Michigan Womyn's Music Festival

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Michigan Womyn's Music Festival
Michigan Womyn's Music Festival logo.png
Location(s) Hart, Michigan
Years active 1976–present
Date(s) August
Genre Women's music
Website michfest.com

The Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, called "the Original Womyn's Woodstock" [1] and often referred to as MWMF or Michfest, is an international feminist music festival occurring every August since 1976 near Hart, Michigan, in a small wooded area in northern Oceana County known as Whiskey Creek near Crystal Township, Oceana County, Michigan. The event is completely built, staffed, run and attended by women.



America's first "women's music festivals" began appearing in the early 1970s, starting with day festivals at the Sacramento State and San Diego State University campuses, the Midwest Women's Festival held in Missouri, the Boston Women's Music Festival, and the National Women's Music Festival at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. These first regional women-only events exposed audiences to feminist and openly lesbian artists, most of whom operated independently of the mainstream recording industry. Festival gatherings offered an alternative to urban bars, coffeehouses and protest marches, which were some of the few opportunities for lesbians to meet one another in the early 1970s. The feminist separatism of the spaces was a direct outgrowth of and solidarity with the activism created by black power and other racial solidarity movements.[2]

Foundation and early years[edit]

As a private, women-only camping event, the Michigan festival was founded in 1976 by 19-year-old Lisa Vogel, who, with sister Kristie Vogel and friend Mary Kindig, planned an event along the lines of the recent Boston Women's Music Festival and the Midwest Women's Festival.[3]


In 1982 the festival, then in its seventh year, moved to its present 650-acre location near Hart, Michigan, attracting the largest audience to date (upwards of 8,000 campers.) Gradually, the festival added an acoustic stage (and an August night open mic stage) in addition to day stage and night stage programming. After much discussion, cement-paved walkways were added to ease women with mobility challenges and baby strollers. Barbara "Boo" Price became Lisa Vogel's business partner after the 1985 festival and was increasingly involved with production until the two parted ways in 1994, during a decade which saw many unique challenges to the festival—including the production of a 10th anniversary double album in 1985; the growth of the festival to five days (with new intensive workshops) by 1986; the extraordinary thunderstorms of the "Harmonic Convergence" year in 1987; an outbreak of shigella in 1988 (the swift handling of which was praised by both local and national health inspectors).[4][5]


During the 1990s, the festival updated structurally and musically to expand styles of stage performance for a new generation of performers, adding a runway to the Night Stage, a mosh pit, and acts including the Indigo Girls and Tribe 8.[6]

Writing from a personal perspective for the Village Voice in fall 1994, festival artist and kitchen worker Gretchen Phillips expressed a nearly universal reaction to her first festival--"I had never seen so many breasts before, so many bare asses, so much damn skin on such a vast terrain. I decided to make that weekend all about studying my body issues"—and went on to include another frequently cited reaction: "I've always used Mich as a place to charge my batteries for the rest of the year, planning my life around being there in August and learning my lessons, both fun and hard."[7] Playwright Carolyn Gage would later give voice to another key appeal motivating campers to return: "At Michfest, she can experience a degree of safety that is not available to any woman any time anywhere except at the festival. And what does that mean? It means she achieves a level of relaxation, physical, psychic, cellular, that she had never experienced before. She is free, sisters. She is free. Often for the first time in her life."[8]

Functioning, activities and services[edit]

Attendance at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival ranges from 3000 to 10,000.[9]

Women build all of the stages, run the lighting and sound systems, make the trash collection rounds, serve as electricians, mechanics, security, medical and psychological support, cook meals for thousands over open fire pits, provide childcare, and facilitate workshops covering various topics of interest to the attendees, who are referred to as "festies". Hundreds of women spend upwards of a month out on the land building the festival from the ground up because every year the festival is torn down, leaving the land as close to how it was found as possible.[10]

Community decisions are made through worker community meetings where the youngest members of the community are given as much access to participate as the oldest. While men are not allowed at the festival, male children age 4 and under are allowed within the festival. Childcare for girls and boys aged 5 and under is provided by Sprouts, and for 5 and over girls the main venue is "Gaia Girls". There is also a teen tent. Brother Sun Boys Camp is available for boys aged 5 to 10.[11]

Production and performances[edit]

The festival creates a high-tech production with four working stages in an extremely rural outdoor venue.[12]

Controversy surrounding the inclusion of trans women at the festival[edit]

