This weekend I learnt about some amazing projects which coincided with International Women’s Day: a global event to promote women’s rights and create awareness of just how far we still have to go before we see gender equality throughout the world.
It’s been impossible to ignore the hype and publicity surrounding the WOW Festival (Women of the World) at the Southbank Centre. Organiser and founder Jude Kelly made sure that this year, everyone knew what WOW was about. There was a social media storm surrounding the week-long festival, with frequent features on national radio and press, The Times even ran a micro-site especially for the lead up and event coverage.
WOW is a celebration of the achievements of women and girls from around the world, and these include achievements both great and small-scale, from the realms of politics and the arts, to humanitarian work and advocacy. The programme of talks, workshops and performances was jam-packed full of inspirational role models, both famous and unknown, all of whom came together to speak about their experiences and to contribute to the melting pot of ideas, debates and stories.
Upon walking into the Royal Festival Hall I was absolutely taken aback by the buzzing atmosphere at 11am on a Sunday morning. There were many men attending, but I saw mainly women, of all ages. There were teenage girls brandishing their wristbands alongside mothers with their daughters, elderly ladies, school children, young women and couples (with no sign of coercion tactics being used to get male partners into the venue).
I saw so many inspirational and often harrowing talks and discussions. But surprisingly, the highlight of my festival came in the form of a 15 minute presentation during a WOW Bites session on Sunday. Packed in to a sun blasted conservatory on the roof of the RHF, a small audience was treated to 5 short presentations by women from a wide range of backgrounds, talking about their ‘thing’. And because of the intimate setting, each presentation was followed by a casual open discussion with the audience members.
Deborah Coughlin spoke on women’s voices and her new event called Yap Yap Yap (needs no explanation), performed by the musical ‘girl group’ Gaggle. The focus of Yap Yap Yap is to uncover the great things that women have said throughout history, “and saying new things, now, very loudly” … She told us about a few of the discoveries that she has made whilst researching for the show: a national, female-only theatre company of wits from the 1700’s, and a theatrical production, created and performed solely by WI members in the Royal Albert Hall in the 1960’s, celebrating women’s roles in society. Neither of which anyone (in a room full of feminists) had heard of before.
Deborah is passionate about telling the stories of the women who have been written out of our history books, in the arts as well as politics. We all know speeches by the great men of our time: King, Churchill, Mandela, Armstrong, etc… But who can recall a single speech made by a historic woman? (Apart from Gwyneth Paltrow’s Oscar acceptance speech). In Coughlin’s words, “we don’t get to stand on the shoulders of giants” because “most women have very little idea of what other women have said before them”.
Part of the reason why so many women struggle to have a say today is down to the new trend of backlashes and trolling on accepted, public mediums such as twitter. We need to celebrate female voices, not punish them, and as Coughlin pointed out, “we need to hear what can’t be said in 140 characters”.
All I want to know is: when will I get to see my first Gaggle performance?
Just down the road from the Southbank Centre this weekend was Femme Fierce, as part of this year’s Vault Festival. A celebration of the female artists working in studios and out in the public realm, culminating in a weekend-long graffiti jam, as well as workshops on creative marketting, skills and techniques.
The event saw the famous Leake Street Tunnel transformed into an outdoor art gallery, with many female street artists invited to contribute. The theme of the event was “Because I am a girl”, in support of Plan UK, a campaign for girls’ rights working to end violence against women and girls, invest in girls’ education and amplify girls’ voices and participation.
The event had a great turnout, and unlike many street art festivals I’ve been to before, the theme was strong, and the message clear. It wasn’t a visual theme, it was an emotional one, and the girls who participated certainly had a lot to say about it.
Finally, this weekend I also stumbled upon an article via Collectively, talking about an International Wikipedia Edit-Athon, which was run by New York based collective Art+Feminism. I didn’t really understand the potential extent of the problem of gender bias on Wikipedia until I was faced with some facts:
- If you were to print out all the English Wikipedia pages right now, you would have the equivalent to 20,967 volumes of the Encyclopædia Britannica.
- Today Wikipedia is the 7th most visited site online
- Many other popular sites use APIs that regularly pull in content from Wikipedia
- An internal wikipedia study revealed that less than 10 % of contributors to Wikipedia are women
Over the last couple of years, Wikipedia edit-athons have been taking place, but this week Art+Feminism invited people to come together and not only edit, but discuss and learn about research and editing methods. They organised an event in New York with MOMA, for an all-day communal updating of Wikipedia entries on subjects relating to art and feminism. They provided tutorials for beginners, reference materials, childcare and refreshments, in order to encourage as many people as possible to join the efforts in neutralising the gender bias in submitted articles. They encouraged people all over the world to organise similar events over the weekend, to coincide with International Women’s Day.
By changing the shape of Wikipedia, editors are not just opening the doors for greater inclusion and representation of women and other marginalized groups in history, they are also reshaping history itself as a subject– how we define and police the borders of our collective memory and knowledge*.
As Collectively point out, neutralising the gender bias on sources such as Wikipedia is harder than it sounds. Any new articles must be substantiated by other sources in order to prove the relevance of the figure being written about. Meaning that the lack of existing references to female and feminist artists creates a hurdle for new pages being put forward by editors. The strict guidelines upon which the website has been built are restricting the openness of its content and have created a gender bias. It’s a vicious circle.
It is for this reason that Art+Feminism realise how important it is to get as many people as possible involved in their edit-athons. Fortunately, wikipedia is a community driven website, and so while it may often be difficult to put important women back in to our art histories, it is easy for the conversation about their importance to be opened up, driven by the right people.
This year’s International Women’s Day was very much about voice, and these incredible people I’ve written about are just a few examples of the work being done to make women heard. As Jude Kelly pointed out in her closing speech at the WOW festival, we are a global tribe, and we have to look forward to a world where our voices will be heard as equal to those of our male counterparts.
All around the world, women are accepting that they cannot read, cannot work, cannot chose their own lives, and we have to do our bit to show solidarity. We have to speak up, make our own choices for ourselves, challenge the accepted social norms and pave the way for change for future generations.
Today I have briefly shown proof of people (not just women) who are doing just that: By uncovering the forgotten words of important women, by encouraging female creativity, and by putting women’s achievements and influence back in the history books, we can bring some optimism to those in far worse situations than our own. After all, we’re all in this together.
Learn about WOW Festival and watch the weekend’s highlights on their website
Join the teams editing Wikipedia to improve female representation in our galleries and art history on the Art+Feminism website