An Incomplete Guide to Great Feminist Summer Music Festivals

a baby sleeping with giant headphones on at Portland's Pickathon music fest

A baby chills the heck out during an Alela Diane set at Pickathon Music Festival in 2012. (photo by Sarah Mirk) 

Summer music is all about the festivals, but it can be hard to catch female artists at any of the major fests. Only 10 percent of acts at Coachella this year, for example, were women-fronted bands. 

Now that Lilith Fair is done toting five-dollar lattes in the name of commercialized feminism, and MichFest is busy denying claims of discrimination, this summer is the chance to get to know lesser-known feminist music festivals that are thriving across the country. 

Sixteen years ago, singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan created Lilith Fair. At a time when mainstream female musicians rarely crossed touring paths, Lilith Fair felt like a breath of feminist air to many. The commercial success and popularity of the fest planted it firmly in mainstream music’s consciousness. But as Lilith Fair positioned itself within a corporate-funded arena, the festival’s lady-positive message carried both a hefty price tag and contradictory subtext. With financial support from giants such as Starbucks, Levi’s, and Volkswagen, the intention of being a progressive response to the male-dominated music industry seemed lost in gratuitous advertisement.

Long before Lilith Fair, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival began exposing an exclusively female audience to music made by and workshops led by women. Since the 70’s, August turns a 650-acre expanse outside Hart, Michigan into a vibrant lady colony. Yet, MichFest’s lack of inclusivity hinders the event’s ability to serve as a positive and accepting forum; MichFest has always held fast to a transphobic “women-born-women attendees only” policy.

So what feminist music fests can we actually look forward to? 

Two of my favorite lady-centric music happenings are C.L.I.T. Fest and Ladyfest. Informed by a firmly DIY ethos, these events focus on showcasing independent, female-produced music and hosting workshops centered on pressing social justice issues such as being an effective ally and fat positivity. Both fests donate their proceeds to non-profits that benefit women.

Although C.L.I.T. Fest—which happens this weekend (August 2-4) in Chicago—has received criticism for their anatomically focused name, the fest seeks to be inclusive and welcoming of all identities. Anyone is welcome to attend and support the fest, regardless of gender.

In a review of a recent C.L.I.T. Fest, Dominique Montgomery of band The Two Funerals, said, “The acronym in C.L.I.T. Fest stands for ‘Combating Latent Inequality Together’ and the event focuses on fighting patriarchy, homophobia, and transphobia in the punk and DIY music communities. There is sometimes controversy around the name, but it is not supposed to be about alienating those who don’t possess a clitoris.”

Yet, for the sake of promoting visibility among traditionally marginalized groups, the fest refrains from having cis-men serve as organizers. Since its inception in 2004, C.L.I.T.fest continues to be an undertaking spearheaded by those whose voices often go unheard in both mainstream and DIY communities. 

C.L.I.T Fest and Ladyfest share similar missions to undermine oppressive forces present within music. Centered at the forefront of DIY culture, Ladyfest has taken on a life of its own with various cities hosting the event each year.

When Ladyfest Philly announced their June 2013 fest schedule, Danya Evans of Impose Magazine noted, “For nearly fifteen years, Ladyfest has been a driving force in exposing all-girl bands to the uninformed masses. Founded in Olympia, home of K Records, in 2000, the construct has been that female bands play, workshops be held, and a greater understanding of women in music is reached.” 

Like Ladyfest and C.L.I.T Fest, Musicians for Equal Opportunities for Women (MEOW Con) aims to push women’s visibility within music to the forefront. MEOW Con takes a more professional-oriented approach by addressing the unique challenges women face in the music industry. For three days, MEOW Con brings diverse musicians, journalists, academics, students, bloggers, and filmmakers together to discuss topics such as music licenses, balancing parenting and touring, and effective crowdfunding.

On the more outdoorsy end of the fest spectrum is SisterSpace, a weekend-long showcase of varied music, creative workshops, and athletics. Originally known as the Lesbian Feminist Weekend, Sisterspace stretches over 200 scenic acres on a Northern Maryland campground for a weekend in Septmber. The fest seems to be a kind of feminist summer camp, where “Weekend friends” return each year for empowering activities with a healthy dose of lady-centric music.

