—Written by Anne Mobbs (12.9.2011):

“I co-founded the Oxford International Women’s Festival in 1989.

I called a meeting of women from local community groups and the trades council and we formed a Collective to ascertain what kind of events women would like to put on. It was a success right from the start and the City Council were delighted at the publicity it generated.

The Collective included women from local Black and Asian community groups who put on their own events. The Festival also gave profile to community groups such as Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse and Oxon Women’s Aid which was important to the women in the Collective.

The first Festival included Thalia Campbells’s exhibition of 100 years of women’s banners and over 100 banners were hung in every public space in the Town Hall which created a real stir! Over the years, Waterstones, Blackwell’s, Modern Art Oxford, and the museums all joined in and put on annual events which enabled the Collective to include Germaine Greer, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Yoko Ono in the programme. This meant that the Festival attracted around 10,000 people annually.

Virago, the women’s publishers, put on several annual events in Oxford and Jenni Murray of Women’s Hour helped to fundraise in the Oxford Union when the Festival was short of money one year. One spectacular year, the Victoria and Albert Museum sent wall hangings from the Mughal Tent Project to hang in the Town Hall. These were made by Asian women from around the UK as part of local community projects and encouraged our local banner workshops.

Over its twenty-two years, the Oxford International Women’s Festival has provided scope to women artists, theatre groups, and community organizations, and has encouraged creative and political development. It has raised issues which concern women from different countries and the problems they face. A particularly memorable moment was the Seeking a Place of Refuge evening in the Town Hall when actress Diana Rigg read from a book of poems by local women refugees published by the Women’s Festival. The Lord Mayor held a reception as part of the event for all women refugees involved in Asylum Welcome. A truly international women’s occasion.”


A Brief History of the Oxford International Women’s Festival.

By Dr Katherine Bradley

 Historical and Political Background.

In order to understand how the Oxford International Festival was created it is important to understand the 1980’s context, since it was created twenty-nine years ago (1989). Ten years earlier Britain’s first Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher was elected and the Conservative Party remained in power until 1997. This government was not interested in equality or feminism, instead their policies were dominated by neo-liberalism, that is, market economics, competition and individualism. However it was also a period when there was popular opposition to the government in spite of their parliamentary majority. This opposition came from feminists, the trade unions, Labour local councils and a variety of pressure groups opposing specific government policies such as the poll tax. It was a period when all kinds of equality continued to be debated after the achievements made in the 1970s, such as the Equal Pay and Equality Act (1970) and the Sex Discrimination Act (1975) which were undermined by Conservative policies The Conservative version of equal opportunities was individualism, that is, everyone had equal opportunities and it was up to each individual to make the most of her/his opportunity.

One of the main opposition groups to the government were the large Metropolitan local authorities. They had large budgets and the will to set up new and radical forms of opposition and campaigns. The most notable was the Greater London Council (GLC) which in 1982 set up a Women’s Committee with a large budget. Many other local authorities followed suit including Oxford. I helped set up a Women’s Committee in 1984. Its aim was to coordinate policies which effected women and ensure where possible that the City Council would co-ordinate and finance various positive policies such as a Women’s Training Scheme for women who wanted to enter the building trade or gain IT skills and support for the Rape Crisis Centre. This Women’s Committee was a Council sub-committee which not only included women councillors but also representatives from different women’s groups from across the City. It was also a women only committee which caused much derision from some male councillors. It was given a small budget and could recommend policies on various issues. One of the first things it did was to persuade the Council to change its language in official documents so that the language used was gender neutral rather than male dominated. In 1989 it set up the Oxford International Women’s Festival which was financed by the Council as part of their inclusive leisure city wide programme. They also paid for the City Council leisure personnel to help co-ordinate the Festival together with a committee which soon became known as a collective. It was decided to hold this Festival in March with a focus on March 8th, Women’s International Day. The Council employee was Anne Mobbs who had experience in organising events and campaigns and until recently remained involved in the Festival.

March 8th International Women’s Day.

