Originally published in Plan B magazine, September 2008 – www.planbmag.com/shop
The feature as published also included wonderful pieces by Lauren Strain, Jesse Darlin’ and Beth Capper, and the timeline at the foot of this piece was a collaboration with Lauren Strain.
LADYFEST: THE POP-UP BOOK
Writing any kind of historiography has a homogenising effect. Difference and deviation in flow become invisible, all compasses point north; disparate and diverse voices move from clamour to unison. Hierarchies impose themselves ruthlessly over time: certain viewpoints are foregrounded and made representative, others lost. A flattening takes place, a loss of contour.
Ladyfest is the product of the work, thought, activism, communication, resistance and organisation of thousands of women (and many men and transpeople) over the last 8 years. Its lineage stretches back through Riot Grrl into cutie, queercore, punk, gay liberation, second-wave feminism, and the birth of identity politics. Its impact extends out into academic discourse, popular artefact, cultural history, political activism, applied philosophy and ethics. Ladyfest covers a stunningly diverse range of expression from graffiti, zines, parenting, djing, cooking, cross-stitch, comic art, fiction, journaling, self-defence, filmmaking, design and promotion, to the more traditional performative norm of getting up on stage and making a racket (or a drone), but a list of attributes cannot convey its real impact. It’s tempting to put together an anecdotal history, a selection of subjectivities, some indication of the force Ladyfests have been in the lives of the people who organise, perform and participate in them.
“I caught the tampon L7 threw at Reading,” deadpans Mira Manga, once a leading light of Teen-C with her band Disco Pistol, now ebullient frontwoman of all-grrl pop warriors the Duloks, and veteran of a multitude of Ladyfest appearances. “I held it aloft and behold: I harnessed the power of ROCK.”
OK. You’re right. It’s not gonna work.
“Sorry,” she sympathises. “I’m not really a riot grrl anyway. I’m more of a libertarian.”
As Ms. Manga implies, Ladyfest’s immediate roots lie in the riot grrl movement of the early 90’s. Originating in the Portland/Olympia nexus and Washington DC, mirrored in the UK, riot grrl (music version) first pitched itself against the sexism of the hardcore scene and the exclusion of women from DIY culture, using the insurrectionary language and anarcho-punk methodology of the queercore uprising that had preceded it by half a decade. Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy, Bikini Kill, Huggy Bear, Voodoo Queens, Pussycat Trash – inherent in these names is the claim laid to their stage. The movement’s broader sense of complaint, however, better expressed in the incredible variety of self-published writing that marked its early years, struck at the heart of the failings of second-wave feminism – the increasing alienation young women felt from the imperatives of both capital politics and academia, where second-wave feminism had pitched its struggles; instead riot grrl writing focused on popular culture and daily experience, on the quotidian jigsaw of the picture of oppression. It was to seek, and in Ladyfest it found, a language and methodology of its own, a practical means of empowering and involving women in the production of their own popular culture; one that has of late come to stand not only for feminism in music in the popular imagination, but also as a model of DIY self-organisation transportable across geographical and philosophical boundaries. The Ladyfest strain is viral for sure. Since 2000, more than 50 Ladyfests have been held all over the US, the UK, and in Australia, Canada, Scandinavia and Europe; countries as far afield as Singapore have adopted the model and made it their own. Each Ladyfest is autonomous, marshalling the idiosyncratic resources of a local community with one goal: the empowerment of women.
The first Ladyfest was held in Olympia in August 2000. Among its instigators were Allison Wolfe and Molly Neuman of Bratmobile, Tobi Vail of Bikini Kill, Sarah Dougher and Corin Tucker of Cadallaca, Cat Power and Neko Case. “I think it was a great politicized event put on by many strong talented women. We had access to a lot of resources and talent at the time,” understates Allison Wolfe. Surely she can see the impact Ladyfest has had? “Oh, totally,” she laughs. “I think it can stand as an alternative to the standard model of music events, and hopefully it has influenced promoters, clubs, participants and artists to see how it can be done differently. It’s one of many forms of feminist activity, and I believe it’s truly important for the psychic and creative survival of women.”
