move over london! women of the world festival is coming to hull this weekend too

From trailblazing musicians to female boxing champions of the 1950s, Hull celebrates a history of phenomenal women with a specially curated WOW Festival this weekend.

by Matthew Whitehouse
08 March 2017, 8:57am

Many amazing things happening in Hull this year as its twelve month reign of UK City of Culture begins to pick up speed. There's already been an Anthony Minghella retrospective and the first part of contemporary theatre festival, now comes WOW Hull: a special edition of the Southbank's annual Women of the World Festival, uprooted and moved to the Yorkshire city for one weekend only. It's all happening at the same time as the London version - this very weekend, in fact - but with a specially curated line-up based on some of the city's most trailblazing women. From "Battling" Barbara Buttrick, Hull's 1950s boxing world champion, to Maureen Lipman CBE and the Great British Bake-off's Nancy Birtwhistle (!), we had a nice chat with festival programmer Madeleine O'Reilly to see what it's all about and why now's as good a time as any to make a trip to Hull and back.

What is Women of the World Festival?
Women of the World festival is a multi-artform and talks festival created about five or six years ago by the Southbank's Jude Kelly in response to the fact that people were saying, why are things still unequal? And why is it still taking so long to get true equality despite all our other advancements? So, it was a way of bringing people together to have conversations, to address issues but also to celebrate the achievements that have been made. Yes there is a bit of anger, yes there is passion, yes there are positive actions that can be made, but it's also about empowering people to make changes in their everyday lives so that we can go towards gender equality.

How did the decision to hold a version in Hull come about?
Basically, the team at Hull 2017 wanted to curate four key festivals which would look at the state of things from gender equality, to politics to a number of other different issues. And it was a way of bringing people together and bringing people to Hull to respond to their questions and their energies. Women of the World is the first one this month. And, I think, particularly for Hull, it's so important that we've got a platform to talk about these issues. To actually start raising these conversations so that people don't feel undervalued or uninformed.

How important is it that these conversations take place outside of the capital?
I think it's vitally important. We look at situations in politics and in the news and see that it's so easy for cities outside of London to feel disconnected. Having these events and these festivals and these ways of having a conversation brings it to everybody and onto their doorstep and actually allows them to make their own minds up or take ownership for some of these issues.

You mention the news... In what was is the festival particularly crucial in light of what's been happening socially and politically of late?
I think it's about empowering. It's about empowering individuals. And it's about creating a platform so that they can, not only have their voice heard, but also access information with which they can continue the conversation. At the start of this process - and she's going to kill me for mentioning this - I asked my mother what was her biggest bugbear about being a woman in 2017. She said she felt insignificant. These festivals hopefully allow people to have their voice heard and to make a real change.

What are some of the main things that are happening?
One of the key things is that we've got Lucy Beaumont and Maureen Lipman - who the city is very, very proud of - in a live performance of To Hull And Back, written by Lucy, set in Hull and staring them both. It's a brilliant thing to be able to celebrate that. And the other things that we're doing is celebrating Hull's trail blazers. So, these amazing, unsung heroes that nobody knows about really. We're taking the opportunity to celebrate Barbara Buttrick, for example, who was the World Featherweight Champion in the 1950s and 1960s and came from Hull. We're celebrating the music of Ethel Leginska who was also from Hull and was an amazing composer and conductor. And then we're celebrating some of our other trailblazers like Karen Briggs, Nancy Birtwhistle, Val Wood. A whole host amazing women.

What do you hope people take away from the festival?
I think it's about two things. One, that people find ways of having these conversations, which I think aren't necessarily the easiest to have on a day to day level. And two, that every audience member or participant who engages with Women of the World feels empowered enough to make some change. Whether that's on an everyday level of, I'm just going to have a chat about something or challenge somebody catcalling me in the street. Or just being aware of the fact that the gender pay gap exists. It's making sure everybody feels like they are connected to the issues.

WOW Hull runs from Friday 10 - Sunday 12 March at various city centre locations and tickets are available from


Text Matthew Whitehouse

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