Michigan Womyn's Music Festival
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The Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, often referred to as MWMF or Michfest, was a feminist women's music festival held annually from 1976 to 2015 in Oceana County, Michigan, on privately owned woodland near Hart Township referred to as "The Land" by Michfest organizers and attendees. The event was built, staffed, run, and attended exclusively by women, with girls, boys and toddlers permitted.
Michfest's stated intention of admitting only "womyn-born womyn" and excluding transgender women led LGBT advocacy group Equality Michigan to boycott the event in 2014 and drew criticism from the Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the National LGBTQ Task Force. The festival held its final event in August 2015.
The first women's music festivals in the United States were founded in the early 1970s, starting with day festivals at the Sacramento State and San Diego State University campuses, the Midwest Women's Festival 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.
In 1976, Lisa Vogel, along with sister Kristie Vogel and friend Mary Kindig, founded the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival after attending an indoor festival of women's music in Boston the year before. They were joined by local businesswoman Susan Alborell. When their application to form a non-profit collective was denied, the We Want the Music Corporation was structured as the parent company of MWMF. Michfest was initially conceptualized as an event attended by women and feminist men; however, it became a women-only festival when the characteristics of outdoor camping were taken into consideration. MWMF was thereafter established as "an event for lesbians". Years later, author and feminist scholar Bonnie Morris would describe Michfest as "An entire city run by and for lesbian feminists. Utopia revealed. And Eden—built by Eves."
In 1982, Michfest moved to what would become its long-term 650-acre location near Hart, Michigan. In subsequent years it would add an acoustic stage and an open mic stage, in addition to day stage and night stage programming. Cement-paved walkways were added to ease access for women with mobility challenges and baby strollers. Barbara "Boo" Price became Vogel's business partner after the 1985 festival and was increasingly involved with production until the two parted ways in 1994. A 10th-anniversary double album was produced in 1985, and in 1986, the festival expanded to five days. The festival was hampered by an outbreak of shigella in 1988.
Closure in 2015
Michfest celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2015. On April 21, Lisa Vogel announced via Facebook that it would also be the last festival. An opinion piece published in The Advocate speculated that the decision had been prompted by the ongoing controversy around the festival's decision to not admit transgender women. Vogel wrote in her statement:
There have been struggles; there is no doubt about that. This is part of our truth, but it is not — and never has been — our defining story. The Festival has been the crucible for nearly every critical cultural and political issue the lesbian feminist community has grappled with for four decades. Those struggles have been a beautiful part of our collective strength; they have never been a weakness.
Status of property
The property on which Michfest took place is currently under contract for purchase by a nonprofit organization known as the We Want the Land Coalition. The organization intends to make the land accessible to women who want to organize events on it. Smaller events were planned for the summer of 2019.
Activities and services
Attendance at the Michfest ranged from 3,000 to 10,000. Women built the stages, ran the lighting and sound systems, made trash collection rounds, served as electricians, mechanics, security, medical and psychological support, cooked meals for thousands over open fire pits, provided childcare, and facilitated workshops covering various topics of interest to the attendees, who were referred to as "festies". Up to one month was spent building the festival grounds, and dismantling them at the close of the event.
Management decisions were made through worker community meetings. Community service support included ASL interpretation at performances, mental and physical health care, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, camping for disabled women, as well as a tent solely for women of color.
Writing from a personal perspective for The Village Voice in fall 1994, musician and Festival kitchen worker Gretchen Phillips (co-founder of the band Two Nice Girls) said: "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 "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."
Male children age four and under were allowed within the festival. Childcare for girls and boys under five was provided. A summer camp, Brother Sun Boys Camp, was available for boys aged 5 to 10.
Production and performances
Artists from multiple genres performed at Michfest, including classical, jazz, folk, hard rock, acoustic, bluegrass and gospel. The Festival created a high-tech production with three stages in a rural outdoor venue. Notable performers included Jill Sobule, Margie Adam, Melissa Ferrick, Jane Siberry, Bitch, Vicki Randle, Marga Gomez, Dar Williams, Valerie June, Cris Williamson, Holly Near, BETTY, and Sarah Bettens (Sam Bettens).
