On Saturday 11th March, Newcastle University Students’ Union (NUSU) hosted its third annual ‘Inspiring Women’ Conference with the theme of ‘Be Bold for Change’ to follow in the footsteps of this year’s International Women’s Day.
We made our way to Venue at 9.30 for registration, and knew then how much of a though-provoking and inspiring day it would be. There was a large mix of attendees, from students to staff to members of the public, all there with the same aim: to find out how to be bold and their own inspiring woman. There were all day stalls already set up, with the Hatton Gallery providing postcards for you to express your creativity, free Henna (something that I am now obsessed with!) and live music from Grace Alexander.
The programme for the day detailed a very packed schedule, with some workshops we would have to miss; however all workshops and talks invoked the same message – to celebrate women who have created change and who empower others to do the same.
With our notebooks and pens in hand, we made our way to our seats for the opening address by Professor Kathryn Hollingsworth, Chair of NU Women and Newcastle University Law Professor. Kathryn’s speech was one of many that would stay with me from that day. She spoke to us about her time as a 20-something researcher at the start of her career, and the work place harassment she experienced, all the way to now in her own lecture room where she has faced the same harassment. Kathryn’s message showed that anyone can experience this, and that we should use this as a force for change, whatever the circumstance or wherever the situation.
The first Keynote Speaker of the day was Tina Simbo, a Youth Worker for the Angelou Centre who studied for a Masters in Youth and Community Work at Durham University. Tina addressed many areas in her speech, from the importance of female activism in the Haitian Revolution, to her work in the local community with the ‘Just B Me’ project. Tina explained how for many, you can be privileged and oppressed at the same time. She also spoke about her work with children and teenagers in the local community; and how she had witnessed, even in the most trivial of ways from a group of boys singing a Justin Timberlake song, that there is an unsettling notion that men bond through the degradation of women, and that this is even encouraged through the media.
After the initial Keynote speeches and introduction, we were then able to attend our first workshops. There were four morning sessions from the Young Women’s Trust (Young Women and Work, what are you worth?), Karen Gray (Public Speaking and Leadership), Acorn (Grass roots campaigning) and Zines for Change.
We attended Karen’s Leadership workshop, and found out how she had carved her successful and varied career in Communications, particularly in industries dominated by men. An interesting point was raised in that we may have a predisposition or a talent but it is how we apply ourselves that makes the difference. In the session we learned techniques to develop public speaking and leadership skills, which can be used when creating our own change.
The final Keynote speaker of the morning was Alison Boydell, who spoke passionately about Jill Saward, the UK’s first rape survivor to waive her right to anonymity. Jill, who sadly passed away in January this year, was the survivor of a violent robbery and rape in 1986, a crime for which the perpetrators’ lenient sentences led directly to changes in the law. Alison, who is a lifelong activist and feminist, told of how she founded JURIES with Jill, who made it her mission to change the laws around rape. It was an incredibly sensitive and difficult topic to discuss, and it was heartbreaking to hear of the difficulties they have faced in their challenge of the law, and how even in modern day life rape still carries victim stigmatisation.
During lunch we were able to reflect on the morning sessions. The topics were all so varied and had been very hard hitting at times, but they had already caused us to start a conversation and question how we too could make a change for the better.
After we had our Henna we then moved onto the open discussion with Bridget Hamilton and David Jones. The question posed to the speakers and the audience was: can men be feminists? The conversation took a political turn in the end and the resolution was that of course men can be feminists, but how can they help in the fight to bring feminism to the fore?
The final workshop sessions of the day were hosted be Lucy Morgan (Mental Health in Student Activism) and Zoe Cooper (Telling Female Stories/Failing the Bechdel Test). We opted for Zoe’s session, as the Bechdel Test has always been something that has interested me.
The Bechdel Test asks whether a work of fiction features at least two named women or girls who talk to each other about something other than a man or boy. The workshop featured a lot of group discussion and it was surprising to hear how many stories, plays and films would fail the test. We did learn, however, that ‘Legally Blonde 2’ is a film that would pass the Bechdel Test – it shocked us all! For the rest of the 90 minute session Zoe guided us through 4 monologues with females as the protagonist and we had to ascertain whether they would pass the test and if not, why not. We also practised storytelling techniques and creating a character of our own, be it a fictional character, or using ourselves to centre the story.
After the session we filled out feedback cards for the day on what we enjoyed the most. It was difficult to choose what had inspired us the most as every session and every workshop was so different yet still said the same thing – you can achieve anything you set your mind to.
It was a fantastic and encouraging day and I am looking forward to putting everything that has inspired me into practice.