The Lowdown on Ladyfest

The essential introduction to this year's Ladyfest, by staunch supporter Amy Bell.

Amy Bell, 16 July 2002

For a movement that was only supposed to last a couple of months, riot grrrl has done pretty well for itself, thank you. Having enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in the last few years amongst young feminists sickened with a still-sexist society, in the UK, the movement is now proving itself to be the principal field in which third-wave feminist beliefs and activism thrive healthily. For many girls in their teens and early twenties, riot grrrl, with its empowering DIY ethos and all-inclusive vibe, has been their induction into feminism. Equally importantly, also, nu-riot has spawned the only truly international third wave feminist phenomenon: Ladyfest.

At the beginning of August, this "IKEA of festivals" (according to the August edition of Diva magazine) is being held in London. Over a period of three days and four nights, from August 1-4, workshops on everything from DJ-ing to cross-stitch, film screenings, art exhibitions, and band nights are being put on in the name of Lady. This year alone, little Ladyfests have sprung up from Amsterdam to Atlanta. And even before the acts were finalised for London, there was talk on the Riot Grrrl UK mailing list of putting together a committee for a Ladyfest Manchester in 2003. It is quite possibly the most inspiring event that anyone, regardless of gender, can attend.

This year alone, little Ladyfests have sprung up from Amsterdam to Atlanta.

Ladyfest began life two years ago, when the first event was held in Olympia, Washington DC. Its seeds were sown almost ten years previously, during the International Pop Convention in the same city in 1991, when bands such as Bikini Kill, L7 and Fugazi came together to create the first large-scale DIY fest involving 'alternative' music and culture. The IPC's Girl Night was the clear precursor to what was to follow at the turn of the decade.

Ladyfest 2000 followed the Olympian tradition of festivals where people gather together to share ideas and talents, showcasing and encouraging female artistic and political abilities. It aimed to provide the tools by which women effected change, both in the social and personal spheres, and suggested that attendees of the festival adopt and adapt the Ladyfest model within their own culture and set up a similar event. This led to Ladyfests, in amongst other places, Glasgow and Chicago in 2001.

Ladyfest is a breath of fresh air to gargantuan corporate music festivals where only a sprinkling of women, if you're lucky, perform every year. It's a much-needed breather from the constant ridicule that female performers encounter on a day-to-day basis. It's also the most potent feminist statement of the 21st century so far. Yet, arguments rage over whether, in this supposedly 'post-feminist' age, a festival specifically championing women in the arts is or is not a pointless anachronism.

Obviously these people have never had to suffer the indignity of being ignored or patronised in music shops

There are usually two arguments in favour of the view that Ladyfest, as a concept, is redundant. One follows the hopelessly naive, heartbreakingly ubiquitous view that 'being a female performer isn't an issue any more. Why make it one?' Obviously these people have never had to suffer the indignity of being ignored or patronised in music shops by dint of one's gender, or asked to alter their art because it 'comes across as a bit feminist - people are going to think you're a man hater'.

This is also not to mention the shit that women musicians, writers, artists - hell, women in every walk of life - have to put up with in order to be taken seriously, and not merely to be seen as a sex object, plaything, or, after the age of forty, a dried up old hag. So yes, we'd like being a female performer not to be an issue any more, but it's pretty darn hard when your gender gets thrown back at you every time during the nightly cry of 'Show us your tits!'

The other has been raised by the band Angelica, amongst others, who ironically stated in an interview at drownedinsound.com that 'Ladyfest is too extreme' and 'it's completely alienating the male culture' ironically because they played Ladyfest Glasgow last year and will be at Ladyfest London in August. At least two of the band term themselves feminists, but that's a moot point.

Statements like this suggest that Ladyfest is a convention for utterly misandrist, shaven- headed separatists who wish to castrate, if not kill all men, and create a super-race of similar shaven-headed separatists, rather than a annual festival where women can perform with other women (and even, horror of horrors, other men) in a safe, female- friendly environment. Ladyfest provides a chance for women to feel valued up on that stage for one night out of 365 - and that's seen as too extreme? If there were Ladyfests every night of the week, then women might be getting somewhere. Things being as they are, performing at Ladyfest is often the most positive, rewarding experience a woman has in her entire career.

finding women-only space is incredibly important if females are to feel significant and worthy

As for alienating this nebulous 'male culture', the Bikini Kill song 'White Boy' springs to mind: 'I'm so sorry if I'm alienating some of you/Yr fucking culture alienates me!' Ladyfest itself is open to both men and women, of all ages and backgrounds, and aims to provide a welcoming space for all, so if any alienation is going on, it's sure as hell not intentional. And even so, although it's not realistically something that one can or should achieve daily, separating oneself from - for want of a less old-school word - the patriarchy and finding women-only space is incredibly important if females are to feel significant and worthy, both as artists and individuals.

Besides, if this so-called male culture is one that sees teenage boys struggle at school, develop eating disorders because of the pressures of achieving that buff, six-packed look that is supposedly the ideal masculine body shape, and account for 80% of all suicides annually in the UK, then it doesn't just need alienating. It needs to be thrown out with the rubbish, and a new society that respects everyone on an individual level to be put in its place.

Ladyfest, and all who sail in her, be it organisers, performers or punters, doesn't deserve this type of criticism and denigration. This is particularly because both Ladyfest Glasgow, Ladyfest London and any future Ladyfests here are incredibly important for UK feminism in general and young UK third wave feminists in particular. While their US counterparts have annual memberships to organisations like the Third Wave Foundation, stage Take Back The Night marches at their college campuses, and subscribe to publications like Bitch and Bust, British women in their teens and twenties have no such outlets by which their feminist beliefs can be affirmed. The largest feminist organisation in the UK, the Fawcett Society, can be held responsible for a great deal of women's activism in this country, but arguably the issues on which it campaigns - increasing the number of women in parliament, working towards achieving pay-packet parity with men, and affordable childcare - do not often directly affect and therefore necessarily directly interest girls of school and university age.

surely we can be excused if we clasp this phenomenon to our collective bosom.

For the many Generation Y feminists in the UK (and there are probably more than you think), there are precious few organisations or pressure groups to which they feel they can align themselves, save riot grrrl and Ladyfest. Furthermore, the Glasgow event proved so memorable and wonderful to those who participated, that surely we can be excused if we clasp this phenomenon to our collective bosom.

Although Ladyfest itself may not make society more female-friendly in the long run, it is certainly a feminist statement. It pushes to the fore women performers who are marginalized and ridiculed by mainstream culture, and gives them an opportunity for their voices to be heard. On a small island still very much far from equality, Ladyfest makes women feel like they can rule the world for a few days. And surely that's a good thing.

About the author

Amy Bell

Amy Bell is currently a philosophy student at Warwick University and is so excited that she has her ticket for Ladyfest London already.

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