The Michigan Womyn's Music Festival maintains an informal policy (commonly known as "the intention") that only women who were assigned female at birth should attend. Festival organizers ask that men and trans women do not attend. The festival's term for its intended attendees is "womyn-born womyn" (WBW): women who were assigned female at birth, raised as girls, and currently identify as women.[13] The intention first came to popular attention in 1991 after a trans festival goer named Nancy Burkholder was asked to leave the festival after festival goers noticed that she was a male born woman.[14] Burkholder refused to answer if she was a transsexual when asked by festival security near the festival's front gate.[15]

In a 2005 interview with Amy Ray, co-founder and owner Lisa Vogel discussed the intention within its informing political framework:

I feel very strongly that having a space for women, who are born women, to come together for a week, is a healthy, whole, loving space to provide for women who have that experience. To label that as transphobic is, to me, as misplaced as saying the women-of-color tent is racist, or to say that a transsexual-only space, a gathering of folks of women who are born men is misogynist. I have always in my heart believed in the politics and the culture of separate time and space. I have no issue with that for women-of-color, for Jewish women, for older women, for younger women. I have seen the value of that and I learned the value of that from creating this space for so many years. So the troublesome thing is, in the queer community, if we can't, not just allow, but also actually actively support each other in taking the time and space that we need to have our own thing, then to come together, in all of our various forms, is going to take that much longer. And I understand how certain activists in the Camp Trans scene only see this as a negative statement, and I think that there's a lot of connection that's getting lost. Because, I really think that folks aren't understanding how crucial this space is, as it is, for the women who come here. And, maybe that's just it.[16]

Much of the support for this exclusion by festival attendees and workers focuses on the different aspects of oppression that may have been felt by born women and women who were assigned male at birth. Victoria Brownworth writes; "Being transgender carries its own oppression–there's no question about that. And no one should be checking genitalia at the door of MWMF. As someone who's spent years experiencing bi-genderism, I understand why transwomen would want to attend MWMF. But women are not the enemies of other women, whether those women are born women or transitioned women. Women are not the oppressors. It's a patriarchy out here."[17]

Criticism and protest against the WBW intention[edit]

After Nancy Burkholder was asked to leave the festival in 1991, a protest movement against the "womyn-born-womyn" intention developed. Opponents contend that the intention constitutes discrimination against transsexual and transgender people, many of whom they say identify as women, are legally female, and have to cope with the effects of sexism and misogyny in their daily lives. Transsexual activist Julia Serano provided her perspective on the issue: "Some of the women who travel from all over the country to attend Michigan think nothing of wearing their suspicion or hatred of trans women on their sleeves, and they will often make extraordinarily ignorant and insensitive comments about trans women in their attempts to justify our exclusion. . .[The] idea that the femaleness of my mind, personality, lived experiences, and the rest of my body can somehow be trumped by the mere presence of a penis can only be described as phallocentric."[18] Activists for including trans women have handed out pamphlets to festival goers waiting in line for admission, protested at the gate, and boycotted performers who have played at the festival. They also established an annual protest encampment near the festival known as Camp Trans, which became inactive in 2008. Several trans women have, since that time, attended the festival openly.[19][20] In 2013, Festival producer Lisa Vogel was compared to George Wallace for her continued defense of the Festival's WBW-only intention.[21] Several artists who have been invited to and/or performed at the Festival have lost contracts or been forced to cancel appearances because of their support or their appearance of support for the policy.[22][23] Other performers to the festival were physically threatened by pro-inclusion supporters, faced verbal harassment and bomb threats.[24] In October 2013, the Bay Area Girls Rock Camp asked a Board member, whose Festival related team had raised funds for the organization, to resign her position for attending the festival without repudiation.[25]

Current status[edit]

In 2006, a transsexual woman and Camp Trans organizer named Lorraine was sold a ticket at the box office. Supporters of trans women inclusion then issued a press release declaring, incorrectly, that the "womyn-born-womyn" intention was no longer in effect. In response, Lisa Vogel reaffirmed her support of and the festival's adherence to the intention.[26] More recently, on April 11, 2013, in response to a Change.org petition organized by activist Red Durkin, asking performers to boycott the festival as a result of the WBW intention, Lisa Vogel released a statement again reaffirming the policy: "I reject the assertion that creating a time and place for WBW to gather is inherently transphobic. This is a false dichotomy and one that prevents progress and understanding.... Whatever spaces we carve out in our community to encourage healing and rejuvenation should be accepted, and we should support each other in this endeavor. Nobody should be asked to erase the need for autonomous spaces to demonstrate that they are sisters in struggle."[27]

In a September 4, 2013 statement recapping the festival, Vogel stated her hopes and desires for the community of women in light of the inflamed tensions around festival attendance:

The intention of Michigan as a space for womyn born female and the question of trans inclusion has been a painful issue within the Festival. It is important that we continue these discussions and truly build alliances across our complicated and multi-faceted identities and beliefs, based on truthful, compassionate conversation and radical listening. In Michigan, as well as in our home communities, the difficulties we have experienced having these discussions in a clear and open-hearted format has pulled a great deal of focus. It is critical that we remember -- as a radical, loving and diverse community -- that a just world for all humans is our common ground and our greatest good. This is a fundamental tenet I hold dear as founder and producer of the Festival, and as a radical feminist womon. I pledge to continue to foster and support discussions about gender identities and to renew the Festival’s commitment to focused community work around issues of sexism, racism, classism, ageism, ableism; issues that, in their own ugly ways, overlap, injure and separate us. This excavation must be an ongoing process in our intentional community; good work is never complete – we are always in process.[28]

After artists were once again requested to boycott festival in 2014, Vogel issued another statement on the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival's Facebook on May 9 to address what she called the "rampant inaccuracies in social media" regarding the festival. In it, she noted:

We have said that this space, for this week, is intended to be for womyn who were born female, raised as girls and who continue to identify as womyn. This is an intention for the spirit of our gathering, rather than the focus of the festival. It is not a policy, or a ban on anyone. We do not “restrict festival attendance to cisgendered womyn, prohibiting trans women” as was recently claimed in several Advocate articles. We do not and will not question anyone’s gender. Rather, we trust the greater queer community to respect this intention, leaving the onus on each individual to choose whether or how to respect it. Ours is a fundamental and respectful feminist statement about who this gathering is intended for, and if some cannot hear this without translating that into a “policy”, “ban” or a “prohibition”, this speaks to a deep-seated failure to think outside of structures of control that inform and guide the patriarchal world. Trans womyn and transmen have always attended this gathering. Some attend wanting to change the intention, while others feel the intention includes them. Deciding how the festival’s intention applies to each person is not what we’re about. Defining the intention of the gathering for ourselves is vital. Being born female in this culture has meaning, it is an authentic experience, one that has actual lived consequences. These experiences provide important context to the fabric of our lives, context that is chronically missing from the conversation about the very few autonomous spaces created for females. This erasure is particularly mindboggling in a week when 276 girls were kidnapped and sold into sex slavery solely because they were female. This is the world females live in.[29]

Documenting the festival[edit]

Photographer Angela Jimenez spent five years, from 2003 to 2008, documenting the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, specifically focusing on the workers who create the festival each year.[10]

Several artists, including Dedemona Burgin and Sara St. Martin Lynne have created videos and other art celebrating the freeing experience of the "Land." These productions specifically detail the experiences of liberation that females feel in escaping male dominated culture and spaces for the Festival.[30][31][32][33]

The Michfest Half-Way Soirée[edit]

For years, women created small gatherings outside of the festival and August in their own local communities, consisting mostly of small house parties and potlucks. After attending a festival in August 2004 and a pre-fest potluck, festie goer and entrepreneur, Lisa A. Snyder, was inspired to take the gatherings to the next level by creating a party that highlighted pieces of the festival in the middle of New York City. In 2005, she created the very first "Michfest Half-Way Soirée", a party that supported the local Michigan Womyn's Music Festival community, female musicians, and women-owned businesses. The worker community and festie community were encouraged to co-mingle and introduce new "festie virgins" to feel a slice of the festival energy, halfway to August. The benefit, the first of its kind (started by Snyder in New York City) also created buzz about the festival, appearing several times in Time Out New York [34] and most recently in February 2011 issue of GO in "The Very Best of New York City Music" section.[35]

