Revolution, Lady-Style

ladies galore
It's a Saturday night in late July at a San Francisco high-school auditorium. When Beth Ditto, the lead singer of The Gossip takes to the stage and asks in a commanding Arkansas drawl, "Are there any feminist bitches in the house?" the Ladyfest crowd roars a fervent response.

The women in the audience are mostly in their late teens and early twenties. Tattoos can be spotted on shoulders and peeking out from under cropped t-shirts, and there is an abundance of bobbed haircuts (streaked or black) and thick-rimmed glasses. They wear cute dresses, knee-high stockings, and sneakers in primary-colors, as well as combat boots whose thuds can be heard from down the hall.

Earlier, the audience listened intently as spoken word artist Michelle Tea took to the mic assuredly between music acts much louder and raucous than herself. She told a story about a neighborhood bully who would taunt her and her sister on their way to and from the corner store. When she reached the part where she could no longer take the teasing, and shoved the antagonistic boy off of his bike onto the concrete, the crowd cheers wildly. It's as if this act and its telling have tilted the scales a bit further in the direction of justice in the world.

By the time the Gossip arrives on stage, the crowd is raucous. Beth, the punked-out, 21-year-old soulstress takes it into another world, jiving around before us like one of the possessed. Then the stage fills with fans shaking and shoving and Ladyfest organizers gliding and stumbling in rollerskates and short shorts. In a final act of giving us her all, Beth strips down to her sweaty bra and underwear for still more singing and dancing, then dives out into the crowd of hands raised and eager to catch her. For this night, and the five days surrounding it, we are it, and this is all that matters. We are why it is, who it is and maybe, just maybe, some part of the revolution is here and in our hands, alive and pulsating before us. It is ours to create, invent and shape. And right now, its name is Ladyfest.

The Beginning

Not just a concert or a conference, a film festival or an art exhibits, Ladyfest is designed to be all of those things and more. And to participants like myself, this summer's Ladyfest Bay Area seemed like the biggest and baddest festival to date. The 3,000 plus participants came together for five days jam packed with over 30 bands, 90 films, 50 workshops, and all manner of visual and performance art. But the LadyFest story doesn't start with us.

The first Ladyfest debuted in Olympia, Washington in 2000. Although the six-day event featured art, workshops, film, and performances, the main event was clearly the music. The bands, which included Sleater Kinney, Bratmobile, Cat Power and The Need, drew over 2,000 women. As Ladyfest Olympia drew to a close, the participants were encouraged to go forth and start their very own Ladyfests in their respective cities and towns, which is exactly what they did. 2001 saw versions of the festival spring up in Chicago, Lansing, New York, Indiana, Easthampton, MA, and Glasgow, Scotland. This year there have already been Ladyfests in Ottawa, Los Angeles and the Bay Area, and Washington D.C., with 8 coming up and still more in the works for 2003.

The roots of Ladyfest can be traced most recently back to 1991 and Riot Grrrl, a movement which started in cities like Washingon DC and Olympia. In the early 90's Riot Grrl spread all over the United States. While most of the original Riot Grrls would probably define the movement slightly differently-- for many it included the creation of a network of grrrls through zines, conferences, and starting what they called Riot Grrrl chapters all over the country.

As the 90's wore on and Riot Grrrl, began to change and in some ways die down. In the last five years strong women and "Girl Power" have become powerful marketing tools. The mass media turned much of what was once fierce and smart into cute and unassuming caricatures. My generation was left with the Spice Girls,' the Powerpuff Girls and a more-glamor-than- punk version of Courtney Love. Many involved with the riot grrrl scene became fed up with the co-optation of their movement, or simply grew up. Some started real magazines, and signed recording contracts with major labels. Others started families and careers.

