Q&A with Sally Wainwright of the Audacious Women Festival

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The Audacious Women Festival kicks off in Edinburgh this Thursday (22 February), with 20 events over 5 days which call on participants to “do what you always wish you dared”.

This seemed like a perfect match with the Young Women’s Movement blog, so I caught up with one of the festival’s founders, Sally Wainwright, to find out more about where it all began, where it might be headed, and how we might learn from the audaciousness she has demonstrated in bringing such an amazing idea to life!

(If you’re interested in attending any of the events, check out the full programme and booking details here.)


What made you decide to start the Audacious Women festival?

A friend and I were having coffee in the spring of 2015 and she told me she’d done something earlier that day that she’d wanted to do for a long time, but hadn’t dared. She said doing it made her feel very audacious. Then she suggested we have a social media event to encourage other women to do their own audacious act . Somehow that grew into the idea of an event in Edinburgh, with workshops that would empower women and provide an opportunity to try out new things, and also to celebrate the achievements of audacious women – exhibitions, performances etc.

Starting a whole new festival yourself is pretty audacious in itself. How did you go about making that idea a reality?

There was only one – if major – flaw with our brilliant idea. Which was that we had no money and no resources. We realised we couldn’t do anything on our own, and decided on a partnership approach, where we’d basically persuade other organisations to arrange and fund events (and, we mistakenly thought, do all the work!) and we would “badge” them as part of the Festival. Thinking back, I’m not sure why we thought anyone would play along, but we acted confident and knowledgeable (even when we didn’t feel it) and it seems to have worked.

Personally, I probably owe the fact that I was able to do this to my old headteacher, Miss Bradshaw. I bumped into her when I was truanting from a class one day. Instead of hiding in a corner (there wasn’t a corner anywhere nearby), I smiled and she smiled back and said Good Morning Sally. That taught me that if you act like what you’re doing is right, other people will think it is too, and even support it. I guess it’s also known as “Fake it till you make it”. That’s what we did with the Festival.

We started by talking to a few friends to see if they would like to join us. But even before we had our first meeting I walked into an entertainment organisation and told the event manager that we were planning a festival and would they like to be part of it. She said yes! Just like that! On the back of that we went to the Scottish Storytelling Centre with the same message, and of course it helped that we could say we already had some support. SSTC were also keen to be involved, and very quickly arranged three Audacious Women events. And suddenly we had a Festival on our hands.

Unfortunately the first organisation then pulled out, and for a horrible time it seemed like there would only be the SSTC events which would have been very embarrassing. But we persisted, talking to people as if they Festival was a real thing – not just a figment of our imaginations – and by the end, we had involvement from more than a dozen organisations, providing 22 events, over 10 days.

Good luck also played a part – although I think the fact that everyone we spoke to thought it was a great idea helped that luck on its way. I was advertising for a lodger and by coincidence one of my visitors was a graphic design lecturer who put us in touch with an ex-student who volunteered to create a logo for us and set up the website. The City Art Centre allowed us to use their premises for the workshops. And then one of the organisations involved unexpectedly offered us a small grant, which meant that we could print some leaflets and, more importantly, pay our workshop leaders rather than having to ask them to work for free.

By the time the first Festival happened in February 2016, word was getting out and people started to contact us directly to ask if they could be involved. This year we’ve rebuilt the website so everything works better, which has made life a lot easier. And even though this year’s Festival hasn’t started yet, I’ve already had 5 enquiries from women who’d like to be involved next year.

What would be your message to young women wondering whether they too could do something this awesome – or their very own version of an “audacious act”?

Everyone’s audacious act is different, depending on their starting point and what they want to achieve. Something that’s really hard for me, for example, might be something you do every day. So I can only answer in a general way.

The most difficult thing seems to be taking the first step. Maybe because somehow you have to break out of whatever barriers are holding you back – even if it’s just putting a toe outside – and believe that there is at least a faint possibility that you will be able to achieve your goal. You don’t need to know all the steps on the path, just start to head in the right direction, and the others will often follow in unexpected ways.

But it’s not necessarily easy to take that first step on your own. So if there’s something you really want to do, my advice would be to start to talk to people about it, just even saying it’s something you really want, that it’s important to you. Eventually someone will offer to do it with you, or support you, or show you a way of getting there. In my case, for example, I was told from when I was very wee that I can’t sing and should keep quiet, or just mouth the words. Which is what I did all my life, but I always wished I could join in. I was telling a friend that my audacious act would be to have a singing lesson, but that I was much too scared and embarrassed to do that. Completely unexpectedly my friend said “I can’t sing either. Arrange a lesson and I’ll come with you”. So I was stuck. I had to go ahead, even though I would never have been able to do it on my own. One thing led to another (though that’s a different story) and two years later I’m going along to a singing group.