“I was in a band called the Riff Randells at the time – we had a boy singer, so we weren’t allowed to play the festival,” recalls Mar Sellars of the Duloks. “The Gossip hosted a pre-festival house show and we played there instead, with Gene Defcon, the Gossip, Trail of Dead, and the Frumpies. And that was the craziest show I’ve ever played.”
The inaugural Ladyfest would maintain an avowedly grrl-positive stance and a focus on empowering women in music (in the wake of the Woodstock rapes the year before, the sexualpolitik of the music industry was once again the subject of fervent debate). What riot grrl conventions, Queeruption and the Grrlstyle Revolution had instigated, Ladyfest now inherited, though debates about separatism and incest survival had been replaced with workshops on Making It In The Music Business and panels on sex work. The micropolitical pragmatism and sex-positivism of third-wave feminism had clearly had an impact, and the ideologies of Ladyfest were a development on prior models. Trans inclusion – the notion that ‘lady’ as a category also includes female-identified gender variant people – was one development that made itself felt immediately; Freddie Fagula, transgendered partner of Beth Ditto, gave a talk on body fascism to enormous acclaim. Ladyfest had received the queering of feminist space from its long association with both queercore and lesbian feminism.
“Ladyfest, I think, has always come from not just a feminist perspective but a queer one too,” argues Ros Murray of Electrelane and Lesbo Pig. “It’s really important. I think that when you put feminism and DIY politics together, it’s just natural that queer politics should be involved. Personally, I don’t separate feminist politics from queer politics because I see feminism as fighting clear gender boundaries, which is a very queer idea.”
Ladyfest also inherited riot grrl’s difficulty with race politics. The assumption that cultural differences would be resolved by uniting under the term ‘riot grrl’ was flawed for many. As Lauren Jade Martin had written in her 1997 zine You might as well live: ‘Some of you say “we’re out to kill white boy mentality”, but have you examined your own mentality? Your white, upper-middle glass girl mentality? What would you say if I said I wanted to kill that mentality too?’
This critique, never resolved by riot grrl, remains a thorny issue for Ladyfest. The limitations placed on it by the white, middle class roots of riot grrl are, to some extent, mitigated by the localness of each event; Ladyfest London, for example, chose immigration and asylum as its theme last year as a direct challenge to the whiteness of past events. Mina Gichinga of the Duloks, though, believes it’s the indie-music bias of many Ladyfests that is most limiting.
“I think there’s a need for alternative genres to be introduced to Ladyfest- say female grime for example,” she says. “There are talented girls making music that’s not centrally punk or indie, so why not show that off too? Variation is important if Ladyfest is to grow.”
For Anat Ben-David of Chicks on Speed, who has performed at Ladyfests as a solo artist, the issue is less inclusivity than a lack of ambition. The not-for-profit, anarcho-feminist roots of Ladyfest can leave some women wondering why they’re being asked to play another free show.
“There’s this thing of wanting artists to play for free, just because it’s for women. Come on – this is our job! Ladyfest, more than any other festival, should be making sure women artists are getting paid. Clearly women’s liberation hasn’t gone so far as to affect how women in the art world and music business treat and and respect themselves and each other,” she argues. “I respect the organisers, but it needs to go further and happen big time. Get some support, be strong with it, pay all the artists, not just the head liners.”
Though playing a Ladyfest may not now be a commercially astute decision in the way it was for the Gossip in 2000 (the band was booked for a UK Ladyfest tour the following year, breaking them in to the British market), there remains a certain transformative power that immersion in subversive, often directly transgressive, action and culture can bring about.
“One of the things that for me is important is that it supports the local scene, and stays true to the DIY roots of Ladyfest. It´s not about shipping over a bunch of riot grrl bands from Olympia,” says Ros Murray. “It’s about encouraging new local bands and giving people an opportunity to play that might not normally get to in the male dominated music scene. it feels really great to be part of a process that aims to inspire other people to be creative, rather than to just sit back and watch. That was really important for Electrelane.”
