About Kaite Welsh

Kaite is an author and journalist living in Edinburgh with three unruly cats, one partner and a lot of books.

What WOW means to me (and is it 2013 yet?)

I’m sure I’m not the only one experiencing a bit of a comedown after the three days of non-stop feminist fabulousness that was WOW 2012. When I woke up this morning, I gave serious thought to rocking up to the Southbank Centre in my Wonder Woman t-shirt and acting like it had never ended.

It’s been an intense few days, not least because it included my very first experience being on a panel instead of in the audience. Body Politics: What’s wrong with you? was chaired by the fantastic Catherine Mayer and my fellow panellists were fat activist and academic Corinna Tomrely, fashion designer and boutique owner Jan Asante, journalist Katherine Baldwin and actress and writer Harriet Walter.

Early on in the panel, we were all asked if we were comfortable in our bodies. I’d arrived primed to rave about those extra few pounds I can’t quite shift (because that would require eating less cake, and who wants to do that?), but was surprised to hear the words ‘Um…no, not really’ coming out of my mouth. What we discovered was the sliding scale of body acceptance as we moved up the age range of the panel. By the time we got to Harriet, who is in her 60s, we’d discussed fat positivity, eating disorders and fashion, and she opened by saying “Well, not much IS wrong with me.” If you’ve never heard a room full of women cheering a 60+ woman whose just announced that she’s happy with the way she looks – well, I recommend it. Harriet has very kindly posted her talk on her blog, and it’s well worth a read – as is her book Facing It: Reflections on images of older women.

I started the panel working out how to hold my notes in a way that would disguise my stomach, but I left reminded that there are an infinite number of ways to be attractive, and they have nothing to do with how old you are, or what parts of your body still work in the way they’re ‘supposed’ to. And when I looked in the mirror this morning and saw the first signs of crow’s feet around my eyes, my reaction wasn’t horror – it was excitement.

One of the highlights of the weekend was the chance to share our experiences, both in the Body Politics panel and in Undivided Attention: Having no children or grandchildren. As a confirmed fence-sitter when it comes to either passing on my genetic material or raising someone else’s, it was wonderful to express my fears and ambivalence in a space where my eventual choice would be celebrated rather than questioned.

Possibly the most emotionally-charged part of the festival for me was the speed-mentoring session. 15 minute conversations with four different women, where I bounced ideas around, confessed my deepest desires and most debilitating fears – it was challenging, terrifying and the most uplifting experience I’ve had in a long time. I left bubbling with ideas, full of confidence in my abilities as a writer, and dying to get started on the countless projects on my to-do list.

No celebration of women’s achievements and struggles would be complete without that classic anthem, Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves. I think it might be enshrined in law that when a group of feminists get together to put on a festival, this song has to be played at least once. At WOW, it was the conclusion of Mirth Control: March of the Women 2012. Sandi Toksvig guided the audience on a whirlwind tour of female composers – some relatively well-known, like Clara Schumann and Hildegard von Bingen, and some undeservedly overlooked like Amy Beach. The WOW orchestra – who, to the audience’s amazement, had only met the day before at their first rehearsal – was the largest all-female orchestra in the world, and all 73 of them were amazing. Sue Perkins helped out with the conducting, and Sandi was joined by the ever-hilarious Jo Brand and West End star Sharon D Clarke, whose voice gave me goosebumps. She’s that good. As a theatre critic, I’m all too used to seeing performances like these dominated by men – Mirth Control was a rare treat, but I wish it was a regular occurance.

So that’s it for another year – next year will see the first WOW Brisbane, and there’s talk of performances in both Derry and South Africa. It’s been an incredible experience, and I’m so grateful for the wonderful Jude Kelly for putting it all together. She spoke about growing up in Liverpool with fantastically supportive parents but few role models when it came to women in the arts. As a teenager in Merseyside in the 1990s she was one of my role models, and ten years on she still is. Thank you Jude, and thanks to all the people who made WOW 2012 possible. I can’t wait for next year.


Mary Portas – it’s not just shopping

Kinky Knickers - the pants that will save the nation. Or at least a town in the North of England.

