THE Oxford International Women’s Festival (OIWF) began in 1990 with a meeting between women from local community groups and the trades council.

A quarter of a century on, the two-week event now has the honour of being the country’s longest annual festival of its kind.

Originally funded by Oxford City Council as part of its events programme, the festival started small, but was a success right from the start.

The OIWF ‘Collective’, which would become its committee, included women of all backgrounds and ethnicities hosting their own events, and the occasion also gave profile to community groups such as Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse and Oxon Women’s Aid.

The first OIWF in 1990 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 quite a stir.

In subsequent years Waterstone’s, Blackwell’s, Modern Art Oxford, and the city museums all joined in and put on annual events which enabled the Collective to include major figures such as Germaine Greer, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Yoko Ono in the programme – and it wasn’t long before OIWF started to attract 10,000 people annually.

Five years in, Oxford City Council’s funding stopped and the OIWF committee found themselves facing the challenge of funding what had become a hugely popular festival.

Not surprisingly, people stepped up.

As well as a committed band of volunteers who would (and still do) juggle the festival around their own jobs, studies, children and other obligations, public figures also lent their help.

Jenni Murray of Women’s Hour helped to fundraise in the Oxford Union when the festival was short of money one year.

And the Victoria and Albert Museum in London 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 the festival’s ongoing, local banner workshops.

This year, the 25th milestone will be celebrated from March 5-16 with the theme Changes for Women, Women Making Changes.

Featuring around 30 events including exhibitions, workshops, topical talks, performances and social events celebrating women’s achievements in sport, science, politics, health, film, literature, theatre and more, highlights include the main festival event at Oxford Town Hall, which will feature a mix of music, dance, poetry and storytelling; The 50th Anniversary Dorothy Hodgkin Memorial Lecture; and a showcase of female film-makers from around the world.

One of the event’s main organisers, and Oxfordshire County Unison branch’s women’s officer, Debbie Hollingsworth, said: “I have been involved in OIWF for about 10 years and I, like most people involved with it, am very proud of how big it has become.

“My favourite event is always the main event at the Town Hall, because it is such a celebration of women’s achievements. But events like the Reclaim the Night Rally are also extremely powerful in their message that violence against women is still very much understated. And the many smaller events dotted across the county each highlight such great work being done, often without us realising.”

She continued: “A lot of hard work goes into organising the festival each year – we rely completely on volunteers.

“And in the last eight years or so we have been very pleased to see more community and voluntary organisations coming on board.

“In the current climate, when many of these groups are facing funding cuts, the festival will become even more vital in its role of offering them support.”

Over the years, OIWF has provided scope to women artists, theatre groups, and community organisations, and has encouraged creative and political development.

Founding committee member Chris Eady, from South Oxford, said: “I became involved in the festival while working in further education because I saw it as a way of getting young women involved in something which would explore important issues.

“Women’s issues have changed in the past 20 or so years, but some still remain the same – like equal pay and the glass ceiling in some professions, and there is still much work to be done.

“The big campaigns being fought by women at the moment in Oxford concern housing and female genital mutilation and both of these will be discussed and debated in this year’s festival.

“But I think it is also important to recognise this festival is also about women’s achievements – the many women who are working tirelessly in their communities and deserve our recognition.”

Debbie Hollingsworth is overseeing a special event for this year which will look to highlight the work of some of these remarkable women.

She said: “Oxford has many inspirational women and we want to hear about women living or working in Oxford who are inspiring others.”

Ms Hollingsworth is inviting submissions of 100–250 words from people nominating women in their community.

Entries are to be submitted by 5pm on March 16 and sent by email to oxfordwomen@ or posted to Debbie Hollingsworth, 1 Stratfield Road, Oxford.

On Saturday, March 8 – International Women’s Day – the festival is also planning a ‘top-secret’ event for the city centre.

Ms Hollingsworth said: “All I can say at the moment is that it will be a large, participatory event, in the centre of Oxford, which will create quite a stir.