“If Ladyfest has one concept, it’s that of providing an “in” for females in an industry that’s so male dominated the smell of testosterone is tangible,” agrees Mira Manga. “Don’t forget, in the 90s women were facing the new laddism, the Blur vs. Oasis pissing contest – and I think that hasn’t really gone away.”
“So many Ladyfests have spawned bonds and networks that continue on with exciting feminist activities, like the First Ladies DJ Collective and the District of Ladies visual arts collective that formed out of the Washington DC Ladyfest,” points out Allison Wolfe. “I believe the antiwar activist group Pink Bloque formed from connections made at Ladyfest Chicago. Unskinny Bop came out of Ladyfest London. And The Here gallery and DIY art/craft store, the Local Kid label, and the Café Kino vegan café, all came out of Ladyfest Bristol. It’s amazing – these communities are left with a bigger set of possibilities after Ladyfest.“
For Kieron Gillen, writer of the Phonogram series of graphic novels, the proper term for such a literal empowerment is ‘magic’. The first Phonogram book is set at a Ladyfest, and documents, to some extent, both Gillen’s own doubts about the event, and their eventual resolution.
“The idea of magic in Phonogram is always about the metaphoric effect of music on people,” he explains. “At Ladyfest Bristol, I realised that so much of my life I’ve been inspired by the music the festival celebrated… but it hadn’t affected my behaviour one fucking jot. I really beat myself up over it, which I channelled into the book by having the lead character beaten up by a goddess. The experience did alter my behaviour – I think I was a better person walking out of the venue than when I walked in, and if that isn’t magic, I dunno what is.”
UK LADYFEST TIMELINE
1986 – 1989
’87: Ablaze! Mag is founded by Karen Ablaze (still kicking ass in Leeds). The girls involved form bands; the bands spawn more bands, and the ‘zine spawns more ‘zines.
1990 – 1992
’90: Erica Smith conjures up Girlfrenzy magazine while wandering around the local shop. It provides a platform for female comic artists and adopts a more informal, fun attitude than more traditional feminist magazines. First published in ’91, it’s still going today.
‘91: Brightonian refuseniks Huggy Bear form; play shows, change world.
’92: the Slampt Underground Organisation record label is founded in Newcastle by Rachel Holborow and Pete Dale, soon becomes famous for nurturing Kenickie’s first output among its roster of defiantly idiosyncratic wrong-pop.
1993 – 1994
’93: Cazz Blase initiates the long reign of the Riot Grrrl fanzine (culminating in 1999). The London edition goes viral, inspiring Leeds and Bradford issues shortly afterwards. Elsewhere, Bratmobile bounce around the country to excitement and acclaim, and Huggy Bear embark upon a tour with American contemporaries, Bikini Kill, accompanied by filmmaker Lucy Thane, later to produce It changed my life: Bikini Kill in the UK, her documentary of the experience. Huggies also appear on the Word, riot live on TV, and are rewarded with a stunningly hostile press reaction. The year’s finale comes with the Grrrlstyle Revolution at London’s ICA just before Christmas.
’94: Yay for the Piao! Festival, held at the Emerald Centre, Hammersmith, London and featuring performances from the likes of Heavenly, Avocado Baby, Linus and Pussycat Trash. This was the brainchild of those behind Squab, an international distribution service for cassettes ‘n’ fanzines that had blinked into life around the same time as Slampt, but acquired the Piao name in tandem with the festival. Boo for Huggy Bear’s last gig, tho’, early the same year.
1995 – 1996
’96: Mathew Fletcher of Talulah Gosh (whose older sister, Amelia, was a core member also of Heavenly, Marine Research and Tender Trap) defines the term ‘riot grrrl’ for the Oxford English Dictionary. Later that year, he commits suicide.
1997 – 1999
’97: The redoubtable Anna Moulson founds independent promotions company Melting Vinyl and the Brighton Crawl, an early grrl-positive festival, in Brighton; releases ramalama commemorative Crawl 7-in featuring Gilded Lil, Mellow and Bette Davis and the Balconettes.