Michfest Half-Way Soirée
In 2005, festival attendee Lisa A. Snyder created the "Michfest Half-Way Soirée" in New York City to support the local Michigan Womyn's Music Festival community, female musicians, and women-owned businesses. Half-Way to Michfest Parties (sometimes also called Mid-Way Parties or Michfest Half-Way Parties) were subsequently held in Chicago; the San Francisco Bay Area; Portland, Oregon; Boston; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Santa Cruz, California; Syracuse, New York; Long Beach, California; Western Massachusetts; Tampa, Florida; Yellow Springs, Ohio and Bellingham, Washington.
Michfest's goal in creating a space centering on "womyn-born womyn" was interpreted by some as excluding transgender women. The "womyn-born-womyn" intention, as named by Vogel first attracted controversy in 1991 when Nancy Jean Burkholder, a transsexual woman, was asked to leave the festival. In 1992, Burkholder had a survey circulated at Michfest that asked, "Do you think male-to-female transsexuals should be welcome at Michigan?" Although the sample was not "randomly selected", the results were interpreted as indicating that the greater number of those who attended MWMF would be against the exclusion of transsexual women, and "strongly suggest[ed] that the majority of Festigoers would support a 'no penis' policy that would allow postoperative male-to-female transsexuals" to attend Michfest.
Critics argued that the womyn-born womyn objective constituted discrimination against transgender people and in 1995, Camp Trans, an annual protest event held concurrently with Michfest that operated adjacent to the festival venue, was launched. It was restored as "Son of Camp Trans" in 1999 and lasted until 2010, when the United States Forest Service thereafter revoked its camping permit due to "allegations of violence and vandalism at the Festival, and...a confrontation...near the gates of MichFest".
In a 2005 interview with Amy Ray, Vogel defended the intention, stating 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." In a 2006 press release, Vogel stated that "we strongly assert there is nothing transphobic with choosing to spend one week with womyn who were born as, and have lived their lives as, womyn."
In 2013, transgender activist Red Durkin launched a Change.org petition asking performers to boycott Michfest until the womyn-born womyn intention was abolished. In response, Vogel stated that "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."
In 2014, LGBT advocacy group Equality Michigan boycotted Michfest. The boycott was joined by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), GLAAD, the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), and the National LGBTQ Task Force. Michfest accused the boycott of being "based on misrepresentations, purposeful omissions, and selective editing of prior Festival statements on this issue," with Vogel referring to the boycott as "McCarthy-era blacklist tactics". The NCLR and National LGBTQ Task Force would later withdraw their support for the boycott.
Protests against the intention resulted in criticism of artists who had performed or been invited to Michfest. Bitch, of the band Bitch and Animal, attracted criticism for choosing to play at MWMF, resulting in the Boston Dyke March canceling an appearance by her in 2007, and she was also pulled or dis-invited from several other music festivals. Members of The Butchies and Le Tigre claimed to have been "verbally attacked, endlessly harassed and physically threatened" for deciding to play at the festival. In October 2013, filmmaker Sara St. Martin Lynne was asked to resign from the board of the Bay Area Girls Rock Camp for attending Michfest.