“We want as many women as possible to come down and join us and we are encouraging them to follow us on Twitter @OxIntWomensFest, friend us on Facebook ( or check out the festival website nearer the time for details.”

Looking at the life of suffragette Emily

EMILY Wilding Davison, the suffragette who famously threw herself in front of the King’s horse at the 1913 Derby, is the subject of a new play being screened as part of this year’s festival.

The play, Emily – The Making of a Militant Suffragette, by The Production Exchange, will be screened at Ruskin College in Headington, on the last night of the festival, Tuesday, March 11.

Tracy Walsh, academic co-ordinator of law at Ruskin College, said: “Last year was the centenary of Emily Wilding Davison’s death and this play is a fascinating look at her life leading up to what was her martyrdom for suffrage.”


  • Tracy Walsh, left, and Dr Ruth Percy promote the film
  • Picture: OX65313 Jon Lewis

She added: “I have been involved with the festival for about five years now and I think I would sum it up as a celebration which brings together and highlights the achievements of women the world over.

“Nowhere outside Oxford has a festival that lasts two weeks and offers so much, and we are really looking forward to this film being a part of this year’s exciting programme.”

Tickets cost £7.50 and £5 from the Pegasus Theatre Box Office on 01865 812150.

Bethan’s thrilled to join team

ONE of the new faces on the OIWF committee this year is Bethan James, 26, who lives in Cowley.

She said: “I recently moved to Oxford to work for the Playhouse Theatre. I heard about the festival and knew straight away that I wanted to get involved.

"There are so many great events to be part of this year, including the showcase of female film-makers at the Phoenix Theatre and the celebration at the Asian Cultural Centre in Manzil Way on Friday, March 16, which will feature Asian food, dancing and speakers."


  • Bethan James
  • Picture: OX65312 Jon Lewis

She added: “Coming from outside of Oxford I’m thrilled to be living in a place offering such a unique celebration of women.

“And as a young person becoming involved with the festival it is very inspirational to be working alongside women who have already achieved so much.”


  • Wednesday March 5, 7-9.30 pm Opening Event: Reflections on 25 years of Women’s Achievements and Changes for Women Venue: Buckley Building, Headington Road, Oxford Brookes Campus, Oxford. Entrance: Free. A panel of speakers and audience discussion to mark Changes For Women: Women Making Changes over the last 25 years. Speakers include Megan Dobney, Regional Officer, TUC; Nazila Ghanea, Associate Professor, Human Rights Law, University of Oxford; Ines Smyth and Caroline Sweetman, Gender Advisers, Oxfam UK; plus others. Light refreshments will be provided.
  • Friday March 7, 6.30pm – 8pm Reclaim the Night rally and women’s march The rally moved from its usual slot in November to coincide with OIWF in 2013 and attracts women from all over the region who march to raise awareness of gender violence against women. The march is an empowering event for those identifying as women to reclaim the night, reclaim public spaces, and assert our right to be free to be ourselves. Organiser: Oxford Reclaim the Night:
  • Friday March 7 – 9.30pm OIWF Main Event: Bringing it all back home Venue: Oxford Town Hall, St Aldate’s, OX1 1BX. Entrance: Free (donations to BK Luwo welcome). A chance to honour those heroines, mentors, mothers, sisters, partners and friends who have influenced our journey over the past 25 years with an evening of singing and poetry performance, collective reflection, relaxation, music, dance and life story telling, all provided by local female groups and soloists.
  • Thursday March 6, 10.00am – 5.00pm Women’s Health, Wellbeing & Human Rights Fair (OIWF Stalls Event) Venue: Cowley Wellbeing Centre, 26 Between Towns Road, Oxford, OX4 3LZ. Entrance: Free Women-only workshops but all welcome to event. Childcare provided to cover workshops. Organised by community groups including Refugee Resource women’s group, Oxfordshire – Mind, CCG, Oxford City Amnesty Group and others. Website: