Thirteen myths about women’s music festivals busted

As I get ready to attend the National Women’s Music Festival I thought about all the things folks have told me about them over the years, from the outrageous (“They shoot men, don’t they?”) to the benign (“They still have those things?”). I’ve attended festivals for over thirty years. Let me blast a few myths for you.

They’re all transphobic

Might as well deal with the elephant in the room first; the answer is no.  Michigan’s intention is that it’s for women-born-women. They’re the only current festival that I know of that’s like this. Transwomen and men attend the festival; some are workers. Some want to make the case that the reason attendance is down at Michigan is because of this intention. Attendance is down at all of the festivals. They could all use your support. (More about this issue and other Michigan myths here.)

Michigan is the oldest festival

Nope. The National Festival is the oldest. It began the year before Michigan. In fact, when Michigan organizers first started, they showed up at National with their flyers. They sat in the lobby with a cooler of beer. Everyone who took a stack of flyers to distribute in their hometown got a free beer. Both festivals are celebrating their 40th year in 2015 because the National festival didn’t happen in 1981.

Michigan has drawn as many as 10,000 women

No again. Lisa Vogel, the current producer, told me it’s a little less than that. Still, it’s a good number and probably draws more than any other festival.

Men can’t come

For most of the festivals, that’s true. These events are meant to empower women and that can be hard to do with men around. I hate to pull out this tired cliché, but some of my best friends are guys and would certainly be awesome to work with — it’s just different with only women around. Here’s an example: years ago I was at an outdoor women’s festival when it started to rain. Robin Flower happened to be on stage and she’s one of my favorites so storm or no storm, I was keeping my ass in place. I watched in amazement as women scrambled up huge speaker stacks and covered everything with tarps. Another group lowered the front of the canopy covering the stage so that the water could drain off. (Mind you, this was a stage big enough to accommodate a small orchestra – we’re not talking about a little plywood platform in the middle of a field). All the while, Robin and her crack shot all-women band were cranking through some pretty awesome bluegrass. In contrast, I went to a bluegrass festival not long after that and saw one woman on stage in several hours. One.

Men can attend the National Women’s Music Festival. They rarely do, though.

You have to camp

There isn’t a single festival where you have to camp. Really. It’s kind of a pain at the Michigan festival because there aren’t hotels close by, but I know women who stay at them. The Virginia event  has a motel just one exit away plus they have charming little cabins on site that you can rent. (They’re rustic and you have to reserve them early but hey, it beats picking spiders out of your sleeping bag. Can you tell I’m not a fan of camping?) The National festival is all indoors. Yep, no pine needles in your hair. The Ohio festival has several motels close by. Heck, if you’re not a camper, most festivals have an RV area. Just rent the biggest RV you can find, share it with a few friends and split the cost.

Some women find that camping enhances their experience – live music under the stars and all that.

It’s all just folk music, right?

You probably don’t want to say that to Goddess and She, Scream Club, Leslie and the Lys or Candye Kane. This year’s line-up at the National festival includes Ladies Must Swing (an 18 piece big band), Sugar Beach (pop/dance), Sharon Katz and the Peace Train (South African folk-rock), Toshi Reagon (rock) and Mary Watkins (classical/jazz/gospel).  And yeah, there’s folk too but so what? (She says defiantly. Y’all do know what kind of music I do, right?) I’ve heard everything from punk to bluegrass at women’s music festivals. There’s something for everyone. If you don’t like one act, wait for the next one.

It’s expensive

They’re all cheaper than an Olivia cruise (no disrespect intended) and a lot more fun than a trip to New Jersey for your cousin Madge’s wedding. Michigan even feeds you. I still can’t believe they can offer three stages a day, a multitude of workshops and other amenities for that price. The Virginia festival has food too. You have to buy it separately, but it’s very affordable and so worth it for the barbeque chicken, real mashed potatoes, grits for breakfast, and dessert with lunch AND dinner.

