• Venus Zine; Interview: Ladyfest

    Published on, November 2005.

    You've come a long way, lady
    Ladyfests are gaining steam ‘round the globe

    By: Gretchen Kalwinski

    The first Ladyfest took place in 2000 in Olympia, Washington. In addition to bands like Sleater-Kinney and Cat Power performing, the weeklong event hosted bands like the Rondelles, Neko Case, and Mary Timony, and a dizzying array of varied spoken-word artists, authors, and visual artists, along with workshops and dance partiesOlympia festival, an astounding 80 Ladyfests around the world have been successfully planned, testifying to the need for this sort of event. Ladyfests should not be mistaken for a franchise, however, and the different Ladyfests are not related to one another, except in spirit. The varied places around the world that have hosted Ladyfests include Bloomington, Indiana; Chicago; San Francisco's Bay Area; Nantes, France; Glasgow, Scotland; Toronto; Los Angeles; Stockholm, Sweden; Melbourne, Australia; Seattle; Berlin; Napoli, Italy; and Vienna, Austria. In 2005, approximately 30 Ladyfests were scheduled to take place worldwide. Venus interviewed organizers and performers from this year’s festivals in Brisbane, Australia; Guelph and Ottawa, Canada; Denver; Lansing, Michigan; and Johannesburg, South Africa.

    The Organizers
    Ladyfest organizers as a whole are a determined lot with an idealistic focus and an overabundance of energy. They also are uniquely open-minded about their attendees and welcome all genders, unlike the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, for example, which restricts attendees to only biological females. Sarah Brown of Ladyfest Ottawa noted that their demographic was "definitely young women 18 to 30, but we had audience members of all ages and genders." Fellow Ottawa Ladyfest organizer Natasha Beaudin attributed their good turnout to dynamic and feminist-oriented programming, affirming that, “it was definitely a better turnout than one would get [from] a lecture on feminism, for example."

    Ladyfest Guelph organizer Ashley Fortier was impressed with the event’s large attendance and the variety of ethnicities that were represented, especially given Guelph’s small population. “It was a very diverse crowd, especially at the hip-hop night," she said. Ladyfest Out West organizer Shannon Perez-Darby commented on the queer focus of their festival’s performances. "Over 75 percent of our performers were queer, lesbian, gay and/or trans identified," she said. The organizers of Ladyfest Guelph went a step further by specifically listing their event as"anti-oppressive, feminist, queer and trans-positive, DIY, and collective."

    Local Focus, Broad Appeal
    The 2005 Ladyfests had varied concentrations in their different locations. Some had a heavy hip-hop presence, while others were more film-centric or focused on performance art or workshops.At Ladyfest Ottawa, the closing party with the Gossip was the most popular event, and Alix Olsen was a "big hit" in Lansing, Michigan. The best-attended performance at Ladyfest South Africa was a band called Electro Muse, a string quartet that combines drum‘n'bass tracks to trip-hop.

    Workshops also drew in enormous crowds. Sarah Brown of Ladyfest Ottawa mused that, "A panel discussion on privilege in activism was one of our best-attended events. Bookbinding also had high numbers." Nearby in Guelph, the workshop on urban gardening was hugely popular. Oftentimes, decisions about performers and events were made broadly and then localized, with organizers focused on bringing in as much local talent as possible. "We included similar broad themes like music, art, politics, film, etc., but then tried to re-appropriate it to the Brisbane context," said Ladyfest Brisbane organizer Nikola Errington.

    Similarly, Ladyfest Ottawa included local talent such as Les Alumettes, Sarah Hallman, Daydream Square, and the Hussies. Ladyfest Out West brought in resident spoken-word artists Jeanette Henriquez, Angela Palermo, and Isis, in addition to well-known local activists Ashara Ekundayo and Kelly Shortandqueer MC and the Denver band Supply Boy.

    The Talent
    When asked about their Ladyfest experience, performers often got gushy. Susie Patten was double booked at Ladyfest Brisbane with her bands I Heart Hiroshima and the Mean Streaks, and she enjoyed playing to the crowd’s enthusiastic response. “My bands played first and second, so we thought that there'd be a pretty quiet vibe around, but everyone was really into [it]. The crowd response was fantastic. Maybe that was just because Kate Bush was played in between sets." Patten attended other Ladyfest events while on location and said that "apart from the rad music, the photography exhibition was probably the highlight — so much awesome talent."

    Patten said the only changes she would make for future Ladyfest stints are that she’d like to play last. "And for Cat Power to support us, and maybe even for her to fall in love with me,” she said. “So realistic." Deb Cavallaro of the Golden Circles called the Brisbane Ladyfest an "intimate, beautiful, dynamic, honest, and inspiring gig. As far as sisterhood goes, there was a fair bit of that feeling going around that night and [it was] kinda great … when you look at the stage and see more than one woman out there."

    Organizational Challenges
    The momentum for these festivals seems to be only increasing as time goes by. In 2002, there were 13 Ladyfests; in 2004, the number had reached 26, and in 2005, close to 30 Ladyfests occurred around the globe. This steady growth is encouraging to those of us who aren't having our needs for this kind of event met in mainstream culture. However, there are definite challenges in planning these festivals. First, there is no one source of income or funding for Ladyfests, and one of the first things that organizers are obliged to figure out is how to raise funds through advertising, fundraising events, or auctions.

    Ladyfest Ottawa raised funds via craft sales, bake sales, film nights, rock shows, garage sales, art parties, and bottle drives. Sarah Stollak and Latricia Horstman of Lansing, Michigan’s Ladyfest invested the money from their tax returns to fund their town's festival, in addition to applying for grants and selling ads to local businesses. Ladyfest South Africa secured Jose Cuervo as a sponsor and "used most of the funding to pay the marketing and printing" costs for their festival. There are definite challenges to organizing other than finances. Many organizers struggle with the admittedly valid critique that Ladyfest and events like it can work to marginalize women artists and performers. Being cast as an "alternative" culture can run the risk of alienation, an important point to consider when in the planning process. Others depict the female nonprofit organizing process akin to a series of infighting sessions, characterizing women's managerial styles as too emotional or complicated.

    However, the typical response from a Ladyfest organizer is that although the planning completely consumed their life for the better part of a year, the payoff was enormously rewarding. Most organizers said that they'd do it again but would change small parts of the process. For instance, they suggested a different organizational structure, setting earlier application deadlines, and, as Nikola Errington of Ladyfest Brisbane said, "we would try and make EVERYTHING all-ages."

    When asked if she'd program another Ladyfest, Sarah Brown said, "Hell yes. Organizing this festival is so rewarding. It deeply affects your life, and as an organizer you have the privilege of watching it affect others." Latricia Horstman muses that she set out on a mission to bring Ladyfest to Michigan in a way that changed her community’s mindset, all the while having fun and providing a fantastic opportunity for folks to get involved and learn. “The ultimate goal for everyone participating or attending: to have fun, learn something, and have some money at the end to give to a charity,” she said. “Every year we've done just that."

    Good Deeds, Progressive Values
    Ladyfest South announced on its Web site that it is a forum for "radical and progressive women everywhere" and goes above and beyond the <leo_highlight style="border-bottom: 2px solid rgb(255, 255, 150); background: transparent none repeat scroll 0% 0%; cursor: pointer; display: inline; -moz-background-clip: -moz-initial; -moz-background-origin: -moz-initial; -moz-background-inline-policy: -moz-initial;" id="leoHighlights_Underline_0" onclick="leoHighlightsHandleClick('leoHighlights_Underline_0')" onmouseover="leoHighlightsHandleMouseOver('leoHighlights_Underline_0')" onmouseout="leoHighlightsHandleMouseOut('leoHighlights_Underline_0')" leohighlights_keywords="call of duty" leohighlights_url="http%3A//">call of duty by not only paying their performers, but raising a good deal of cash for local social-service projects that assist women, such as the DeKalb Rape Crisis Center and the Women's Center to End Domestic Violence.

    Ladyfest Mexico will be held in Monterrey in February 2006, and the organizers are calling for submissions of women artists, including photographers, writers, actresses, filmmakers, musicians, and fashion designers. The festival will focus on subjects such as the situation of women in politics, society, and the economy, with a critical reflection of the role assigned to women in the work-field and family by societal and moral values.

    The possibilities of Ladyfest seem endless. As long as there are women producing good work, there is a seemingly endless array of locations and venues for Ladyfests to showcase them. It is of note, though, that what most of the organizers, participants, and attendees are ultimately working for is a world where the kind of work, art, and music featured in Ladyfests around the world would automatically be showcased and valued by a larger and more diverse demographic of society. We've come a long way, ladies, but there is still a long way to go.

    The Future of the Fest
    Some upcoming Ladyfests in 2006 are in Atlanta and Monterrey, Mexico. For more information about past and future Ladyfests, visit

    All photos courtesy of Nikola Errington of Ladyfest Brisbane 2005.

    Top photo: Stitch N' Bitch event
    Middle photo: Scout Niblett performing
    Bottom photo: Women in Activism workshop