Interview: Millie Cant, co-founder of the Oxford Women & Non-Binary Collective

Sharon Chau speaks to Millie Cant (she/they), a Masters student in Musicology at St. Catherine’s College, and the co-founder of the Oxford Women & Non-Binary Collective.

What is the Oxford Women & Non-Binary Collective and the IWD gala?

We first came up with the idea when deciding how to celebrate International Women’s Day. We observed that the Oxford nightlife was not comfortable for marginalised genders on the whole, and we are inundated with stories about eventgoers, bouncers, and staff members mistreating women and nonbinary people. So, we put together a network of people who were already working incredibly hard, including those running FemSoc, women’s reps from across the university and different colleges, and we decided to put our forces together to share resources, connections, ideas, and our reach, so we can offer something new and exciting! Our vision was that we wanted a night out which was queer-inclusive, sustainable, and welcoming. We just wanted spaces where we could feel safe, where we’d be happy to dance with friends and strangers – and so we came up with the IWD gala! It would be an event which is basically a celebratory space to honour everyone there and to have lots of fun. We made sure that the bar staff and door staff were also only women and nonbinary to extend this ethos into all elements of the event.

What was the process of organising the event?

It was relatively straightforward! We had a clear vision, laid that out to the owners and managers, and weren’t going to compromise on that for logistical reasons, as we believe that people can always make adjustments – and they did for us! We wanted to make it a charity gala, as there were many organisations in Oxford that needed money, so Freud gave us the space for free, which was amazing. We then got in touch with feminist societies, and women and non-binary individuals-based societies like OxWEST, and it was so heartening seeing so many students devoting their time enthusiastically to organising this event. The event itself has an incredible line-up – there will be seven acts, including a drag show, DJs, and free cocktails on arrival. We’ve also organised a temporary black-tie clothes swap on Sunday on top of that to make sure that no one needs to buy any new clothes. We just hope that we can make new things happen, instead of just replicating old traditions that have already been happening in Oxford for decades. We had a range of tickets, including non-alcoholic ones, and tickets for Crankstart scholars. We are thinking about groups of people who might not always feel welcome at Oxford’s events, which can be exclusive, expensive, and alcohol-heavy.

How was coordinating between so many groups?

We had a super busy group chat, with 30+ people, which was quite difficult to coordinate! Our co-founder Natasha laid out tasks to be done for the event, and everyone just stepped up and claimed jobs, which definitely made it so much easier, especially considering how we only started organising this around three and a half weeks ago!

Were there any challenges you faced in planning the event or setting it up?

One thing we were mindful of was trying to make the event as inclusive as possible, so we were careful about terminology and consulted our really diverse committee on that. I’m aware that I might have certain privileges that might mean I might not consider all factors, so having a large committee was so important for that. An important issue raised was the accessibility of the event, which is why we offered Crankstart tickets at half of the going rate to try and make it more accessible. Obviously, there’s the classic challenge of organising a whole event on top of our degrees, which meant we were always busy, but it’s definitely been worth it.

What was the most rewarding part of this whole process?

It was so moving to see everyone spending so much time on this project, and so rewarding to see the event finally coming together! Another heartening thing was making it a charity gala and making sure we could donate a chunk of money to the four charities we chose, including OSARCC (the Oxfordshire Sexual Abuse and Rape Crisis Centre), MindOut (A charity for LGBTQ+ mental health), the Oxford Women’s Hub as part of the Oxfordshire Homeless Movement, and the Ukrainian charity Korporatsiya Monstriv. For the Ukrainian charity, it was a last-minute addition given the recent developments, and we worked out with some friends in Kyiv the most appropriate charity to give to. There’s obviously a huge responsibility as students in Oxford to give money if we can, so I’m really glad we’re contributing a small part to this. But most of all, I’m just ready for a party! I’m so excited to look into the room and see everyone celebrating each other, celebrating International Women’s Day, celebrating their friends and strangers – I would definitely personally find that incredibly rewarding, and I’d also love for it to feel rewarding collectively, and for everyone to feel like it’s their event as well! There isn’t a single voice that’s created this, and I hope that everyone can see this. Obviously, the fact that first drop tickets sold out in a minute was also surprising and a really amazing experience!

What is the thing you’re the proudest of in organising this event?

That’s a difficult question! I think it’s a tie between firstly, getting the staff on board and making them understand and work with our vision, which is something we’re so proud of as a group. Secondly, the music and performance scene can get quite nepotistic in Oxford, so personally, I was keen on having an open call for all the amazing musicians in Oxford. We were so happy to receive responses of all genres, ages and gender presentations, and so proud of the lineup we were able to create!

What do you envision as the future of the Oxford Women & Non-Binary Collective?

We want this to be a recurring event, especially with the success of this IWD gala! So hopefully we’ll get bigger venues for the end of Trinity, basically as our answer to a ball that’s separate from all the stereotypes and traditions of Oxford. We’d make sure that the events would always be for charity as well. Essentially, it would be amazing if this was something that gets to continue by being passed onto future generations, so we become bigger and better and go upwards. It’s been a tough two years off for many of us because of COVID, so we can hopefully make use of this to reset and inspire change!