They’re so politically charged I won’t have a real vacation

If you’re looking for lively political discussions you can find it at most festivals, but if that’s not what you want, you don’t have to participate and most of the time, you won’t even know it’s there. Also, some festivals don’t have that kind of atmosphere. I love the Virginia festival because it’s really just a big party. Not a drunken-let’s-upchuck–all-over kind of party, but a let’s-just-hang-out-with-friends kind of party. Ohio has that vibe too.

I have to take off my clothes

Some of the outdoor festivals are clothing-optional. Hey, we’re all women, so who cares? And it’s optional. I never take off my clothes at festivals and no one looks at me sideways.

Only lesbians can go

Don’t tell my straight, gender queer and bi friends who go. I love to stand at the front gate at Michigan and see the husbands dropping off their wives. “Bye honey! Remember the sunblock on your breasts!”

The showers are cold

All of the outdoor festivals have hot water. That wasn’t true in the early days, but we’ve learned a lot since then.

Children can’t come

Of course they can. Check with the festival to find out their policy. Some allow children of any gender and age, and some place limits on the ages of boy children. The Michigan festival has a camp just for boys and their moms that is so cool the boys look forward to going every year. Most festivals have child care facilities with lots of activities. Women’s festivals are safer for children than some of the other festivals I’ve attended.

It’s only for older women/younger women/white women/able bodied women

Some festivals do lean one way or another, but don’t make assumptions. The Michigan festival has a big contingent of women of color and I doubt they’d go if they didn’t feel welcome.  Most festivals are as accessible as they can be; being outdoors in the woods can have its limitation although Michigan even has hookups (to recharge chairs, etc) and women who’ll assist you in setting up camp and whatever else you need. Many festivals are interpreted for deaf folks.

Certain ages tend to show up for certain types of music. I work for Goldenrod when I attend the Michigan festival and I’m sometimes surprised at the kind of music each woman asks about. Sometimes that 20 year old with the green hair wants to buy the Cris Williamson CD; when rock bands take the stage, sometimes it’s the 50 year olds doing the stage diving. If you’re middle aged and don’t care for punk, you can always leave before they come on stage. There’s something for everyone.

Festivals aren’t perfect, but they’re damn fine places to vacation. Here’s a partial list. Check ‘em out:

Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival

National Women’s Music Festival

Ohio Lesbian Festival

Virginia Women’s Music  Festival

Iowa Women’s Music Festival

Here’s a video of me with a cast of thousands, er, hundreds, at the National Festival:

*****************************

You’re welcome to add comments but please, be polite. Any angry debates will be deleted.

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About jamiebobamie

Musician - teacher - writer - gets bored easily. I write an almost-weekly blog that includes true stories gathered from 20-plus years of touring, how-to articles for musicians and profiles of performers. Also, I love dark chocolate, I can play "Brown Eyed Girl" behind my head, and I twirl the baton badly.
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56 Responses to Thirteen myths about women’s music festivals busted

  1. Julie Nicolay says:

    Great festival “primer,” Jamie! You covered the bases and it’s an excellent reference to share with newbies, etc. I really miss going to festivals so much…sigh. I love camping, but have had to make adaptions over the years with injuries and body aging issues…however, I admit that I’d much rather NOT pick spiders out of my sleeping bed (no bags for me; I always brought all the bed stuff possible since the ONLY time I spent in my tent was to sleep the few hours I actually ever did)! I’ve been wanting to hit Virginia for years, but can’t afford the travel costs (always drove to NEWMR and Campfest when I lived in CT). Thanks for another great read!

    • jamiebobamie says:

      There’s probably a festival closer to you. Why don’t you do a Google search?

      • rose says:

        i just googled women festival on the west coast, and i got you jaime. Truth is there is a small low key festival on the west coast gaining momentum. It’s called fabulosafest.com.
        Great setting, great food and very craft and holistic friendly. Friends and family are welcome, but not dogs i believe. It’s about an hour away from san francisco, but women do come from all over. I’m still looking for other women’s fest on the west coast. Maybe I should google wimminfest. I heard there was one up in Anchorage, would love to hear more from the pacific northwest. Any fests out there?
        sincerely
        Rose

      • jamiebobamie says:

        Unfortunately, Wiminfest in Albuquerque ceased a few years ago. There used to be a festival near Fairbanks in Alaska but I don’t think it happens anymore either. I have fond memories of playing at that one. One year I heard Ferron under a midnight sun. Beautiful. I don’t know about one in Anchorage.

