was still happening, people started to get very excited and say: “Gosh, there’s so much to do, isn’t there?”.’
Kelly knew there were enough stories and case studies to fill another festival, and another after that. Fast forward to 2019 and WOW has grown into a global phenomenon. Now an annual event with outlets across the world, the festival (which takes place on 8 and 9 March this year) has reached over two million people worldwide. Today, there are more than 60 sister festivals in countries including Brazil, China, Pakistan, Somaliland and the US. It’s the biggest festival in the world dedicated to presenting work by women and promoting equality for women and girls.
‘In the last nine years, I’ve learned so much more about how women have been silenced and how we silence ourselves. It’s given me a drive to pick up every stone and not leave things unturned or unspoken,’ Kelly says.
Has the festival’s mission or purpose changed at all over that time? ‘I don’t think the festival’s purpose has changed but its power has. Its purpose was [and is] to get people to respect and share stories of the lives of girls and women who are not like them.’
Jude Kelly speaking at a Women of the World Festival event
The political climate and our collective attitude to feminism has certainly changed a lot since WOW began in 2010. Kelly lists the 2012 Delhi rape, Malala Yousafzai’s activism and, most recently, the #MeToo movement and Time’s Up campaign as some of the key events that have altered the way we think about women’s rights. ‘The landscape has changed. Instead of women feeling helpless and hopeless, there’s more of a sense of solidarity now,’ she says.
While the re-ignition of mass interest in feminism is a positive thing, Kelly points out that the anxiety now lurking in the shadows is that people might succumb to gender fatigue. ‘All movements go in waves, but I really hope this doesn’t happen,’ says Kelly. If it does, it would be extremely premature. Just last week, Emma Thompson resigned from working on the upcoming animation film Luck after its production company Skydance hired John Lasseter to head the company, despite the all-too-recent accusations of him sexually harassing female colleagues.
‘It isn’t just about laws, we have plenty of laws, it’s about a change of mindset,’ stresses Kelly, musing on how society can counter the problem for good. ‘Laws don’t change the reality of how power lashes out when it wants to.’
In 2018, Kelly – who by then was 63 years old – resigned from her role as artistic director of the Southbank Centre in order to focus more time and energy on WOW. ‘I realised I hadn’t got the time to do both jobs and have any life,’ she laughs. ‘I had a wonderful time at Southbank Centre but 12 years was enough. WOW is becoming a global movement and I knew it would be squandering the moment if I didn’t help it take off even further.’
Jude Kelly, founder of Women of the World
When asked what her criteria is for curating each WOW programme, Kelly cites three main categories the events and talks must fall into: global feminism, unknown stories of female achievement and the big topics that have sprung up over the year – for example, Gina Miller challenging Brexit.
One thing Kelly was passionate about from the start was ensuring WOW didn’t become an elite event for successful people. ‘WOW has never been a sort of glamorous cocktail party affair or an upper-crust networking opportunity. It has to be for everyone, and combine grassroots and power brokers equally,' she affirms. ‘WOW is about global feminism and ensuring the debate doesn’t always begin with white western women.’
Among the line-up of speakers for this year's festival are activist and writer Angela Davis, journalist and author Naomi Klein and comedian Jo Brand. Are there any talks or events Kelly is especially looking forward to? ‘I’m particularly excited that Angela Davis is with us. I’m very moved by the fact she acknowledges WOW as a place that she can trust. She means a great deal to so many people because of her writing and her activism,’ Kelly enthuses. ‘We’ve also got two great women from the Aboriginal communities of Australia joining us to talk about indigenous leadership. I’m excited to learn from them.’
Women of the World participants
Another factor of the festival Kelly gets charged up about each year is the contributions made by young feminists. ‘From the minute you emerge, you’re being groomed to accept second-class citizenship as a woman,’ she says. ‘It’s never too early to start teaching children about gender justice.’ In support of this, WOW has arranged for a group of teenage girls from Bradford to have their say in their own speakers’ corner at the festival, while an under-10s feminist corner has also been set up.
Kelly is also looking ahead, forging plans to see WOW find a presence on new shores in the near future. ‘We’re going to be in Turkey next year and we’re going to Malaysia to begin discussions about bringing the festival there,’ she reveals, excitedly. ‘We’re also hoping to take the festival to Ghana, Nigeria and the Caribbean.’
Back in London, does Kelly have any dream guest speakers she’s hoping to host at future WOW events? ‘I’ve previously said Michelle Obama is my dream guest speaker. She recently spoke live at the Southbank Centre [in December 2018] but it wasn’t part of WOW.’ Kelly pauses before adding a curve ball comment that makes us both giggle: ‘Wouldn’t it be great if coming to WOW we had men who didn’t think previously that they were going to support feminism? For example, if Putin and Trump turned up, and left saying: “actually we’ve seen the light”.’