Megan Smith was really just a girl when she attended her first Ladyfest three years ago. At fifteen, the Thornton high school student persuaded her mother and her grandmother to hop on a plane bound for Chicago, where Ladyfest Midwest sprawled and squalled through the metropolis like one of the city's famous winds.
"They would walk me downtown to the venues every day and kind of see me off," Smith says. "While I was there, I interviewed Le Tigre, and the next day I saw them coming out of the grocery store. I was standing on the sidewalk with my mom and my grandma, like, 'Hi, guys.'"
Smith was among the nearly 3,000 feministas -- punk-rock musicians, zine publishers, radio-show hosts, gallery owners, performance artists, filmmakers and students -- who formed a scrappy mass at Ladyfest Midwest. The event was modeled on the inaugural Ladyfest, which debuted in Olympia, Washington, in 2000. For five days, the notoriously left-wing Olympia -- home to the alternative-curriculum Evergreen College and a lively riot-grrrl culture -- became a kind of cultural mecca for girls with guitars, shaved heads and hand-screened patches for bands like Bikini Kill and Team Dresch. But it wasn't just punks, or ladies, in attendance. Organizers stressed that, despite the gathering's name, Ladyfest was an all-inclusive event, open to anyone with an interest in woman-centric art, music and culture.They made special appeals to the transgender community and made it clear that, though they were the guests of honor, females weren't the only ones invited to the party.
When it was all over, Ladyfest 2000 had generated more than $30,000 for local charities and netted press in mainstream publications. Yet rather than parlay that success into another festival for Olympia, organizers encouraged attendees to start planning events in different towns. They'd built the model; now it was time for others to follow. Groups of women across the country, and the ocean, began enlisting for duty. Since 2001, Atlanta, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Ottawa, Austin, Washington, D.C., Scotland, London and Paris have hosted Ladyfests. Earlier this year, a small-scale, one-day event was launched in Jakarta, Indonesia; on www.ladyfest.org, where a loose network swaps planning tips and festival strategies, there's talk of a Ladyfest Asia coming to Tokyo.
But first, now-seventeen-year-old Smith is bringing it to Denver. A creator of Radio 1190's pro-grrrl Testosterone Detoxshow -- which she began hosting at fourteen -- Smith began organizing Ladyfest Out West about a year ago; after months of planning, fundraising and pleading for volunteers and sponsors, the five-day festival will finally be unveiled June 18 through 22.
"After I went to my second one [Ladyfest Bay Area, held last year in California], I just got really encouraged to do one here," Smith says. "I started putting up fliers and calling for volunteers. I sent e-mails to every women's group that I could think of. It took a couple of months, but eventually we had this group of people who were just as excited about it as I was. I think I did it because I didn't really know anyone in this town, and I wanted to find other girls who were into feminism and riot-grrrl and music and stuff like that."
Before long, Smith had found some other girls who were into stuff like that: For the past year, she and a group of mostly women activists have been planning Ladyfest Out West, which spreads through five venues, including the Mercury Cafe, the LIDA Project Theatre and the Breakdown Book Collective. (Breakdown is a sponsor, as is Radio 1190.) If you've seen a flier for the event tacked up on a laundry-room bulletin board in Five Points, or taped to a utility pole in Capitol Hill or a light box on Federal Boulevard, it was probably put there by Smith or one of the event's ten regular volunteers. Some of those involved have attended Ladyfest in various cities, while others will experience it for the first time from behind the scenes. But all concede that they had no idea what they were getting into when they started.
"It's really ridiculous how much we've been doing," says volunteer Natalie Winslow. "It's gotten to the point where every minute that we have, we could be doing something for Ladyfest. It's like a full-time job. There are moments when you think, 'Why are we working so hard to make this happen? If it fails, we'll be the ones who go broke.' But I think it's just some weird drive to do it."
Sitting around a table in the Mercury Cafe just two weeks before the event, Smith, Winslow, artist/musician Claudine Rousseau and Toshimi Ichiki, a University of Denver studio-art student from Japan, know that there's a very real possibility they could go broke promoting Ladyfest. Expenses could exceed the $5,000 they have raised. In a tight economy, donations have been hard to come by; aside from a $750 grant they received from DU's Department of Social Justice, the women say they've struggled to cover their operating budget. Performers need to be flown in, hotel rooms have to be booked -- a limitless number of tiny little details need to be covered and, in most cases, paid for.