Within the first twenty hours of gaining widespread traction online, the hashtag #metoo garnered 4.7 million mentions on Facebook in Australia alone. The phrase has since become a rallying cry for women, genderqueer and non-binary people from all walks of life who, through a remarkable feat of collective consensus, have come to signify a watershed movement for the ways through which we talk about the insidious presence of sexual assault and harassment across many cultures. Before it was popularised by the actor Alyssa Milano in October, the phrase ‘me too’ in this context was first coined over a decade ago by the American social activist Tarana Burke, who has worked for over 25 years to amplify the voices of survivors of sexual violence, women of colour in particular, who have endured assault and exploitation. The year after she coined the hashtag, Burke founded Just Be Inc. in 2007, a nonprofit organisation that provides support and solidarity for survivors of sexual assault, young people chief amongst them.
In March next year, Burke will feature prominently on the lineup for All About Women, appearing in conversation with the pioneering journalist Tracey Spicer as part of one event in the Sydney Opera House’s annual symposium of groundbreaking ideas as forged by extraordinary women held, as always, in the lead up to International Women’s Day. Burke’s hashtag and International Women’s Day, with its attendant Woman’s March events staged globally, became some of the most talked about topics in the media, both social and traditional, not only in Australia but around the globe this year. Given the current cultural climate and the events of the past year, it would appear as though an event such as this be both as necessary and daunting to stage than ever before.
“I think it’s going to be a cracker,” Edwina Throsby, Head of Talks & Ideas at the Sydney Opera House, recently told GRAZIA. “I really wanted this festival to be a response to all that [has happened this year]. For me, it was really [about] looking to the United States because what is going on there is having such a massive impact on the rest of us in the Anglo-sphere at the moment. I thought that it was worth spending a little time looking at how the Trump administration is effecting the women of the world; how #MeToo has spread globally and how it is going to change things.” Formerly the TEDxSydney Head of Curation, Throsby has crafted her inaugural program just as much around issues that would benefit from a feminist perspective as those that would also benefit from an understanding of intersectionality – the understanding that a brand of feminism that privileges primarily white, cisgendered, middle class and able-bodied experiences does not reflect the enormity of experiences faced by women from different backgrounds.
“It was really important for me that women from a number of different backgrounds were included; that people who didn’t identify necessarily as women, genderqueer and non-binary trans people, had a really strong voice in this program,” says Throsby. “I think a lot of the concerns of feminism are the same as a lot of the concerns of queer people and people of colour, and sometimes feminism historically hasn’t been very good at including those voices. It was really important for me in this program that those voices were front and centre and really strong.” As such, the festival features a panel on disability and intersectionality helmed by disability advocate and NDIS campaigner Samantha Connor and Kath Duncan, a writer, performer and advocate for disability pride. Another panel, on the intersection of gender, politics and identity, and how feminism can be more trans-friendly, will feature British trans activist and performer CN Lester, former radio presenter Eddie Ayres and the comedian and performer Jordan Raskopoulos.
Throsby’s own passions and the conversations that she says she finds herself engaging in with her contemporaries also factored into the curatorial process. It’s nothing short of a coup that the cultural critic Fran Lebowitz has been enlisted to appear on a panel with Burke on women in the age of Trump, in addition to appearing in conversation on the topic of cultural nostalgia – one on which she is a singular authority. That the Vanity Fair contributing editor, writer, critic and iconoclast will make her maiden voyage to Australia on occasion of the festival is not only a thrill for Throsby on a personal level but is indicative of a larger thematic concern for the festival more broadly.
“One of the things that I wanted to explore thematically with this festival is the idea that you can look back and see how things have been, and you can also look forward [to see] what they can be,” Throsby says, “Fran is the perfect person to do that. Even though she has been around for decades, she still has a voice that, if anything, is increasingly relevant for our times now.” Another author appearing at the festival, Kate Bolick, who several years ago wrote All the single ladies, an explosive article in the Atlantic that examined the broader cultural reasons for why there are vastly more single women now than there have ever been before, will act as a similar conduit to the exchange between past and present. Discussing her book Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, Bolick will examine at how icons from history carved out lives for themselves that didn’t require male partnership before exploring how those findings can be applied in a contemporary context.
Closer to home, Throsby considers that its a goal of the festival to establish itself as a place where agendas are set in the context of discussions happening within our region. Wai Wai Nu, a human rights lawyer from Myanmar and a former political prisoner of the recent military regime who has founded a number of women-focussed organisations in her home country, will address the Rohingyan refugee crisis, one of the most egregious wars in terms of the crimes committed against women in recent times. Ursula Rakova and Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, social workers campaigning on the behalf of some six thousand islanders facing climate refugee status as their low-lying Pacific homelands disappear under rising tides, will discuss how they’re affecting change in practical ways. That means working to ensure their entire communities can be solar powered, as well as looking at the logistics of relocating how they can relocate from the Carteret Islands to Papua New Guinea as living there in the long term has become completely unsustainable.
“A lot of the activism in these communities is being lead by women, so it was a matter of looking to a situation to find out who are the people doing the activism, who are the women working at a community level to affect change in their communities and help families in very practical ways,” Throsby says. “[Here] we have arguments in our parliament about whether climate change is caused by human behaviour and these people are living in communities where they have evolved so far past that out of necessity.”
The program, wide ranging and often solemn seeming as it is, is not all “earnest, ‘the world is terrible'” says Throsby. The introduction of a food program is something she has been considering for quite some time for the depths it speaks to the festival’s broader concerns. Alex Elliot-Howery of the Cornersmith cafés in Sydney and Harriet Leigh, manager of Archie Rose, will lead masterclasses in pickling and bespoke gin distillation respectively. A block party featuring a collection of DJs, live sets, performances from female-lead local and emerging artists will send off the event with “a big knees-up to allow people to decompress and talk after the day.
“One of the things that I wanted to do with All About Women this year was provide people with places to actually talk to each other,” says Throsby. “To get to know each other and other people in our community. People return year after year and that speaks to the presence of a community and those people need a place that isn’t just about being in a talk, to cut up vegetables, drink gin or dance and do those things that aren’t talk-related but are about those ideas”
The one day festival, now its fifth year, is run along lines of ticketed sessions structured in a way that encourages visitors to buy multi-packs, with discounts offered to incentivise participation in the many facets of the program on offer. “Most of these festivals have a price point that starts at $250 a day, and can go up into the thousands,” says Throsby, “Whereas with All About Women we’ve carefully designed the program to make sure that people can finish one event and don’t have long to wait until they can join another. People can choose their own adventure on the day and find a program that they really love. I hope that people come out of this with the idea that they are not alone within a community of people who are interested in ideas and believe that ideas can make change. I hope that they find connections. I hope that collaborations come out of this day. I hope that people walk away from the day feeling optimistic in what are overall pretty difficult times.”
All About Women takes place Sunday March 4 at the Sydney Opera House. More information is available here.
Tile image: Brigitte Lacombe/Courtesy of All About Women
Cover image: Deborah Frances White/Courtesy of All About Women