I have a shameful confession to make. I’d never thought much of Mary Portas. Oh, I love that we have an older queer woman on TV – who advises David Cameron, no less – and it’s true that I covet her hairstyle. But listen to her speak? About shopping? Not my thing, sorry. Luckily for me, she was part of a trifecta that kickstarted Day 2 of #WOW2012 along with Shami Chakrabti and Baroness Helena Kennedy QC.

She talked about her new collection, Kinky Knickers, aimed at reviving the British manufacturing industry. She opened a factory in Middleton, just outside of Manchester, where the factory that was the bedrock of the community had closed down a few decades earlier. Bringing on board two of the seamstresses who had lost their jobs when it closed, she trained eight young apprentices – teenagers in the community who had never had a job and were used to getting up at 2pm and drinking from 5, “because it makes the day go faster.”

I realised then that Portas does more than talk shoes and shopping, and that her amibiton to revitalise Britain’s high streets was less to do with commerce and more to do with community. In fact, she slammed the rampant consumerism that we all got used to during the boom years – “who bloody needs ‘buy three and get one free’?” – and argued the case for shopping with a conscience. If 80% of the world’s shoppers are female, then that gives us immense power – we don’t have to support the chain stores and designer labels who make a whopping profit off the backs of sweatshops, we can choose to support companies who treat their employees fairly, not ones who care more about money than they do about people.

I’d never really considered what the decline in British manufacturing really meant until I heard her speak. And I’d never imagined that just by choosing where I shopped, I could contribute to improving the lives of people whose lives have been devastated by the recession. For this first time – and the last – I’m going to buy underwear with a man in mind – the factory worker who, when Portas asked how he was finding adjusting to employment for the first time, told her “I walk differently now.”

We can make a difference in the most unlikely ways, and women we’d never given much thought to can turn out to be inspirations. And they’re really nice knickers.

Handbags & Gladrags: Why Margaret Thatcher matters

She may have claimed she owed “nothing to women’s lib”, but do today’s women owe anything to Margaret Thatcher? This morning’s panel – titled Ironing it out: Margaret Thatcher – feminist icon? – attempted to answer that question. Journalists Natasha Walter, author of Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism,  Ann Leslie – who travelled around China with Thatcher when the latter was Leader of the Opposition – were joined by Laura Liswood,  Secretary General of the Council of Women World Leaders to discuss women’s relationship with the Iron Lady.

It was a subject close to my heart – sitting through Meryl Streep’s Oscar-winning performance earlier this year, I realised that I knew very little about her outside the political satire that dominated the left wing newspapers and comedy shows of the early 1990s. Reading John Campbell’s impressively detailed two-volume biography – The Grocer’s Daughter and The Iron Lady – I found myself fascinated by a woman whose struggles I recognised.

But as the most divisive politician of the 20th century, how could I – as a left wing feminist whose earliest political memory was my father slamming the door in the face of a pollster who wanted to know if he backed Thatcher in her final fight against the colleagues that deposed her – honestly say that I admired her? Over the past few months I’ve kept quiet about my conflicted feelings, but today Natasha articulated everything I’ve been too embarrassed to say.

Afterwards I spoke to ReeRee Rockette, who had spoken up during the panel to say that when it comes to her importance as a role model for women, Thatcher’s policies aren’t important. The fact is that she achieved something no other woman had before – and tellingly, her three successors have all been men – and with a dearth of high profile female politicians, women have to take what they can get. She may have double-glazed the glass ceiling as soon as she’d smashed through it, but the fact that she got as far as she did is a triumph for feminism whether she likes it or not.

Ann made the point that Thatcher didn’t like women “because she knew that we knew what she was up to.” She wasn’t above using her feminine – and sexual – wiles for her own ends, but her real achievement was taking on the trappings of masculinity and making them work for her. Laura explained that the majority of female politicians have a less direct way of speaking, and are more modest in their descriptions of themselves and their views. Thatcher had none of that – there was, she so often said, no alternative. It was her way or the highway and politicians who didn’t get on board were dismissed as ‘wets’ and shuffled out of the Cabinet.

Although there’s a lot to be said for consensus politics, it’s refreshing to find a woman who wasn’t afraid of speaking her mind and had no intention of changing it. When asked if we considered her a feminist icon, only a handful of women raised their hands awkwardly. I was one of them. I may not like her convictions, but her courage in them is inspirational. I’ve gone from using her surname as an insult to finding her something of a role model – sorry Maggie, but this is one lady who is for turning.