In the 2010s, additional locations for the Half-Way to Michfest Parties (sometimes also called Mid-Way Parties or Michfest Half-Way Parties) have begun to pop up across the United States. Known locations include Chicago, San Francisco Bay Area, Portland, Oregon, Boston, Ann Arbor, Michigan, Santa Cruz, California, Syracuse, New York, Long Beach, California, Western Massachusetts, and Bellingham, Washington.[36]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Edwalds, Loraine; Stoeker, Midge (eds.) The Woman-Centered Economy: Ideals, Reality, and the Space in Between, Third Side Press, 1995.
  2. ^ Levy, Ariel. "Lesbian Nation", The New Yorker, March 2, 2009.
  3. ^ Greenfield, Beth (May 26, 2006). "Intense, Unique No-Man's Lands". The New York Times. 
  4. ^ "Health Agencies In State Warned of Diarrhea Outbreak", Milwaukee Journal, August 1988
  5. ^ "An Outbreak of Shigellosis At An Outdoor Music Festival", American Journal of Epidemiology, March 1991
  6. ^ Scauzillo, Retts. "Retts Returns to the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival". About.com. Retrieved February 23, 2012. 
  7. ^ Phillips, Gretchen (September 6, 1994). "I Moshed at Mich". The Village Voice. Retrieved 3 January 2012. 
  8. ^ Cage, Carolyn (2011). Hotter Than Hell: The 2011 Lesbian Tent Revival. pp. 140–41. "At Michfest, she can experience a degree of safety that is not available to any woman any time anywhere except at the Festival. And what does that mean? It means she achieves a level of relaxation, physical, psychic, cellular, that she had never experienced before. She is free, sisters. She is free. Often for the first time in her life." 
  9. ^ Core, Lindsay (August 30, 2009). "How the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival's Topless Womyn Changed My Lesbian Life Forever". Autostraddle. 
  10. ^ a b Messman-Rucker, Ariel. "Welcome Home to the Michigan Womyns Festival". Curve. Retrieved February 22, 2012. 
  11. ^ McMahon, Becky (August 19, 2005). "Michigan festival, in its 30th year, is like a reunion". Gay People's Chronicle. Retrieved February 22, 2012. 
  12. ^ [1], "Myrna Johnson Audio"
  13. ^ Vanasco, Jennifer (April 4, 2008). "Transitioning into inclusion at Michigan". Seattle Gay News. 
  14. ^ http://www.transadvocate.com/michigan-womyns-music-festival_n_8943.htm
  15. ^ Tea, Michelle. "Transmissions from Camp Trans". Believer. Retrieved 5 June 2013. 
  16. ^ "Interview with Amy Ray", Indigo Girls Blog, June 2005.
  17. ^ Brownworth, Victoria, "The Fight Over Michigan Womyn's Music Fest", Curve Magazine, June 2013.
  18. ^ Serano, Julia (2007). Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Seal Press. ISBN 978-1-58005-154-5. 
  19. ^ Kalafarski, Alice. "Just Another Woman At Michfest". PrettyQueer. Retrieved 2013-04-27. 
  20. ^ Hill-Meyer, Tobi. "A Trans Woman at Michigan Women's Music Festival". The Bilerico Project. Retrieved 2013-04-27. 
  21. ^ Tucker, Karen. "Is It Wrong to Perform at Michfest?" The Advocate, May 28, 2013.
  22. ^ "Radically Queer Blog". Radicallyqueer.tumblr.com. 2013-05-28. Retrieved 2013-12-02. 
  23. ^ Hill-Meyer, Tobi. "Bitch Pulled From Festival Lineup". The Bilerico Project. May 21, 2010.
  24. ^ Koyama, Emi. "Response to Violence Against the Butchies/Le Tigre". eminisim. Retrieved 2014-01-06. 
  25. ^ "A Fish Without a Bicycle", Sara St. Martin Lynne Blog, October 17, 2013
  26. ^ Vogel, Lisa (August 22, 2006). "Michigan Womyn's Festival Sets the Record "Straight"". Retrieved February 22, 2012. 
  27. ^ Vogel, Lisa. "Michigan Fest Official Response to Red Durkin Change.Org Petition". Windy City Media Group. Retrieved 2013-04-27. 
  28. ^ Vogel, Lisa, "The Summer of Love - The Season of Sisterhood - The Belief in Our Community", Michigan Womyn's Music Festival Facebook Page, September 2013.
  29. ^ https://www.facebook.com/michfest?hc_location=timeline
  30. ^ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YgaV_dEKwUs
  31. ^ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ut3X6Xdrbuk
  32. ^ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hdPEFXkQfmg
  33. ^ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7QLpDnIG18s
  34. ^ London, Syd. "We were there: Michigan Womyn's Music Festival Benefit". Time Out New York. Retrieved 10 January 2012. 
  35. ^ Schroeder, Stephanie (February 2011). "The Very Best of NYC Music". Go Magazine (February 2011 Issue). Retrieved 10 January 2012. 
  36. ^ V, Kingsley. "Half Way to Michfest Parties". Retrieved 10 January 2012. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Eaklor, Vicki L. (2008). Queer America: A People's GLBT History of the United States. New York: New Press. ISBN 978-1-59558-636-0. 
  • McHugh, Erin; May, Jennifer (2010). The L life: Extraordinary Lesbians Making a Difference. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang. ISBN 978-1-58479-833-0. 
  • Morris, Bonnie J. Eden Built by Eves: The Culture of Women's Music Festivals, Alyson Publications, New York City, April 1999. ISBN 978-1-55583-477-7
  • Shneer, David; Aviv, Caryn (2006). American Queer, Now and Then. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers. ISBN 978-1-59451-171-4. 

External links[edit]