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Let’s hear it for the girls! Meet WOW founder, Jude Kelly

Muddy meets Jude Kelly CBE, founder of the WOW Foundation, and the annual Women of the World Festival which celebrates the lives of us bloody marvellous women and girls, and tackles our shared challenges.

The former artistic director of London’s Southbank and founder of WOW (Women of the World Festival), Jude Kelly CBE is one busy woman. Having already hosted two festivals in 2020 – including the first ever WOW online with luminaries including Sandi Toksvig and Australia’s former PM Julia Gillard – and talks on everything from chore wars to emergency haircut workshops – she’s now working on a third: WOW’s first global (and completely free) festival, convening 1000s over 24 hrs to tackle the challenges #COVID19 presents to gender equality.

Muddy tracked her down – at home, obvs – to find out more.

Credit Ellie Kurttz

Congrats on organising your first ever online WOW last month. How did it go?

As with all WOW festivals, it’s a celebration of what women have achieved – it can’t just be about the misery of inequality. We go to both places: how can we save the world and how do we cut our hair? Discussing the chore wars is very interesting as lockdown has put ‘who does what’ under the microscope. In some households lockdown has produced some new ways of doing things and in some, huge rows.

I loved the emergency haircut workshop. How’s yours looking?

I have a go at my fringe with a pair of nail scissors, otherwise I look like a sheepdog! But I like the fact we’re all in this together. There is that saying ‘bring yourself to work’ but seeing everybody in their own home, in their pyjamas for Zoom meetings is more intimate. You get to know people differently. I don’t mind it. It’s a great leveller. 

How did you get Australian PM Julia Gillard on board?

She’s been to quite a few WOW Festivals so I already knew her. I think her misogyny speech shocked and influenced so many people. It’s rare for women in positions of power to do that. They behave well, like women have always been taught to do or in case they get accused of having a chip on their shoulder. When she stopped behaving well, there was the thrill of recognition seeing a leader take her power.

If you could swap Trump and Boris for female leaders who would you elect?

Julia Gillard was born in Wales and had to give up her citizenship to become the Australian PM so maybe we could persuade her to swap back again. In America, almost anybody would be better. If Hillary Clinton had been in charge we’d be in a completely different position. I think we’re lacking elder statespeople. We need team leadership not one hero, people with massive world connections but with nothing to gain. That’s the ugly thing that’s emerging from this – everybody in it for themselves. 

What can you tell us about the first global online WOW festival?

It’s the last weekend in June and by then the impact of Covid will have been factored in though not completely understood, that’s going to take a long time. It will have launched some things forward and set things backwards in other ways. It’s going to be transnational so it’s going to travel as the earth turns, a 24-hour marathon. The focus of the festival will move as the world turns. Viewers can tune into one of two channels – The Global Channel and The Local Channel – streaming live and simultaneously over the 24 hours and building up a worldwide picture of the current situation for girls and women. The programme is designed so that when viewers are watching during daylight hours, events will be generated from the audience’s own part of the world.

WOW was set up to challenge the belief that we already have gender equality. What’s the biggest obstacle women face today?

Even women who are well off will be five times poorer than their male counterparts. When women say they are equal often they mean they are personally comfortable.

Is WOW Exeter coming back?

Yes, definitely. After WOW Global we’re going to look at WOW hubs. One of the things that’s come out of this is we don’t have to be defined by big physical gatherings. We can look beyond it, and use all the energy that’s come out of it. But the idea we’re all going to come out of lockdown in one big idealised moment, like VE Day, I very much doubt it.

What have you learnt in lockdown?

I’ve learnt I can get on amicably with my partner and that I really miss the physical experience of being hugged by and hugging my grand-children. I think I always feel lucky and privileged but that’s become really clear to me now, so I’m also thinking about gratitude. It’s made me feel very powerless and that’s made me feel now is the time to be bold. It’s now or never. You can’t sit here and do nothing when it’s clear that lockdown is affecting girls and women disproportionately.

Has lockdown been gender equal for you? Who’s doing the chores at home?

It’s just me and my partner and he’s just told me to get out of the house so he can finish the mopping! He doesn’t like cooking though so I tend to do that.

For mums of boys – any tips to turn them into woke men?

You have to start when they’re little. Avoid language like, “Don’t be a girl” although when they hit school that slips into messages like, ‘Be brave’. It’s more difficult than with girls to have deep conversations so it’s about getting across that maleness is positive but not oppressive. Let them know they’re a fantastic boy because they’re not dominating, and not that they’re a toxic male because that just creates huge hostility. 

And for mums of girls, what book or play would you suggest they see?

It depends on what age they are but maybe a book of women’s history. Girls suffer from feeling their history starts now – which is very lonely – and that their only positive role models are Elizabeth 1st and Marie Curie. Get them to read history so they understand women existed before them.

Tell me about your new WOW podcast?

Yes, it should be launching soon, we’re just going through it now to be make sure it doesn’t feel too pre-Covid! The idea is it’s a festival in a podcast: variety, celebratory, interesting interviews, plus how-to-do stuff.

Where do you keep your CBE?

No-one has ever asked me that! I keep it under the bed in a drawer. You can wear them but I’ve never had the opportunity. I’m also Knight of Denmark so maybe one day I’ll get an invitation over there and get to wear it. 

Want more? Don’t miss WOW – Women of the World’s 24 Hour Global Virtual Festival, the first ever female-focused worldwide festival, convening women and girls across the earth over a 24-hour period to share their local stories, celebrate achievements and together look for learnings to map out new ways to think on 27th-28th June (BST).

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