La Fiesta is Whanganui’s month-long festival celebrating women. Zaryd Wilson talks to Women’s Network Whanganui manager Carla Donson about the annual festival, the history of women in Whanganui and feminism.  

Carla Donson joined the Women’s Network in 2003 and soon learned the group wasn’t celebrating what should be its flagship day.

“I didn’t know about International Women’s Day and I realised a lot of people out there don’t,” she says.

“And when you think about New Zealand’s history – world leaders in relation to universal suffrage and many other things – but we’re not really out there when it comes to celebrating what International Women’s Day is all about.

“Part of the challenge when you’re running a feminist organisation is trying to balance the importance of that cause while also being able to celebrate our successes and our achievements.”

On March 8 the following year she organised a small celebration in Whanganui.

This was 2004 and it was basically a gathering of women over a cup of tea at Women’s Network HQ at the Ladies’ Rest building.

She continued to do this each year as numbers and interest grew.

“So, I started thinking about all of the amazing women I’d got to meet in the course of my work and was sort of thinking about what we could do with that in order to shape a different kind of celebration,” Donson says.

“What if I could introduce the rest of Whanganui to all of those women? How cool would that be?”

And so the first La Fiesta was held in 2010. A festival celebrating women through a series of events including, workshops, talks, musical performances, exhibitions, film screenings and markets.

“I just started ringing them and said ‘I’ve got this crazy idea for a women’s festival where we get all of you amazing women together to run some kind of activity and the rest of Whanganui can join in.

“And every one of them said yes. Here I was thinking about maybe two or three days and it ended up a week.”

That week-long festival has now grown to almost a month and the 2017 edition kicks off on February 12 with a pre-launch event before it begins in earnest the following weekend.

This year there are more than 60 events in the programme.

“What I love about this is we don’t shape what’s in it,”Donson says. “I put an open invitation out to the community and what comes back is what goes in the programme. I don’t think there are too many festivals in the country that say they run that way.”

La Fiesta has also steered clear of star headline acts and celebrities aside from the appearance of comedian and writer Michelle A’Court last year.

“That was the first time we really had a big name feature,” Donson says. “I’m a firm believer that we have amazing people right here in our community.

“Let’s face it, the Mother Teresas and Princess Dianas of the world are incredibly unique and not everyone is going to become that.

“But when you start asking women ‘who’s the most inspiring women you know?’ Most women will say my mum or my grandma or the lady next door or my first primary school teacher or my boss or my netball coach. Most women aren’t going to name a celebrity as the most inspiring women they know.

“What we’re trying to do is create this sense that we can feel really proud an amazed by the women that live right here in our backyard. And they can become resources for us.

“We don’t want woman to be constantly referring to Women’s Day or New Idea to get some, what I see as being a false sense of inspiration.”

A history of feminism in Whanganui

The Whanganui Women’s Network was formed in the mid-80s against the backdrop of a second wave of feminism which had begun in the 1970s and was growing in New Zealand.

“There were lots of women in provincial places like Whanganui who were feeling a bit left out because they weren’t in the main centres,” Donson says.

“There was a growing group of women here which were meeting regularly and looking at ways they could impact not just local council but national legislation and how they could provide women access to what was going on.

“Because the world was very different back then. Print media was sort of the biggest way that people were getting their information.”

More than 100 Whanganui women were meeting regularly and they needed a base.

“It kind of outgrew having a meeting in someone’s lounge which is what had been happening.”

The Women’s Network asked the council for a place to use for meetings and to set up a resource library and support base for women.

They were offered a room at the Ladies’ Rest and a few month later the network took over the whole building.

A fitting location as the building itself is a big part of the history of the women’s movement in Whanganui.

It’s construction, the first of its kind in New Zealand, was a hard won battle.

“Just to have a building that was purpose built for women was hugely controversial,” Donson says.

“We’d had the First World War at the depression and women has been mobilised into town en masse probably for the first time in history.

“It wasn’t until those women started coming into replace men who had vacated those jobs because they’d been sent overseas that people started realising, actually we don’t have facilities for women.”

So they asked for some.

“Were there any women on the borough councils? No.

“Who was making all the decisions? You had a group of men, largely white old men, with long grey beards who didn’t want to be spending the town coffers on women and a space that was women only.

“So, for them to try and get their heads around that in the context of 1920s New Zealand was quite an extraordinary thing.”

Feminism today

Today the building, through the Women’s Network, houses a range of services for women incuding advice, counselling, medical services and a place for women to meet other women.

“Our specific focus is on providing services to women.”

The Women’s Network is also big on advocacy and right now Donson says we’re in the middle of a resurgence of feminism sparked by a series of global events. A third wave.

“We saw for example around the time that Malala Yousafzai had her incident in Pakistan and the huge amount of international media attention that attracted and the awareness of not just women in Pakistan but women in India with acid burning and public sexual assaults.

“Then of course not long after that we had the kidnapping of the Nigerian school girls which really captured the imagination and attention of everyone worldwide.

“The events really ramped up, I guess, people’s awareness that what’s happening worldwide is our issue.”

And now there’s Trump.

“Donald Trump’s probably systematic of all of that. A complete undermining of not just women’s rights but the sense of women’s own personal power.

“Seeing the extraordinary worldwide response with the marches and the number of women that have actively been speaking out, that’s a fantastic thing. The cause of it isn’t so great.”

Carla Donson and Rachael Garland at a past La Fiesta

But Donson is encouraged by how active women are becoming.

“What we’ve started to see is a resurgence of feminist groups in universities and there’s a really strong feminist resurgence in high schools.

“It’s been really interesting for me to observe that. A big part of my role here – and it’s been a personal journey for myself – is actually being okay with publicly calling myself a feminist.

“Because like any with any -ism, that comes with its own stereotypes and misunderstandings out there in the wider public.

“So many people are still stuck on that really radical, bra-burning. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, absolutely we needed a place for that, just like any -ism needs it’s activists to be able to push the edges.”

There are many battles being fought within the feminist movement but Donson says the one of the most pressing is the fight for relevance.

“The best way to explain I guess is when I get together with my feminist colleagues we’ll often talk about how feminism quickly turns to having conversations with men where we’re trying to make the men feel better about themselves because the men are going ‘hey, it’s tough for blokes too’,” she says.

“So, I think one of the biggest challenges for feminism is mansplaining.

“I had my first troll ever last year when I wrote a column about feminism. This guy came out of the woodwork. He commented on Facebook, he sent me emails and even when I said ‘look, thanks for your response, your points are noted’, he just carried on sending me pages and pages of vitriol about how wrong I was quoted all this stuff at me but all this stuff he was quoting at me had no sources.”

Donson hopes La Fiesta not only celebrates women but spreads the message about feminism.

“I think our biggest challenge is really getting people to understand what feminism is because a lot of the reaction is people responding to what feminism isn’t,” she says.

“There are as many ways to be a feminist as there are to be human. There isn’t one way of being a feminist.

“There’s a really well known quote that says feminism is the simply radical notion that women are people too.

“Then you talk about the more politically charged ones that are talking about the social and political equality of the sexes.

“And I hear a lot of people saying ‘oh, I’m a humanist or I don’t need to be a feminist because I support gender equality’ and I’m saying ‘well if you support gender equality, you’re a feminist’.”

**For full La Fiesta schedule visit @womensnetworkwhanganui or @LaFiestaNZ on Facebook, The Hits website or whanganuiwhatson.nz. Printed programmes have also been distributed around the city.