While many fests remain led by broader activist objectives, other festivals zero in on particular feminist concerns. Smash it Dead, a Boston-area event founded in 2011, seeks to use punk music and educational forums as a means to raise awareness about sexual assault. The annual fest serves as a benefit for the city’s rape crisis center and opportunity to facilitate greater discussion surrounding the issue of sexual violence. For three years, bands travel from as far as California to support Smash it Dead’s focused mission. This year’s festival already passed in March, so mark your calendar for next year.

There are several other regional festivals worth noting that feature a lot of female musicians front-and-center. Portland’s Pickathon is a roots-focused music fest happening this weekend on an idyllic Oregon farm (check out Bitch’s sneak-peek mixtape of great bands from the festival) and there are some good acts at Brooklyn’s Afropunk Festival coming up in late August. Bitch writer Laina Dawes covered the pros and cons of that festival last year (and will be reporting from the event this year, too), which drummer Jacqui Gore summer up as, “It is a bit confusing about what exactly this festival is about, but it does provide us with an opportunity to teach the younger generation about rock n’ roll.” Despite not having an explicitly feminist-focus, both these festivals contribute to enhancing women’s presence in music.

drummer jacqui gore

Drummer Jacqui Gore at Brooklyn’s Afropunk Festival in 2012. (photo by Laina Dawes)

There are several other feminist summer music festivals on my radar, including Portland’s FOC Fest (a small, rad DIY fest in June that Bitch covered last year) and Not Enough Fest (which happened in April in New Orleans and last September in Portland). I’m sure there are others I’m missing—add your favorite feminist summer music fests to the comments. 

By ramping up the visibility of those who often go underrepresented in music, all these fests’ existence serve to not only widen perspectives, but foster a sense of solidarity among those who attend and organize. And to have a good time while listening to great music! They might just inspire you to get up, get out and organize one of your own.

Related Reading: Five Great New Feminist Songs; BitchTapes’ over-100 women-centric mixtapes.

by Francesca Mastrangelo
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13 Comments Have Been Posted

Women's Redrock Music Festival

As a resident of Salt Lake City, Utah, I know *everyone* has an opinion on the subject of Utah. And mormons and politics aside, salt lake....and the greater state!, has an amazing scene of artists and creators. This year is the 7th Women's Redrock Music Festival, a festival that brings women performers to the forefront. The fest is open to all and located in one of the most scenic spots in utah, and has featured a diverse list of performers: andrea gibson, Bitch, Ellis, Michelle Malone, and a slew of other incredible musicians from the rock/indie/jazz fields!
Seriously's a pretty magical weekend :)

TITWRENCH fest, Gatas Y Vatas, FoxVag

<p>Thank you for covering this subject, all of these festivals are so radical and unique and the visibility/media attention on them are so necessary. I find that feminist music festivals stand out in so many ways because of the larger community that they both create and expand. Often times they also greatly help foster new and emerging artists of many mediums as well.</p><p>I am the Artistic Director for TITWRENCH festival in Denver, Colorado - now in it's 5th year.
TITWRENCH is a volunteer-run, music-focused festival featuring mainly female-identified folks, those creating and composing new sounds. Outsider, weirdo and avant-garde artists find a home on the stage here, where experimentation, collaboration and improvisation abound. We also feature poetry, dance, performance art, film and yoga with live music, as well as electronics-building workshops, herbal health classes and more. All of our events are all ages too.</p><p>Our fest has also inspired 2 sister festivals in the U.S. thus far, <a href=" target="_blank">FoxVag Fest</a> in Tempe, AZ which features a women-centered line-up focused on more punk sounds, as well as <a href="">Gatas Y Vatas</a> in Albuquerque, New Mexico - focused on solo female performers.</p><p>TITWRENCH is happening this year on September 5/6/7 in Denver - join us if you can!</p>

Here's another festival in

Here's another festival in November
---->RadLesFes (middle of November)
--->Near Philadelphia, PA

National Women's Music Festival

What about the National Women's Music Festival held annually in Middleton, WI? It's been held regularly, longer than most of the rest, including Michigan. I never see any men there, but can't speak to their attendance policies. I've been too busy enjoying the music.