Women of the World Festival

This is my first year in London and therefore my first year at the Women of the World (WOW) festival held at the Southbank Centre. I haven’t quite figured out how to keep up with all the goings on in this city, bubbling with culture, so I was not even aware of WOW until Erin and Anna, my VERVE guardian angels invited me to attend with them. As the title promised, I had three days of women from all over the world helping me see more of femininity and feminism than I ever could with my own eyes alone. Walking around Royal Festival Hall I felt both completely connected with these women and beautifully different. It was the variety that helped to ground me in a way that the homogenous groups of women in my graduate classes had failed to. I knew the world was full of people different from me—not just in race and religion, which dominates American conversations about diversity—but custom and culture. It made me uncomfortable when I was at school to look around and only see women who look like me, were raised liked me, and would likely go on to live lives like me. It felt unnaturally sterile. But London surrounds me with all the vibrant colours that books had promised me filled the world. WOW was a microcosm of this diversity with the underlying safety of women in numbers.

I attended all three days of WOW. On Friday evening, I went with the women of VERVE to hear Gillian Anderson and Jennifer Nadel talk about their new book WE: A Manifesto for Everywoman. While I was impressed by their openness about mental illness and their denial of the need for perfection, I could not get past the claim that this was a manifesto for “everywoman.” In the rich variety that women come in, how could anyone write a manifesto for all 4 billion of us? On Sunday, I attended a workshop on intersectionality and then heard a talk about what women endure when fleeing war and other dangers and seeking safety as refugees. This talk was the final push in a series of moments leading me to a new adventure but that is a story for another time. It is Saturday night about which I most want to tell you.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I practiced her name over and over with my new friend who said it confidently while I stuttered over it. So many of the words and names I know have come from reading them and I often go years without speaking them aloud, incorrectly repeating them in my head with no one to correct me. But I knew I would need to say her name again. To sing her praises. A writer and feminist, she is best known for her novel Americanah and more recently, a small booklet called We Should All Be Feminists. I had read none of them when I heard her speak (although I promptly bought both of these titles afterwards). I had only heard interviews with her and was mesmerized.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

When she walked out onto the stage in a bright yellow dress, her hair piled high on her head, I was struck by her poise and elegance. She reminded me of an old time movie star brought to life in technicolour. Her smile was genuine and I smiled back along with the two thousand other women in the room. The first question from the facilitator was about something Adichie had said about sexism needing more attention than racism. The facilitator challenged her, kindly, to explain how that could be the case. Unfazed, Adichie told how in her personal circles when issues of racism are discussed, everyone nods and agrees it is a problem but when she talks of sexism and gender inequality she is hushed and told she is being too sensitive, too dramatic. The invisible pervasiveness of sexism is what makes it so dangerous. It is hard to fight an enemy no one wants to see.

Adichie spoke easily, confident in her ideas and comfortable even in front of the crowd. Perhaps the energy in the room put her at ease. Could she feel that we were hanging on her every word? Did she know the way she was inspiring us? One of the last questions from the audience confronted her on a statement she had made about women of trans experience. I had to look the quote up later to understand the story. In a previous interview, Adichie was asked if trans women are real women. Instead of saying “yes, of course” as many wanted and expected her to, she pointed out that trans women have different experiences than cis women. During the talk, she expanded on this saying that there is plenty of room for the experiences of trans women in feminism and that it is not necessary for all women to have the same experiences to support each other and ensure feminism is inclusive. She maintained her position that the experiences of sexism for trans and cis women are different—I find this hard to argue with but I recognize my limited cis gender view.

I left the talk feeling uplifted, empowered, in exactly the way I had hoped. This eloquent and thoughtful woman was making all the arguments for feminism that I had in my head but struggled to put words to. In the way I think many women feel about feminism, I felt a sense of solidarity with Adichie despite the wildly different experiences we’ve had. It was validating to hear a woman with views so similar to my own speak to them with such power.

Article by Claire Ryder