However, many attendees of the festival stated that the presence of transgender women at Michfest was publicly known. Indeed, Lisa Vogel's objective was to ensure that no one on The Land would be questioned about their gender, in no small part to protect the many butch women who attended the festival.[a]
- Lesbian erasure
- Lesbian feminism
- Radical feminism
- Trans-exclusionary radical feminism
- Women's Week Provincetown
- Ruth Dworin, feminist activist who recorded Michfest for historical purposes
- Ruth Ellis, lesbian activist and staple of Michfest who became oldest known surviving "out" lesbian
- List of historic rock festivals
- "It was womyn-only and we, as producers and organizers ... would have womyn come up to us and say, ‘There’s a man on the land,’ and we’d go over and it would be a bearded womon. Or we’d walk over to check it out and really often it would be a butch black womon. And white womyn were not used to being around a diversity of black womyn.... Our intention of never questioning anyone’s gender on the Land stemmed from that, and that was in the 70s, before anyone was really discussing gender [identity]. [I]t was really clear that here we were; we had this womyn-only space and womyn were getting confused — if they didn’t know butch womyn or bearded womyn or black womyn, then they were IDing sisters as men. And so really our original focus on this started out as: we don’t want here to be any place where a woman is questioned. Cuz we’re questioned about our womonhood all the time. I mean I’m a butch womon; I’ve been questioned. So that was the foundation of it." – Lisa Vogel
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When her name is Bitch, she's a feminist and she regularly performs at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. A statement released by the Boston Dyke March, which recently canceled Bitch's performance, reads in part: "In the week proceeding the Dyke March, members of the Boston queer, genderqueer, and transgender community began contacting the Dyke March Committee, expressing dissatisfaction about the selection of Bitch as a featured performer...By the end of the week, it was obvious that the unhappiness had become widespread and threatened to disrupt the spirit of unity and inclusivity that the Boston Dyke March has enjoyed for so many years...we are committed to listening and responding to the voices of our LGBTQ community members." Evidently this inclusivity and unity does not extend to dykes, even dykes like Bitch who regularly perform at trans-inclusive events and who consistently support transgender activists and causes.
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- Gebhart, Mary A. (1998). The Michigan Womyn's Music Festival: Building a Lesbian Community (Thesis). Michigan State University. OCLC 1084466590.
- Higgins, Lisa L. (2008). Reconstructing Gender, Personal Narrative, and Performance at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival (PDF) (Thesis). University of Missouri. doi:10.32469/10355/5561. hdl:10355/5561.
- Kendall, Laurie J. (2006). From the Liminal to the Land: Building Amazon Culture at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival (Doctor of Philosophy thesis). University of Maryland, College Park.
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- Books and journals
- Barrett, Ruth, ed. (2016). Female Erasure: What You Need To Know About Gender Politics' War on Women, the Female Sex and Human Rights (1st ed.). California: Tidal Time Publishing. ISBN 978-0997146707.
- Browne, Kath (2011). "Lesbian separatist feminism at Michigan Womyn's music festival". Feminism & Psychology. 21 (2): 248–256. doi:10.1177/0959353510370185. ISSN 0959-3535. OCLC 23367452. S2CID 145055941.
- Eaklor, Vicki L. (2008). Queer America: A GLBT History of the 20th Century (1st ed.). Westport; London: Greenwood Press. ISBN 978-0313337499.
- Enke, A. Finn (2007). Finding the Movement: Sexuality, Contested Space, and Feminist Activism (1st ed.). Duke University Press. ISBN 978-0-8223-4062-1.
- McHugh, Erin (2011). The L Life: Extraordinary Lesbians Making a Difference. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang. ISBN 978-1584798330.
- Morris, Bonnie J. (2016). The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbian Spaces and Culture (1st ed.). Albany, New York: SUNY Press. ISBN 978-1438461779.
- Shneer, David; Aviv, Caryn, eds. (2006). American Queer, Now and Then (1st ed.). Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers. ISBN 1594511713.
- Official website (Archive)
- Festival Letters and Statements to the Community, Michfest (Archive)
- Michigan Womyn's Music Festival records at the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College Special Collections
- St. Martin Lynne, Sara (2016). Voices From The Land: A Collective Memoir by the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival Community. San Francisco, California: Blurb. ISBN 9781367789456.
- Macdonald, Jocelyn (October 24, 2018). "Setting the Record Straight About MichFest". AfterEllen. (Interview with Lisa Vogel)