Music: Women's Festivals

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Beginning in the mid-1970s, women's music festivals have served as North America's lesbian Woodstocks, gathering together women's music fans and political activists for several days of concerts, comedy, workshops, and crafts. The form such festivals have taken has been very much influenced by the lesbian-feminist rhetoric and politics of the 1970s and 1980s, making them a distinct and separate entity from gay men's musical events such as Wigstock, Radical Faerie gatherings, and circuit parties, as well as from "straight" but "rad" festivals such as Burning Man and Rainbow Gathering.

In 1974, Kristin Lems, a heterosexual feminist activist, initiated the first large women's music festival—the National Women's Music Festival (NWMF), which has met annually on university campuses in Illinois or Indiana ever since. NWMF's significance and daring in showcasing many new lesbian artists was soon matched by the even more radical Michigan Womyn's Music Festival (MWMF), founded in 1976 by the then nineteen-year-old Lisa Vogel, her sister Kristie Vogel, and friend Mary Kindig. (Barbara "Boo" Price served as coproducer through 1994.)

MWMF quickly gained notoriety as "the" lesbian festival due to its enormous size (almost ten thousand women attended in 1982), its wooded camping environment of private, clothing-optional land, and its longstanding policy of excluding all males over age five. While the NWMF permitted men to attend (although this was contested at first), MWMF accommodated boy children over five in a separate camp, "Brother Sun" (on its own section of festival land), and requested that all festivalgoers be born female, that is, not transgender. These issues have fostered considerable debate and continue to do so. Two other festivals, Campfest and the East Coast Lesbian Festival (ECLF), also required participants to be woman-born and to leave older boy children at home. ECLF was the first and almost only festival to use the word "lesbian" in its title; NWMF and other festivals, while upholding the political value of woman-only space, did not advertise as being for lesbians only.

As women's music culture blossomed in the climate of lesbian separatism and women-only institutions during the 1970s and early 1980s, recording companies and distribution networks made the music and comedy of lesbian artists available to fans in isolated towns where performers rarely toured. The option of a summer pilgrimage to a large-scale festival of lesbian culture attracted thousands of women eager to see and mingle with their favorite artists. In the years before greater media visibility of lesbians—before the comedian Ellen DeGeneres, the singer Melissa Etheridge, and the actress and talk-show host Rosie O'Donnell had come out publicly—festivals offered an alternative lesbian "star" system and the unusual opportunity to see key technical labor roles performed by female sound, light, carpentry, and production crews.

Within a fifteen-year period after the establishment of MWMF, similar, if smaller, festivals were established in more than twenty states, filling the calendar from Mother's Day weekend in May through Labor Day in September. Some of the most popular regional festivals were Campfest (Pennsylvania/Delaware/New Jersey); ECLF (upstate New York); the Gulf Coast Womyn's Festival (Mississippi); the Northeast or New England Women's Music Retreat (NEWMR, often in Connecticut); Rhythmfest (Georgia); Sisterfire (Washington, D.C.); the Southern and West Coast Women's Music and Comedy festivals produced by Robin Tyler (held in Georgia and Yosemite Park, respectively); and Wimmin-fest (New Mexico). Other festivals were held in Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Illinois, Nevada, Ohio, Texas, and Virginia; in Northampton, Massachusetts; in the Pacific Northwest; and in the Poconos.

Most festivals followed a similar format, presenting a day stage introducing lesser-known, typically unpaid performers, followed by workshops, a night stage of better-known headliners, disco and country/western dances, and goddess-centered spiritual rituals and drum circles. Basic vegetarian fare was usually provided as part of the camping package. Often a two-to-four-hour work shift was expected of campers in addition to their ticket payment, and a sliding scale reduced fees for low-income women, older women, and children—with day care available, but restrictions on boy children, even as infants.