      • jamiebobamie says:

        Someone else mentioned that one. Glad to hear of it.

  2. Great post. Good to know that most festivals are trans-inclusive. One of these days I’m going to have to take the time to attend one.

  3. Kala Pierson says:

    GREAT post. I went to Michigan once when they invited me to give one of the Intensive Workshops. After some thought, I decided one good response to their anti-trans policy would be to lead my workshop twice, on different days, at Michigan and at Camp Trans (the gathering of trans activists that happens across the road from Michigan). I was really impressed both by Michigan and by CT. I don’t know of any other ongoing project by women as large-scale as Michigan, and whatever its cultural conservatism, the sheer scale of accomplishment there is really inspiring.

  4. Mary Franklin says:

    I was a Troubleshooter at the West Coast and Southern Women’s Music and Comedy Festivals from 1982 to 1994. They were, without any doubt, the most valuable experience of my life. I had been to a festival and a couple of women’s camp-outs before that, but it was at the festival that I learned over and over again the strength, skills and power of women when we work together. We ALL had contributions to make, and found many things to learn and love. One of my favorite experiences was to spend an entire West Coast Festival working with a college-aged true dyke whose hair was spray painted bright green, with matching green and black high tops. I was, at the time, in my later 40s and worked in law enforcement. We were truly an odd couple. If anyone knows Chester, she of the green hair, please suggest she me contact me.

    The most important role the Festivals had in my life was to provide me with role model sober lesbians and hundreds of women who supported me in in my recovery. (I celebrated 25 years of sobriety last November.) I am incredibly grateful to Robin Tyler, Diane, Jan-O, Mullen, Molly, Oz, Kobi, Sheri, Claire, Debra F.(RIP), Carol from, Denver, Clare, Tina, Camp Deborah,and all the women who led me to recovery and an understand of lesbian sisterhood. Without festivals, I would a dead drunk today. If Robin was still producing Festivals, I would be first at the gate.. At my present age (68) and infirmity (knees, pelvis, shoulders) I would require a differently-abled area of my very own. And an Assistant Troubleshooter to do the heavy lifting!

    • jamiebobamie says:

      Don’t write off women’s festivals. Some of them offer some pretty awesome assistance. Contact them. I’d hate to see you miss out.

    • Michigan still has some learning to do about sensory deficit differently-abled wimmin. I cannot use a white cane any more because of wrist, elbow and shoulder problems. On uneven ground I use a walking stick which is what I did at MichFest last year, the first and last time I went/will go. I also have severe hearing loss, but am not deaf. I was mainstreamed before mainstreaming was cool. I also think the DART team could use a little old-fashioned consciouness-raising about mental health issues. I guess I’ll hush. I’ll never go back. Just too difficult in so many ways.

  5. Thanks,Jamie – great update! You are right to Google smaller, more localized festivals. Remember the N,AZ Women’s Fest? I think Diane Post produced it – back when camping and caliche went together…

  6. Mel Heywood says:

    Thanks for the post! Also worth mentioning is the Fabulosa Fest July 20-22 near Petaluma, CA at the Walker Creek Ranch. This is its 5th year, and it models a lot of the collaborative community spirit of MichFest and other Womyn’s festivals, and it is intentionally trans-inclusive. Go West coast!

    • jamiebobamie says:

      Cool. I hadn’t heard of them. That’s why it’s good to google your area and see if there’s a festival near you. There are lots of smaller gatherings worth attending.

  7. Marideth says:

    Hey, Jamie – actually the Midwest Wimmin’s Festival is the oldest by a year or two. Lisa Vogel went to them to find out how to run a festival and when she said they’d feed people from an Army field kitchen the Midwest folks laughed at her. That was a long time ago. Midwest is still alive, but more like a family gathering these days. Mosa can tell you more.

