Planning a festival in a pandemic is a particularly challenging proposition. “To bring people together and have something live and in-person in itself is an extraordinary achievement,” says Chip Rolley, a journalist, editor and – alongside First Nations academic, writer, filmmaker and activist Larissa Behrendt – joint curator of this year’s All About Women festival.

Running from March 12-13, All About Women represents Rolley’s first outing as the head of talks and ideas at the Sydney Opera House, having previously served as the artistic director of the Sydney Writers’ Festival from 2009 to 2012. He says in programming the festival, he wanted to share some of the lessons learned during the two years of the pandemic.

“[One is] how important community is and how important we are to each other, even when we don’t know each other,” says Rolley. “One of the things that Covid has taught us is what you do affects me and what I do affects you.”

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Rolley argues we can apply the same principle to other intractable issues. “A lot of the problems we face are best dealt with through common action, our connection with each other and working cooperatively,” he says. “All About Women is the perfect opportunity to get those ideas across.”

Among the festival’s themes in 2022 are the power of disclosure and the transformation of trauma and prejudice into action. “A key thing we’re doing is celebrating and paying tribute to the courage of women like Grace Tame and Saxon Mullins,” he says. Honouring these women – who all appear in the All About Women program – requires ensuring their disclosure and advocacy leads to “real reform,” says Rolley. “We want to carve out an agenda for the future.”

Tame will also appear alongside Rosie Batty on the panel Protecting the Outspoken, where they will discuss with host Jamila Rizvi their experiences of being Australian of the Year, the power of personal testimony and advocacy's personal cost.

Writer and poet Tishani Doshi will perform her poem Girls Are Coming out of the Woods at the festival’s opening gala on Saturday March 12. “The girls coming out of the woods in that poem are coming out for a reckoning,” says Rolley. “That for us is a kind of metaphor for what we’ve been experiencing. Women are speaking up about what has happened to them and they’re seeking justice.”

Appearing alongside Doshi at the opening gala (hosted by Julia Zemiro) are British slam poet and the winner of the 2021 T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, Joelle Taylor, Wiradjuri poet and artist Jazz Money, and writer Lucia Osborne-Crowley.

The influential American feminist writer Roxane Gay and Gamilaroi/Torres Strait Islander woman Nakkiah Lui, a leading Australian playwright, actor and screenwriter, will appear together in Facing Up – a conversation “between a First Nations woman in Australia and a woman of colour from the United States making connections about Black Lives Matter, Black feminism or feminism of colour, and charting the differences and learning from each other,” says Rolley.

First Nations’ voices frequently appear throughout the program. Behrendt, the director of research and academic programs at the Jumbunna Institute of Indigenous Education and Research, made it a priority to ensure panel discussions included a variety of perspectives. “If we’re talking about a big topic, let’s hear from a diverse range of people,” she says.

In After Consent, lawyer and author Bri Lee, activist Saxon Mullins, writer Lucia Osborne-Crowley and Amy Thunig, a Gamilaroi woman and education academic, discuss the complex issues surrounding consent, the subject of legal reform across the country in recent years.

Behrendt is also joined by prominent Indigenous women, distinguished professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Chelsea Watego, Amy McQuire and Alison Whittaker, in First Nations Women Look to the Future, a two-part discussion the festival’s organisers hope will chart a course for the future of an inclusive and anti-racist feminism in Australia.

The wisdom of older women is celebrated in Ask an Aunty, a workshop featuring Wiradjuri Elders Aunty Glendra Stubbs, Aunty Norma Ingram, Aunty Millie Ingram and Aunty Bronwyn Penrith, who will share four lifetimes’ of knowledge with the audience. It’s an event “which came from thinking about how lucky I am to have fabulous Aunties like these four who I can ring any time I’ve got an issue,” says Behrendt.

Western cultures often fail to recognise the valuable contribution of older women to their communities, she says. “We have a strong tradition of Eldership in our community. Our Aunties and grandmas are really big influences – they’re almost always the ones who are responsible for keeping the social fabric of communities together.”

A left-of-field inclusion in the program is Burlesque Stripped Bare, a panel discussion and performance featuring Porcelain Alice, Demon Derriere and Kelly Ann Doll. Burlesque has long interested Behrendt as an art form. “It’s very female-identified [and has] a strong political history,” she says. “It’s been one of the spaces where I’ve seen inclusion, the embrace of body positivity and difference integrated into performance.” Behrendt hopes the session will encourage people “to think of women’s voice and expression in a different way”.

While the program engages with some weighty issues, Behrendt says it’s an offering “that celebrates resilience and strength and wisdom”. She hopes the audience leaves feeling equal parts inspired and challenged by new ideas. “My husband and I always say when we go to a festival, if we haven’t seen something we’ve hated, we haven’t done it right,” she says. “We haven’t tried hard enough to expose ourselves to something new.”

All About Women runs from March 12 – 13. More details and purchase tickets.

This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Sydney Opera House.