As well as showcasing primarily lesbian artists, whose works were often considered too controversial for mainstream radio play, festivals such as MWMF promoted an extraordinary range of political views, emphasizing visibility for women of color and the obligation of white festiegoers to unlearn racism. Stage lineups at MWMF and other festivals were balanced carefully to include a range of styles, from rock to folk to jazz to blues to drumming, and the originally appearing slate of white performers from the mid-1970s such as Margie Adam, Meg Christian, Holly Near, and Cris Williamson expanded to include Asian American, Quebecoise, African Canadian, Jewish, Latina, and African American artists such as Alix Dobkin, Maxine Feldman, Marga Gomez, June Millington, Vicki Randle, Toshi Reagon, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Lucie Blue Tremblay, Mary Watkins, and Karen Williams, to name but a few. Edwina Lee Tyler and Ubaka Hill brought African drum performance to a new level of appreciation and vitality, and MWMF staff, in particular, labored to attract younger fans by steadily updating their lineup with punk, grunge, and riot-grrl bands like Tribe 8, the Butchies, Bitch and Animal, as well as the spoken-word "slam" poet Alix Olsen.

While the Indigo Girls, Melissa Etheridge, and Tracy Chapman all appeared at festivals before attaining enormous mainstream popularity, few festival performers won this same level of visibility or financial success beyond the lesbian folk/rock audience, and as the range of festivals began to shrink after 1992, performers dependent upon the festival fan base were often in competition for a decreasing number of stage slots. The lack of public familiarity with many popular lesbian festival artists was exacerbated by Sarah McLachlan's highly successful Lilith Fair. Promoting mostly corporate-backed straight female performers to mixed male and female audiences during 1997 and 1998, Lilith Fair was billed falsely as the first-ever women's festival.

For the thousands of women who have spent nearly thirty summers under the stars at MWMF and elsewhere, festival culture wins praise for providing "safe" and "healing" space, for popularizing the use of American Sign Language interpreters onstage, and for offering an affordable medley of concerts. Still unresolved are a host of controversies, particularly with regard to the woman-born-woman policy at MWMF; since 1994, an unofficial "Camp Trans" near the admission gates at the festival has been a staging ground for protests, and some artists, including Melissa Ferrick, have elected to boycott the festival. Others, including the Queens, New York, duo Bitch and Animal, have chosen to affirm transgender rights and identities from the Michigan stage, while also affirming the festival as a celebration for nontransgender women.

Other conflicts concern stage content. With more and more lesbian couples bringing children, are some shows too sexual? How can the gap between youth and the graying population of loyal, original festivalgoers be bridged? Longtime workers at many festivals acknowledge the enormous amount of unpaid work time spent "processing" other issues behind the scenes, such as alcohol and smoking on the land, sadomasochism (S/M) displays, boy children, male backup vocals, accommodation of women with disabilities, and international artists hassled at the U.S. border.

Regardless of these controversies, festivals including NWMF, MWMF, and Gulf Coast have moved successfully into the twenty-first century but must now compete for the lesbian entertainment dollar with other events, including urban poetry slams and Olivia Cruises. That festival culture is old enough to have acquired a history is evident in the flurry of films, Ph.D. dissertations, and books paying homage to MWMF and to the legacy of women's music as a social movement.


Armstrong, Toni, Jr., ed. Hot Wire: A Journal of Women's Music and Culture. Published three times per year, 1984–1994.

Edwalds, Loraine, and Midge Stocker, eds. The Woman-Centered Economy: Ideals, Reality, and the Space In Between. Chicago: Third Side Press, 1995.

Morris, Bonnie J. Eden Built by Eves. Los Angeles: Alyson, 1999.

Mosbacher, Dee. Radical Harmonies: The Story of Women's Music. Woman Vision, 2002. Documentary.

Near, Holly, and Derk Richardson. Fire in the Rain, Singer in the Storm: An Autobiography. York: Morrow, 1990.

Post, Laura. Backstage Pass: Interviews with Women in Music. Norwich, Vt.: New Victoria, 1997.

Van Gelder, Lindsay, and Pamela Robin Brandt. The Girls Next Door: Into the Heart of Lesbian America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.

Bonnie J. Morris

see alsolesbian feminism; michigan; music: popular.

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Music: Women's Festivals

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