  8. rose says:

    one of my favorite wommon fest experiences
    was womanwrites, a low budget festival outside of Atlanta dedicated to the spoken word. To wit: a makeshift platform, a mike and a cone light.
    Lovely evenings listening to women speaking from the heart.

  9. rose says:

    great feature by the way. thanks for the dialogue

  10. Lanee says:

    You forgot to mention the Klezmer music. 🙂

    Good words here, Jamie. See you next week~!

    • jamiebobamie says:

      That too. In fact, I’m hard pressed to name a genre I haven’t heard at a women’s music festival. Maybe Dixieland jazz and opera. Not in the same set. 🙂

      • Kala Pierson says:

        Luckily for opera and other classical music, there are several festivals of women composers in the U.S. — annual in CT (womencomposersfestivalhartford.com), NY (esm.rochester.edu/wmf/), and FL (iwclib.org); biennial in TN (Athena Festival at Murray State University); and annual roving conference and/or concerts (iawm.org).

      • jamiebobamie says:

        Excellent! Thanks, Kala.

  11. Mary M. says:

    Thanks, Jamie, for a great post and for all of your fabulous work on behalf of women’s music and festivals! I’ll pass it along. . .and, here’s my MichFest recruitment letter that has been posted various places and that I give to women who say “oh, someday I’ll go to Michigan.”. . .
    See you next week!
    Mary
    ~~~~~~

    It’s your year. . . don’t wait!
    Dear long-time friends and friends I’ve yet to meet,
    When I hear you say, “I’ve never been to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival,” I know there’s a story there . . . perhaps a story of a life that doesn’t leave much room for vacations or a story of imagining a place that seems scary or boring or just plain too outdoorsy.
    I’m curious to hear your story because, until 2000, I had my own “why I’ve never gone to MichFest” story. My story went like this: “I like women’s music, camping, and hanging out with lesbians and other women. But what matters most to me is sea kayaking. Why go someplace in August with no ocean and thousands of women when I can kayak to an island in Maine and camp with a few friends?”
    That story lasted until 2000, when I injured my shoulder and couldn’t kayak. A friend and I egged each other on, saying, “Hey, this is our year to check out Michigan!” Flying from New England to Grand Rapids was like being a part of flocks of migrating birds, women from all over converging in the woods. The Festival bus from the airport arrived at a huge field filled with women, some in orange vests directing traffic, lots hauling gear toward big tents with colorful signs that said Orientation.
    Dazed, I carried my bags toward the tent. . .and out of the sea of women, someone yelled, “Mary! Welcome Home! I’m so glad you’re here!” I looked up and saw Carol, a woman from Massachusetts I hadn’t seen in a dozen years. Smiling, she helped me get a shuttle into the camping areas.
    That was my first “Michigan moment” – moments that only seem possible in the world of the Festival. It felt miraculous. How could I run into someone I know at just that moment? And what did she mean “Welcome Home”? Home? I’d never been there.
    Welcome Home didn’t make sense until the opening ceremony when I heard Maxine Feldman’s song, “Amazon Womyn Rise,” sung by thousands of excited women. Just thinking about it gives me goosebumps. Looking around at the women spread out in the night stage field – all shapes, colors, and ages of women – I thought – “Is this home?” Later that night, tired, lying back on the ground, staring at a zillion stars, singing along with the Indigo Girls songs I’d sung in my car, I thought – “This isn’t home, this is heaven.”
    I got it, there’s a reason to go to the Michigan woods in August. Actually, there are thousands of reasons. Each woman arrives with her own reason. Each year, my reason is different. At the Festival, I always find what I’m looking for, and, each year, it is beyond my wildest dreams. Clearly, I need to dream wilder.
    Now, what’s your story? Why haven’t you gone to the Festival? Each year there isn’t just one Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, there are thousands, each woman experiencing her own Festival. No one can fully explain what the festival is like. We each have to experience it for ourselves. I know the Festival organizers create a fabulous event, otherwise it wouldn’t be in its 34th year.
    I can’t explain it, but I can say this:
    Make this your year to check “going to the Festival” off of your life to-do list.
    Write yourself a new story, the story of “the reason I’m going to the Festival is. . .”
    Dream wilder.
    Go.
    We’ll be there to say, “Welcome Home!”
    See you in August,
    Mary (a festiegoer from western Massachusetts)
    PS: I can hear some of you saying, “but what about . . .?”
    Yes, it’s outdoorsy, we live in the woods for a week. Woods with hot showers and hot coffee and cold ice cream and a dance floor that pulses with music and women and a huge screen for movies under the stars and concerts from 11 in the morning until 11 at night and parades of femmes and struts of butches. And some women stay in RV’s with all the comforts of their other, non-Festival home.
    Yes, it’s political, because how can a world created by women, for women, and about women be anything but political in a world that says women shouldn’t be too much, too loud, too radical, too. . .ourselves.
    Yes, it’s time to find out for yourself.
    Check out http://www.michfest.com for the full scoop on the Festival.
    2011 Festival Dates are August 2-7. . . .Where will you be in August?