Bay Area organizer Emi Kane, 21, thinks that Ladyfest was born out of the generation of young women who caught the tail end of Riot Grrl movement in the 90's and were ready to get fired up again. "I see it as the newest manifestation of...that whole spirit of DIY organizing and grassroots, word-of-mouth girl networks. I think people are hungry for some sort of new outlet -- you could call it Post-Riot Grrl."logo

Ladyfest Bay Area

Most of the evening performances were a blend of live music and spoken word performances. National Poetry Slam champion Alix Olson and Aya De Leon (poetesses extraordinaire) were there, as were the dyke punk band Tribe 8, DJ Pam the Funkstress (of The Coup), the self-proclaimed 'fat freaky diva' Nomy Lamm, and grrrl favorites The Donnas, The Gossip, and Bratmobile. There were radical cheerleaders and film series on topics like development/displacement and women's activism surrounding 9/11, as well as cabarets and comedians, and an all-female Shakespeare troupe. During the afternoon, there were workshops with topics like 'Knitting for Beginners,' 'Fat as Fuck,' 'Starting Your Own Record Label,' 'Anti-racist feminism,' 'Self Defense for Social Change,' and 'Sex Toys 101.'

The festival was the product of the work of over 40 volunteers -- women and transgendered organizers had been working since Fall 2001 through what they referred to as a "non-hierarchical and consensus-based" process. While the group's members represented a wide range of ideas and life experience, in the end those that stayed to see the festival through had to prioritize a commitment to the collective process.

The Ladyfest Organizers had a number of fundraising events this year, including kissing booths, parties, and even a 12 hour-long Brad-Pitt-A-Thon. Once the performers are paid, any profit from Ladyfest will go to a small group of local non-profits that are working to support young women.

Ladyfest is, in a sense, the creation of an alternate universe, a new kind of space for women and artists to exist as they please for this short amount of time. It is the kind of place where women can keep each other inspired by exchanging ideas about their own projects and art and creativity, talking about what they've been up to and what they have planned.

Ladyfest is, in a sense, the creation of an alternate universe, a new kind of space for women and artists to exist as they please for this short amount of time. It is the kind of place where women can keep each other inspired by exchanging ideas about their own projects and art and creativity, talking about what they've been up to and what they have planned.

Unlike with much of today's entertainment, the LadyFest organizers wanted to create a place where there was less of a line drawn between the entertainer and the entertained. As organizer Kyla Schuller describes, sometimes even in artsy youth subcultures "it can feel like the only way the average person can interact (with a subculture) is via consuming -- buying music, purchasing film tickets, going to a show, etc...Ladyfest enables each person to take cultural production into their own hands."

For many, the focus on women's creativity was the main draw to the festival. Rebekah Punak, a 23 year-old from Berkeley, California told me "I like that Ladyfest, as opposed to feminist protests in the 1970's, is actually a celebration of what we're making, instead of just saying what we don't have access to...." "Or who we're gonna kill, whose ass we're gonna kick," added Hae Eun Park, also 23 from Berkeley. And, while it's not as if this population minds the angry protests, it's good to take a break for a while, and it's exciting to see the creativity that's here right now.

This also came through in festival participants like Maryaoel Strope and Simone Meltesen, both 18, of the Ladybug Rebellion project. Before I met these girls at Ladyfest I had seen their art in the form of collaged posters hanging all around San Francisco. In these posters, the two combine popular advertising with their own written commentary, to create smart, critical statements, much like bigger feminist artists like Barbara Kruger and the Guerilla Girls. Simone and Maryaoel say they were fed up with passively accepting the stereotypical and degrading images of women (and all people) that the media provides us, and began their project Ladybug Rebellion. Both girls are adamant that what they're doing is something anyone else can do. Simone says, "We encourage everybody to do it, it's not like some exclusive little club where only we get to do it. It's giving ourselves a voice rather than just letting the media talk to us and say, 'this is what you are.' We're saying 'Hell No!'

Different Worlds

Although Ladyfest was very vocal in its inclusion of transgendered people, many participants noted that the event still fell short of being a diverse environment. Ladyfest remains very white, very young (mid-twenties and under), and likely very middle to upper-middle class with a punky grrrl aesthetic. To some, this rather homogeneous audience is inevitable because to Ladyfests origins in a particular cultural and musical landscape.