’98: The first annual Queeruption event, at the 121 Centre, Brixton, a self-organised, non-profit DIY event for radical queers to make, do, be, learn, organise, resist, and generally rule. The ethos and praxis of Queeruption would later form the skeleton of the nascent Ladyfest movement in the US, just as riot grrl zines had followed in the wake of 80’s queercore punk zines.
’99: Erica Smith publishes the Girlfrenzy Millennial, containing comic strips, interviews, fiction and photostories, including work by Charlotte Cooper and Fawn Gehweiler.
2000 – 2001
’01: In the wake of the first Ladyfest, held in Olympia, Washington in 2000, a 2001 UK Ladyfest tour is organised, featuring spiky girlpop greats the Lollies alongside Bangs, Sarah Dougher and the Gossip (playing their first UK shows); in the same year, the UK holds its first Ladyfest in Glasgow, featuring Bis, Bratmobile, and Katastrophe Wife, as well as workshops in DJing and self-defence for women.
2002 – 2003
’02: In the ridiculously sultry summer of 2002, Ladyfest London takes up the mantle, headlining Chicks on Speed, Electrelane, Holly Golightly, and Katastrophe Wife, alongside digital hardcore darlings Lolita Storm, lo-fi romantic Mirah, riot grrl stalwarts Linus, twee monsters the Blue Minkies, and Gina Birch of the Raincoats. Workshops include Men in Feminism, songwriting, dance, cross-stitch and self-publishing. Unskinny Bop, a club night inspired by Beth Ditto’s onstage striptease at Ladyfest Glasgow, makes its first appearance here. Its aims:to celebrate the achievements of fat people in pop, from Missy to Meatloaf, and to create a safe space for fat people to shake that badonkadonk free from judgement and inhibition. Joy ensues.
’03: 2003 sees, alongside Ladyfests in Exeter, Bristol, and Manchester, a proliferation of Ladyfest-associated or inspired events, with Unskinny Bop and the polysexual kaos of Club Motherfucker going monthly in London, Homocrime setting up its first queercore event, spearheaded by the Gossip, and the Local Kid label and the Here shop pushing the envelope in Bristol. In Brighton, the Punktrap night opens to all genders and sexualities, ages and body types, with a door policy favouring drag and nerd, while the Cowley Club provides a libertarian space for political organising and social events, as well as a library and cafe. It provides a home for local campaigning organisations in their dozens, later becoming a venue for local queer and grrl bands and club nights, including the Flesh Machine, Husbands, Peepholes and Miss Pain.
2004 – 2005
’04: Ladyfests are held in Birmingham, Dublin and Exeter, while the growth of grrl- and queer-positive collectives and events continues with the founding of Manchester’s Kaffequeeria, and Cardiff’s Peppermint Patti collective.
05: Brighton’s first Ladyfest proper is held in 2005, featuring performances from Electrelane, Afrirampo, the Polly Shang Kuan Band, Spider and the Webs and Partyline, a Riot Grrl film showing and panel featuring Jon Slade, Tobi Vail and Allison Wolfe, and a lesbian riot (unplanned) on the final night.
2006 – 2007
06: Having showcased, among others, Rhythm King and her Friends, Lesbo Pig, Husbands, Blood Red Shoes, the Corey O’s, Drunk Granny, Jean Genet, Sleeping States and Winston Echo, Homocrime holds its final event – Nomocrime – in 2006. The Homocrime Singles club and label continues. Ladyfests Bournemouth, Cardiff, and Newcastle bring the noise.
07: Ladyfest spreads to Leicester, Cambridge, Leeds and Nottingham, and Cardiff responds with its own F.A.G. club – cake, raffle and riot for queers of all genders and sexualities. In Manchester, the Female Trouble women’s collective begins its roster of fundraisers, shows and club nights, and Bristol’s Cafe Kino, providing a radical space for DIY political activism (and amazing food), opens.