  12. Gillian Reedy says:

    I just needed to post… I am a 31 year old lesbian mother to 2 children. I have been attending the MWMF since I was 10 with my lesbian mother. My daughter has gone since she was 2 months old. The Festival is my home. I literally grew up there and know the land like the back of my hand. I stopped attending in 2010 due to the threats of violence from Camp Trans. I know longer felt safe and I know longer felt my daughter and son would be safe. It saddens me. I am hoping that this debate of the WBW policy comes to an end soon. We are three generations who attend MWMF and I would like to continue for my daughter to experience what I did when I was her age.

    MWMF is my home. This is a place where I have never felt safer to be even in the middle of the night. The womyn there take care of each other and even as a young child it was like I had 10,000 moms since they all helped take care my sisters and I.

    I want to go home, but not with the threats of violence.

    • jamiebobamie says:

      Come back, Gillian. I don’t believe that the festival is any less safe recently than it has been in previous years. When I started going in the late 70’s, and then through the 80’s, we sometimes had yahoos riding up and down the road, threatening to do something. They never did, though, ’cause we out number them. Not to mention that the festival has a very good relationship with the sheriff.

      • Gillian Reedy says:

        In 2010 Camp Trans was planning threats of violence. I do not and can not surround myself, my partner nor my daughter with even just the threats. I was there in 1991 when they asked the trans woman to leave, I was there when the shower incident happened.. I still went, but when violence came into the picture I was scared. The fest is my home. And I want it to be my daughters home. I do have a son who would not attend because in his words..” Duh mom that place is for girls and I don’t like girls and their cooties..”

        I know Lisa Vogul and I respect her request for the fest to be WBW. This is her land and she really has the final say.

        Once I know I can feel safe again I will be attending with my daughter.
        MY mom went this year 2012 and said she felt like attendance was down. And the main thing she was asked was where are your 4 daughters and your granddaughter. She said it a different energy to it.

        If Camp Trans continues with threats of violence or ruining stuff with the fest I can’t go. Until I know that CT is there for a peaceful protest then I would feel much safer.

        I miss my home. I miss my family.. And I miss Amazon Womyn rise for opening night!!

      • jamiebobamie says:

        Camp Trans wasn’t there this year. Does that make a difference?

      • Gillian Reedy says:

        It makes a huge difference. I did hear they held CT the week before fest. My thoughts have been I’ll be attending next year since my partner has never been and my daughter misses it… I just needed to comment and get this stuff off my chest

  13. Suzanne Roupas says:

    Another amazing and soul-filling festival is Where Womyn Gather. Second weekend in June in NE PA. It’s the granddaughter of Womongathering, and great granddaughter of Camp Fest. WWG is a Goddess based festival with rituals, amazing workshops, a sweat lodge, a Red Tent, and a Sacred FIre that is lit at the beginning of the festival and kept burning for the four days. Great women, great food, great marketplace and comfortable accessible cabins with hot showers. WWG is full of love, glitter, laughter. Excellent programming for little ones, tweens and teens. Oh and a great deal of wild dancing, singing and drumming. http://www.wherewomyngather.com.
    ❤ to all.

