Virago Women’s Workshop

Virago Women’s Workshop

Virago Women’s Workshop is a volunteer run Community Interest Company that provides a single-sex space for women in Leeds. Based in Headingley, it’s also a social hub for workshops, meetings, discussions and a feminists library. I spoke to one of its volunteers, Chandy Charlton, to find out more about it.

1. CHANDY, can you tell us a bit about the Workshop and what inspired it.

“Virago Women’s Workshop was set up by a group of women in 2021. They had noticed that it was becoming increasingly difficult for women to meet if they were discussing or interested in sex-based rights. There were also instances of women losing access to work and opportunities. They found the beautiful space where we are currently based and decided to go for it – Virago Women’s Workshop, a place where women can gather to discuss, create and inspire each other, was born.

We run creative workshops, social events, drop-ins and talks led by women who are notable in their field. We’re hoping to facilitate peer support groups around different areas of interest or need and we’re working to build up local and national feminist networks. We take as our inspiration the women’s centres that used to exist 40-50 years ago, including here in Leeds! In short, we’d like VWW to be whatever it is that women feel the need to create for themselves – this is what we mean by empowering women.”

2. Why do you think it’s so important today to set up a women-only space?

“Amazingly, single-sex spaces are disappearing, in the name of ‘inclusion’. In Leeds, as far as we know, you will not find another space where women are guaranteed to find a single-sex facility for gathering with other women, outside of religious groups.

The availability of single-sex spaces for women, when needed, has been the norm across all cultures forever. We have always understood that there are times when simply being with other women, whether for reasons of safety and dignity or simply for our own comfort and wellbeing, is essential.

It’s only very recently, within perhaps the last 5-10 years, that this has come into question at all. In the past few years, when women have tried to organise and meet with other women it has been framed by some as exclusionary. It has become harder, and at times impossible, to secure funding or even support for single-sex spaces for women because of this.

At Virago we feel it’s time to re-establish the right of women who want or need single sex spaces to be able to access them – not instead of “inclusive” spaces, but in addition to them. Ironically, ‘inclusion’ can lead to ‘exclusion’ for some women and at Virago we’re providing a space where that will not happen. People are entitled to their opinion about whether single-sex spaces for women are valid – equally, we are entitled to our view that they very much are.”

3. So, how’s it going so far, and what kind of reactions have you had?

“We are volunteer-run and receive no external funding. We are a small but growing community of women, and we are so hopeful about the future. The women who come to Virago, either for a one-off event or on a regular basis love our space and the fact that it is there.

We have had a small amount of negative feedback about our space being single-sex – mostly on social media and usually from people who have yet to visit and see what we’re about. However, this is far outweighed by the numbers of women who come and enjoy being in a women-only space.”

4. I’ve long promoted the Leeds discussion scene through interviews like this. So, can you tell us what discussions you’ve held so far.

“Before Christmas we started a strand of activity called ‘In Conversation’ – we invite women who are notable in their field to talk on their specialism. We’ve hosted three of these events so far and have several more in the pipeline for 2024.

Before Christmas, we welcomed renowned criminal barrister Kama Melly KC to talk about women in the law, as professionals, claimants and defendants. In January, we were delighted to hear from Cllr Sarah Field, who has been a long-time campaigner for women’s rights in Leeds and spoke out against the so-called Managed Zone for prostitution in Holbeck. In the latest issue of our magazine Screech, we publish the full text of the barnstorming speech that Sarah made at Leeds Civic Hall on the launch of the Declaration on Sex-Based Rights in 2019. That speech is an absolute inspiration to anyone who feels as we do about the erosion of women’s rights. Sarah is a true Virago – a female warrior.

In February, our friend Denise Fahmy came to speak about her employment tribunal against Arts Council England and how she set up Freedom in the Arts with dancer Rosie Kay. This month, we welcome Holly Smith from the University of Leeds – Holly has spent the last 2 years cataloguing the archive of Women’s Aid Federation England (WAFE). Looking back at the history of women’s refuges should be compulsory education for us all – it is staggering to consider how recently such facilities have existed at all and what enormous grassroots efforts led to their creation. 

We’re also hoping to hold feminist debates and will canvass our community about what women would like to discuss. We don’t agree about everything and we’d love to bring some of these discussions out of the online space and into face-to-face meetings – some of us attend the annual Battle of Ideas Festival and we’d like to emulate that!”

5. What events do you have coming up?

“We have recently held a weekend of events for International Women’s Day 2024, including launching Issue 2 of Screech, which we publish every year on IWD, as well as an Open House, art exhibition and screening of films by the brilliant feminist filmmaker Vaishnavi Sundar.

We have workshops and creative events scheduled throughout the year, all detailed on our Eventbrite page. For the rest of this year and next, we will be marking various 50th anniversaries, including that of WAFE, as we look back at the pivotal moments of second wave feminism – we have a lot to thank our foremothers for.

As I said before, we currently receive no external funding. We encourage people to support us by becoming members or supporters of Virago or by attending one of our workshops. We are building our community through these events and through our social media presence so please spread the word!”

Virago Women’s Workshop is based in the Overseers Office, North Lane, Headingley. For more information and to join their mailing list visit:

Paul Thomas is co-founder of The Leeds Salon public discussion forum.