Sally Wainwright on the Audacious Women Festival

Sally Wainwright is a founder of the Audacious Women Collective. She has had a varied career, working in Women’s Aid, housing, equalities, criminal justice, public consultation and social enterprise. At university she was a founder member of Durham Womens Aid. She set up the Deckchairs Collective which ran annual Scottish Lesbian Gatherings, to support women – and, who knows, possibly even to promote homosexuality – as a response to the notorious Section 28.  Her friends joke (joke?) that she’s a dangerous woman to know because you can’t talk to her for 5 minutes without being roped into doing something for the Audacious Women Festival.


1. Unrestrained by convention or propriety; brazen or insolent;  (

2. Done with extreme confidence, despite difficulties, risks, or the negative attitudes of other people (Macmillan Dictionary)

 The Audacious Women Festival starts on Saturday 18th February.  We will invite, challenge and support women to confront personal, institutional or political barriers and to “Do What You Always Wish You Dared”.

An audacious woman standing political or social convention on its head presents a threat to the established order. The Festival is dangerous because it celebrates and publicises fearless women.  It’s dangerous because it provides, albeit temporarily, women only space. It’s dangerous because it aims to empower women to not be confined by the barriers we face.  And who is more dangerous than an unrestrained woman?


Setting up the first Audacious Women Festival, last February, was an audacious act in itself. We had no money or other resources, and precious little woman-power.   The conversation went something like this:

“We could run some workshops – give women a chance to try something they’ve always wanted to do but never dared.”

“Great idea – but, um, we don’t have any money. Oh, and there’s only two of us”

“No problem! When people see what a brilliant idea it is, they’ll all want to help organise it”

“We can talk to other organisations and invite them to put on their own Audacious Women events, and then we’ll have a Festival.”

And so we did.

The idea  started about 18 months ago, with a chance remark by a friend of mine who told me she’d stood up for herself in a difficult ongoing situation – something she’d been wanting to find the courage to do for a while. “I feel great. Really audacious.” Then, fatefully, she added “wouldn’t it be amazing if we could encourage other women to do something that makes them feel audacious too?”  I loved the idea that we could challenge the conventions and expectations that hold us back.

And so was born the Audacious Women Festival.


Fortunately it turned out that sounding confident was more important than actually being confident when it came to convincing people we had a plan and knew what we were doing. So we brazened it out and gradually partner organisations came on board. Each new recruit brought our assertion that there would be a festival closer to the truth. Without early support from the Scottish Storytelling Centre and the City Art Centre, who were willing to take a leap of faith, there would have been no Festival.


We took risks – risks with our own time and reputations, and those of our partners. We had no idea who would agree to get involved as performers and workshop leaders; no idea how we would find an audience, or whether they would find what we offered attractive. No idea how much money it would take or where it would come from. No idea if we would get support for providing woman’s space, which has been so rapidly disappearing in recent years. And no idea whether a woman- focused festival would succeed in the diversity-driven context of the 21st century. It seemed a dangerous enterprise – and as women we are not “natural” risk takers.  Just sharing the vision and daring to engage partners, meant that each member of the collective took on a challenge and stepped outside their comfort zone.

By the time of the first Audacious Women Festival in February 2016, our weekend had stretched to 22 events running over 9 days.  They included workshops, performances, exhibitions, and conversations. Shona Robison (Cabinet Secretary for Health, Wellbeing and Sport), Kezia Dugdale (Leader of Scottish Labour), and Leanne Dempster (CEO of Hibs) talked about the influences in their lives that taken them to their current positions. A newly-published author ran her first creative writing workshop.  We challenged women’s invisibility with pop-up statues at various spots around Edinburgh: Elsie Ingles in suffragist mode, appeared in front of the Scottish Parliament; May Ogilvie-Gordon on the steps of the National Museum of Scotland; Mary Somerville next to the old observatory on Calton Hill; Elizabeth Blackwell outside Napier Herbalists; Muriel Spark, surveying the stone which bears her name by the writer’s museum.

And individual women were inspired to break through their own internal barriers and do things that personally empowered them.  I sang, after a lifetime of being afraid to open my mouth. Another women “made that phone call”. A third was inspired to organise her own local festival, which she’d been dreaming of for years.  And another took the plunge with a career change. Fifteen Gypsy Traveller women aged 16 – 79, including a great granny, a wheelchair user and a woman who was 8 months pregnant, did a firewalk.

What I believe is so powerful about the idea behind the Festival is its inclusivity. There is no set definition of an audacious act – it’s personal to every woman. My personal barrier is quite likely something you happily do every day. This means that no matter her age, stage, race, ability, education, politics or background, every woman can participate and take at least the first step to overcoming whatever fear is holding her back.

An audacious act needn’t be jumping out of an airplane (though one of our Collective did!) It could be signing up for an access course, or chairing a public meeting, or sending a short story to the publisher, or leaving a violent partner.  Do What You Always Wish You Dared means starting wherever you are personally and taking that first step to something that makes you stronger. And once we’ve confronted our fear, claimed our power and survived in one sphere, it’s hopefully less scary to do it again. As one of the audacious firewalkers said “An awesome experience! I feel like I can do anything now!”

The 2017 Audacious Women Festival will host around forty events including a stonemasonry workshop, authors and performance poets, an international breakdancing competition, a multicultural afternoon of food and music, a play about women miners and a flashmob. There will be workshops which provide an opportunity to try out something new in a supportive environment, including a session to support women who want to commit their own audacious act. And, of course, a celebratory party or two.

As well as the astonishing variety of events, the organisations involved range from Edinburgh Council and WIFIE (Women in Focus in Edinburgh), to Radical Voices and St Mary’s Cathedral. It’s taking place in nearly 20 venues across the city.  But what does a conversation with international peacebuilders have to do with a whisky tasting, or a compilation of authors, or an exhibition of women’s roller derby? What makes it a “thing”, and not a random collection of unrelated activities, is that every event relates to the theme of Audacious Women, whether it’s celebrating them or encouraging participants to be one.

At the beginning of December we organised a Programme Launch and invited contributors to say a few words about their events.  Like the Festival itself, we set up the evening with no more than a faint hope that people would come and with no idea if it would be worthwhile.  Not one of us expected the enthusiastic response to the invitation, nor the energy and excitement the event itself generated.

We heard about SCRAN’s exhibition featuring audacious women from history which will also invite you to permanently add inspirational women you have known to the national digital archive. We were treated to mind-blowing performance poets and authors, celebrating our daughters, memorialising women, and challenging the confines we are still subjected to. We watched ground-breaking sportswomen. We heard about women working internationally to build peace. By the time 24-Carat Gold (an over 60’s women’s dance group) had given us a taste of their show, one audience member told me she was in tears – “I expected to be offered a leaflet and a drink. It’s so long since I’ve been to a women’s event like that. I miss it.”

Over the last year I’ve been asked “Are you a feminist organisation?” and “Is the Festival political?” Duh!!!!  But of course, you don’t have to think of yourself as feminist, nor political, to do something audacious.

Over the next two weeks we will celebrate, defy convention, empower ourselves, en-Courage each other, have fun, break boundaries and find our dangerous streak. Because – as we should never forget – the personal is political.


Featured image: IMG_1496 by Trevor Hunter on Flickr, used under CC-BY-NC-2.0 license.

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