  14. What a great article! Mich Fest is what you make it! I also love all the nice things you said about the Ohio Lesbian Festival – a trans inclusive festival that I work each year! It’s a great festival with a super laid back vibe and they let you drive your car to your camp site to unload so it’s super easy! I think it’s about time we had you back on the stage there!

    • jamiebobamie says:

      Glad you enjoyed it. Please pass it around. It’d be great if the festivals got more support.

      I’m playing at the Ohio festival this year. 🙂 Really looking forward to it. I always have a great time. Will you be taking photos? I’m always looking for good performance shots.

      • Yay! I’m not doing the website this year so I haven’t memorized the performer list- that is awesome – Yes! I will be doing performance photos! See ya on the Land!

      • Rose Almere says:

        hi
        just remembered another west coast fest, the dinah shore open. It’s unofficial but huge happens in april. Some women are starting up a jazz festival in the same area (palm springs ca).
        The Dinah is kind of young and raucous.

      • jamiebobamie says:

        It’s not really a music festival, although a lot of lesbians attend.

    • To says:

      Way out west they got a Fest,
      For wimmen and their friends
      The’ve got great food and lots of tofa
      And they call it Fabulosa

    • roberta says:

      It’s mainly a san francisco bay area event. The setting is a ranch, and they handle all the amenities. Everyone is welcome, except dogs i believe. The focus is music and health practitioners so there is a lot of healers doing their trade and a few crafters. Very nice place.
      A nice mix of people, and a nice mix of women young and old. In fact everyone is nice, a tone established by the collective. You can see pictures etc on facebook: Fabulosa

  15. Dyke Diplomat = Robin says:

    Hey Jamie. Yea…. Im guessing you remember the Southern Women Festival when we had it on the Florida Georgia line. I think you were there the first year we had it. I love the “Early Years” of festivals. Thats when you truly see the wommin jump in to pull it all together. BTW…. this is Robin… Of “Robin & Dawn” We we 2 of the original Promoters of the SWF along with Pat & Laurie. I was the one with the Camcorder and also the one who ran around with bailing wire and Duct Tape keeping everything going. I remember filming you and some other entertainers late one nite under the pavilion doing a small jam session after everyone had wandered off to their tents. I had my camcorder set up and filmed it. Well… Im back in Key Largo these days just ‘chillin & Sailing’…. IRIE MON!
    ** Ahhh… those were the days my Friends…. We thought they’d never end…… ¯\(ツ)/¯

    Have a Happy!!!

    Robin & The Critters
    keywestwym@aol.com

  16. Dyke Diplomat = Robin says:

    …. Uh…. one more thing…. Check out this website. It archives websites & their pics after they disappear from the web. Its has some pics from the early years of SWF…. I love it. Im sure if you searched it you could find all kinds of neat old stuff from the early years of other Womins Festivals.
    http://web.archive.org/web/*/SWF

    Dyke Diplomat- AKA – Robin & The Critters

  17. National was my first when it was still in Bloomington, IN. The effort to be accessible to all amazed. Priority seating for those with mobility issue & differently able, the priority seating & sign language interpreters, etc … The 12 step meetings. The wide range of lifestyle choices that were supported. Respect for crone age woman. The real expectation for intergenerational dialog & feminist principles in action just to name a few. As a young adult it formed me.

  18. Irina says:

    Awesome article Jamie! I’d love to know about more Women’s Festivals in CA (I love FabulosaFest, and miss Hopland and Northern CA Women’s Festival, have enjoyed performing at all of them). Any other California Women’s Music Festivals you’d recommend?
    My partner and I have hosted women’s house concerts for years (Rose Street) and are thinking of starting a very small women’s music festival at the Clear Air Mountain House by the Sierra Buttes — http://www.clearair-mountainhouse.com — but we can’t do it alone — if other womyn would like to co-produce one maybe it can happen someday 🙂

  19. Pingback: Twelve reasons to attend a women’s music festival | Jamiebobamie

  20. Hi Jame – thanks for pulling all this together! Do you happen to remember what year there was the big fire at West Coast Women’s Music Festival? thanks!

  21. Pingback: The Michigan women’s festival is ending, now what? | Jamiebobamie

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