But to those who envision Ladyfest as a potential representation of all women's creativity, the festival and the movement leave much room for improvement. Desiree Evans, a 21-year-old student at Northwestern University, attended Ladyfest Chicago and the opening night of San Francisco's Ladyfest, and was disappointed to see the lack of diversity at both events. Desiree worries that this homogeneity might even be harmful to the feminist movement in the long run, though we may not see it right now. Desiree doesn't hesitate to praise the organizers and the festival, but says, "I do feel that Ladyfest alienates a lot of people that are not within the community already, (Ladyfest) is just kind of off by itself and they don't promote integration on a larger scale, which I think in the long run is detrimental

I missed the workshops on hitchhiking and do-it-yourself event production, and I may not have another chance to learn how to twirl fire sticks or to talk about how to be an "ethical slut." But maybe what I've gained is even better than any one skill.

Although almost everyone seemed to agree that Ladyfest does cater to a specific population and could definitely diversify, the split appears to be divided on how much of a priority the inclusion of underrepresented groups should be.

When asked about the issue of inclusivity, Anne Tagonist, a 27-year old workshop leader, said "As I see it, it fills a need for people who are looking for a particular thing. If you're not looking for that, if you're looking for something else that isn't here and doesn't fit into the rubric of whatever Ladyfest is, it's not a matter of being excluded, it's just not gonna be what you need."

There's no doubt -- it is difficult to replicate cultures other than one's own -- which is why those advocating for diversity stress the importance of bringing a diverse assortment of voices to the festival and its planning process.

"I think they should diversify the organizers" says Desiree, "if you have a broad range of people organizing you'll have a broad range of issues that are brought to the table...start advertising in communities that are not that Riot Grrrl alternative lesbian scene here in San Francisco, let them know that they have hip-hop performances."

Other suggestions included lowering the price of the festival passes (at $55 to $100 dollars, many think this is a major limitation), increasing scholarship/volunteer opportunities, and making connections with local women's groups to find out what issues are important to them.

Petrice Gaskin, 21, fears that Ladyfest is actually "contributing to the categorization of movements, (the idea) that somehow the white lesbian [punk girl]'s movement is different from other women's movements." Petrice thinks that women need to recognize their similarities and common objectives and that Ladyfest would simply be a better, more fun environment if all women were actively involved.

In talking with Emi, it's clear that her original vision for Ladyfest Bay Area is not exactly how the festival turned out -- she would have liked to see more diversity in the musical line-up (more hip-hop and folk, more older women), and a stronger commitment to inclusion and radical politics. Yet when I asked her what Ladyfest would've been like if she had organized it herself, her answer surprised me. "Had I planned it by myself? It wouldn't have happened."

She reminded me that the end result is a compromise between the individual visions of the 40 plus organizers, and this meant giving up pieces of her own vision of the ideal Ladyfest. "We had to come up with something that worked for everyone and I couldn't let my little ego get in the way.... eventually the people who ended up sticking it out and organizing through the whole festival realized that they had to drop that 'take up space' voice, that it's an actual collaborative process"

Emi hopes that Ladyfest will change as time goes on, but also recognizes that change happens slowly at a festival like this, that rotates locations every year. The festival will change only if its critics become invested enough to join the organizing process, or if its existing organizers view the need for change as important enough to be a top priority in the future.

In the meantime, Emi says that she is ready to move on to other projects using the skills she's learned through this organizing experience. But, she says, it feels good to know that she was part of something big. I know what she means. People around me often reminisce about how much more exciting, more radical, or just plain better feminist punk culture "used to be." For those of us who attended and planned LadyFest Bay Area, it's almost novel to feel part of something that's important now. Says Emi, "Someday someone's gonna say 'Wow, I wish I had been around when all those Ladyfests were happening, I wish I could've been a part of that.' People will move on and bigger issues will have to be confronted, but we're gonna look back on it and be really grateful we were there, and that's a really good feeling"

The hardest part of this year's Ladyfest may have been just how much there was to do. We all had to make choices about what to see and what to overlook. True, I missed the workshops on hitchhiking and do-it-yourself event production, and I may not have another chance to learn how to twirl fire sticks or to talk about how to be an "ethical slut." But maybe what I've gained is even better than any one skill -- that is, I now know that I can go and learn these things, or anything else, and do-it-myself as these ladies have. And who knows? Maybe sometime soon I'll take what I've and start a Ladyfest in my very own town, bringing even more women and allies together to further this moment of revolution Lady-style, right here, right now.

Erica Sagrans, 20, is taking a semester off to intern at the Utne Reader this Fall in Minnesota.

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