March 8th was chosen as a focus for the Festival. This was based on a women’s festival, organised by the GLC. On March 8th, 1907, New York women garment workers marched throughout the city to demand shorter working hours, better pay and votes for women. They were dispersed by the police. The following year on the same date women needle workers demonstrated in New York against sweated and child labour. In 1910 at the Second Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen, Clara Zetkin, a leading German socialist, feminist and a leader of the International Socialist Women’s movement, proposed that every year in every country there should be a women’s day to celebrate women’s achievements and highlight their inequalities. Her proposal was passed unanimously by the 100 delegates who represented seventeen countries, and various unions, socialist parties and women’s clubs. The designated day was March 19th. In 1911 this was celebrated by over a million women and men in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. However a little later, on March 25th the Triangle Fire took place in New York and killed 140 mainly immigrant women. This resulted in the Bread and Roses campaign which focused attention on women’s working conditions and labour legislation. In Russia the first women’s day was held in 1913 on the last day of February. In 1917 this was transferred to March 8th when Russian working women went on strike using the slogan Bread and Peace. Four days later the Tsar abdicated. Since then March 8th has been designated as International Women’s Day and the day has gradually become a worldwide celebration. After the Second World War and the founding of the United Nations (UN), the UN has held an annual conference on March 8th to co-ordinate international efforts for women’s rights and their participation in social, political and economic life. 1975 was designated by the UN as International Women’s Year. Since the 1980s the day has changed from a reminder of the negatives affecting women to a celebration of the improvements in women’s lives and their achievements. 1000s of events take place all over the world and even the google search engine changes its logo on March 8th!

Oxford International Women’s Festival

The focus has always been to make the Festival as international as possible, since Oxford is an international City. It has also been equally important to include as many women’s groups and individuals from the City and both universities. This is to ensure that the Festival is as diverse and inclusive as possible.

From its inception the Festival has lasted between two to three weeks. Each year it has invited women’s groups to participate from all over Oxford. Oxford City Council has always supported it although the financial support has dwindled. However over the last few years on March 8th International Women’s Day is celebrated in the Town Hall free of charge. Trade unions have also supported it financially although again this varies.  Other sources of finance have been the Co-operative Society, both universities, Ruskin College and committee members as well as a miscellany of organisations who have paid for advertising in the programme.

The programme is co-ordinated by a committee which has an elected chair, treasurer and secretary. It meets monthly to organize the annual programme. For the last three years there has been a part-time paid co-ordinator.

Until 2004 the programme put together did not follow any theme, although March 8th has always been celebrated in various forms in the Town Hall.  For the millennium it was decided to celebrate local women’s achievements. This included the publication of a book based on interviews to represent different women from all over Oxford in An Everyday Story of Women. A Century of Women’s Lives in Oxford (which included a Photographic exhibition in Cowley Centre), an exhibition based on Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party and the Women’s Millennium Plays at Pegasus, commissioned by the Festival and financed by the Millennium Festival Awards for All.

From 2004 it was decided to have an appropriate theme each year that would help widen participation and bring in a different selection of groups as well as maintaining some core events such as the annual Dorothy Hodgkins Lecture organised by Yasmin Robson(AWISE) and Somerville College. Themes included Feast or Famine which was about food, and was followed by Fabric of Society mainly clothes, their production and a fashion show with a difference.  (See the website for earlier programmes and details). The Festival has always included a mix of plays, exhibitions, book launches, walks, science events, sport, concerts, and debates anything which will raise debate on women’s issues and showcase their creativity. The Festival also has two banners created in the 1990s. It has also supported

Many women have given up their time, energy and creativity to ensure that the festival has survived.  These include Anne Mobbs, Christine Eady, Alison Manning, Debbie McIlveen, Eileen Cameron-Kirby, Anna Hobson, Debbie Hollingsworth, Emma Jones and Tracy Walsh.

Other UK Women’s Festivals.

Apart from Manchester the Oxford Festival is the longest running International Women’s Festival. Others come and go and at the moment exist in Dundee, Perth, Peterborough, Bristol (now a women’s literature festival), York, Derby and Halifax and of course London – WOW – now Women of the World which is held on the South Bank for one day and broadcast by the BBC, that is Woman’s Hour.

Katherine Bradley, 2018