Girl Power

Dude! These cowgirls -- and Ladyfest organizers -- don't have the blues.
John Johnston

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 Detox show -- 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.  

"No one has given us any money," says Winslow. "We've written grants and proposals to every place we could think of, but aside from DU, everyone has turned us down. Some of them said that we didn't fit in with their overall vision."

"Some companies didn't want to send us any money; they just wanted to send us stuff," adds Smith. "It's like, thanks, but what are we supposed to do with 500 Luna bars? We can't pay the bands with those."

Still, Ladyfest Out West has found support within Denver's alternative-art and music communities. Some of the fundraising has been fairly traditional -- revolving around art auctions with works donated by locals, and benefit shows. Some of it has been suitably far-flung: On June 7, supporters showed up for Rollerderby, a benefit concert at a suburban roller-skating rink; Winslow and another volunteer once made $200 selling burritos in the parking lot at a Phish concert.

Smith is hoping to draw 2,000 people to the event during its five-day run -- women, men, gays, lesbians, trannies, everyone. (From the beginning, Ladyfest Out West's motto has been "Celebrating Past, Present and Future Women in the Arts.") While previous Ladyfests have centered on women's music -- and music primarily culled from the lo-fi underground of women's indie and punk rock -- Denver's version is more open to different styles and gender makeups. Though the original Ladyfest organizers mandated that each participating band have a 50 percent female presence in its lineup, Denver planners have been more lax with the estrogen requirement: Acts that fall below the womanly quota had to submit an application, explaining why they wanted to be involved. Most were accepted. (George and Caplin, a duo starring two boys, is the only all-male group on the bill.) The move helped soften Ladyfest's image as an event where unwitting males would feel unwelcome -- or be flogged by militant bands of man-hating womyn. Rousseau says part of the point is to get everyone together to reflect on women's contributions to culture -- not to bait wars between the sexes.

"It's not that I think Denver is necessarily unfriendly to women's music or art," says Rousseau, whose former band, Sin Desires Marie, played its final show at last year's Ladyfest in D.C. "But I can't count the number of times that I've played a show and had some guy come up and say, 'You're pretty good, for girls.' That's the attitude. And if you don't get everybody in the same place at the same time, there's no conduit for discussion. If people think that it's anti-guy, they should come. That way, before and after, we can start some continuous dialogue. If something bothers you, you should confront it."

Ladyfest luminaries like the lesbian punk outfit Tribe 8 and queercore trio the Butchies will perform, but so will R&B artist Mystic, and the Thermals, a mostly male combo signed to Sub Pop. The Ladyfest Out West umbrella will spread to include an art exhibition at the Andenken Gallery, several experimental-film series and a range of workshops; topics range from bicycle maintenance to do-it-yourself feminine hygiene products. (A full schedule of events can be found at www.ladyfestoutwest.org.)

"We're not all into the riot-grrrl-type stuff," says Winslow. "Some of us like hip-hop, or rock, or whatever. So we'd put that on there just because that's what we like. We wanted to get away from the idea that there's only one sound associated with Ladyfest."

"For some people who travel to different Ladyfests, it can get kind of boring. A lot of times you'll have the same types of music, the same old feminist stuff being covered in the workshops -- like 'How to change your tampon,'" says Rousseau. "We thought, 'The more the merrier.' We could have this really diverse group of artists and people involved, but all with a common cause."

Smith and the other volunteers joke that they're often met with suspicion by people who regard the event as an anti-male consortium run by hippies, commies and feminists hell-bent on ridding the world of the male gender. Not so, they say.

"Some people think it's only for women because it's called 'Ladyfest.' They'll say, 'Well, there isn't a Manfest.'"

"But that's because it's Manfest all the time!" adds Winslow, laughing. "We wanted to see something represented because it's not represented. But just because you do that, it doesn't mean you're excluding something else. Like, if you have a Pan-African film festival, it's not to the exclusion of white people. It's so everyone can learn about and celebrate Pan-African film.  

"We all just got so tired of people saying that there's nothing going on in Denver -- and then doing absolutely nothing about it," she continues. "We just decided to do this, and we couldn't back down once we started. We discovered that you really can create something, just like that."


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