Secondly, I’d say it’s easy to get discouraged when things don’t work out immediately, but if you really believe in an idea, don’t be persuaded too easily to give up your dream. Hopefully people won’t laugh at you or try to put down your first attempts. If they do, find other people to talk to about it instead. Very little is impossible or too absurd. I know a woman who learnt the flying trapeze in her 70’s.

Too often women are stopped by the barriers that are put in our way, sometimes for no reason other than that we are women. I’d say, don’t let that be you. Believe in yourself and Do What You Always Wish You Dared.

We have several events at the Festival that might support women to start on their own audacious journeys. And we’re always happy to talk to women about their ideas too.

Are there any events in the festival this year that you’re especially excited about?

We have a workshop called Make It Happen! which is all about supporting women to take those first steps to performing their own audacious act – to help them come up with a plan of action, and to support each other to do it. That really excites me because it’s so central to our values and purpose.

As well as that, I’m really looking forward to The Preaching Divas, with Ali Affleck and her band. Ali has researched the history of some of the early female pioneers of jazz and blues and is going to share their stories and music. I’ve seen her perform before, so I know what a great night it’ll be.

Other than that we have a wonderful range of workshops, from performance art to building a website to creative writing. We hope all women will find something that excites them personally.

What can we expect from the Audacious Women festival in the future – is this set to be a permanent fixture in the annual Edinburgh calendar?

Huh, that’s a question I ask myself after every Festival. Partly it will depend on resources, so watch this space.

One of the things I would like to develop more, is to hear about women’s own audacious acts. As I said, our aim is to encourage women to “Do What You Always Wish You Dared”. We know this happens as a result of what we do – women have told us how they changed career, wrote a novel, spoke in public, asked for a payrise, and one even started her own local festival after being inspired by the Audacious Women Festival. But I suspect there are many more stories out there to be told, and I’d love for us to be able to capture them to help inspire other women. We have a page on our website Audacious Acts, where women can tell their stories or make a pledge to commit their own act of audacity. But it’s nowhere near as developed as I’d like. So we’d be delighted to hear from any of your readers who would like to share their experiences or dreams with us (anonymously of course).

Finally, are there any audacious women who have inspired you – and why?

I guess the first audacious woman in my life was my grandmother, who left school at 14 to keep the accounts for the family business and ended up, with her sister, running a business making women’s clothing in the West End of London. She learnt to drive in her 60s despite her lessons being interrupted for 3 months when she broke her wrist. I don’t think she ever in her life took “no” for an answer.

And I was always interested in the women who were branded as witches in medieval times. They were very often strong, outspoken women, sometimes healers or midwives, sometimes challenging the conventions of their time. Fortunately today audacious women are no longer burnt at the stake, though they may often still be reviled. So I was particularly delighted that last year the Festival included a flashmob in the Grassmarket – where so many women were killed – which honoured them. We sang The Witches Reel which uses words spoken by women at a trial for witchcraft, while holding placards with the names of some of the murdered witches.

We’ve all been hearing a lot about the suffragettes recently, with the centenary of some women’s right to vote. But I continue to be inspired by women doing amazing things which, if you look, happens every day. Being audacious doesn’t necessarily mean doing something that is traditionally “brave” or “daring” like doing a parachute jump (though the oldest member of our collective did, to celebrate her 70th birthday).

For example, there was Delia Derbyshire , a pioneer of electronic music in the 1960’s, who arranged the iconic theme music for Dr Who, but who had been refused a job at Decca because they didn’t employ female engineers. There are the women who first dared to speak out about sexual abuse within the film industry, which has led to a much wider debate. And this week Lizzy Yarnold and Laura Deas won Gold and Bronze medals in the Skeleton, which is the first time GB sportspeople have ever won two medals in one Winter Olympic event.

And now I’m really looking forward to being inspired by all the audacious women who are taking part in this year’s Festival. I can’t wait to see what they’re going to achieve.

Pictures courtesy of Ali Affleck, Sarah Donley and Audacious Women Festival

Caitlin Logan is our Volunteer Blog Editor. She studied English and Politics at uni, followed by Equality and Human Rights. Fast forward through a few short years and she now works as as a reporter for CommonSpace. She likes writing, reading, Netflix binges, and roller skating – because she has to do something that sounds like a real hobby. Find her on Twitter @_CaitLogan.

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