The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (MWMF, the Michigan, or Michfest) is produced by and for women to celebrate womyn’s music every August on privately owned land in Hart, Michigan. One of the largest women’s music festivals in the world, the weeklong festival features music, comedy, poetry recitals, workshops, art vendors, parades, film festivals, athletic events, parties, dances, and other entertainment.
Thousands of attendees camp out, eat three meals a day, and work shifts to help sustain the festival. Although some Straight and Bisexual womyn attend Michigan, the majority of festiegoers (MWMF participants), performers, and organizers are Lesbian. The event promotes physical and emotional safety, sexual freedom, spiritual regeneration, creativity, and connections between womyn, and it has become an important tradition in Lesbian folklife.
In 1976, Lisa and Kristie Vogel along with Mary Kindig forged the We Want the Music collective and launched Michfest. They wanted to bring women’s music and the solidarity that transpired at these events to Michigan where they would build a festival based on collective decisions. The collective used feminist values to guide the production of their festival. For example, they used the words womyn and womon, without “men” and “man” in them, in Michfest folk speech. In the MWMF ethos, these words signify feminist revisions of women’s identity and a community free of patriarchal attitudes and behaviors.
The first festival convened in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan with two thousand attendees, twice the amount expected. From 1977 to 1981, the festival occurred in Hesperia. Improvements included a medical center called the Womb, political tents to discuss controversies, and childcare camps. In 1982, the collective purchased 650 acres of land in Hart to build a permanent home.
Building a Community
Every year, staff members construct the Michfest city on the Hart property. Michfest officials strive to create egalitarian hierarchies without oppressive power. Volunteer and paid staff members work before and after the festival, building and breaking down stages, pathways, parking lots, stores, showers, and gates. Some of the sites include Central Heating (the main office), kitchen, childcare and community center tents, and the aforementioned Womb. Festiegoers must volunteer to work shifts during the festival. Individuals might sell snacks at the Cuntree Store or clothes at Festie Wear, cook in the kitchen, or transport womyn in the Cross-Town Tractor. Performers are not required to work, but many do. Sometimes men fulfill jobs, like delivering PortaJanes (outhouses, from “Portajohn”), but they are not considered members of the community.
Efforts to ensure a festival with minimal problems include separate camping areas with specific policies, such as the chem-free (no recreational drugs) Bread & Roses campground and Amazon Acres for quiet camping. Ecofeminist ethics inform Michigan policies, holding that exploitation of nature and animals intersects with patriarchal oppression. Michigan food services offer exclusively vegetarian meals. The Land (often spelled with a capital L to denote its sacredness) is treated with respect. Littering is prohibited, recycling is mandatory, and there are no-camping conservation areas. After the festival ends, no above-ground architecture is left behind that could interfere with wildlife.
Upon entering the Land, one is immediately met with “Welcome Home” signs and greetings, festie-virgins are directed to Orientation, and others are reunited with their Michfest families. In the mid-1980s, Michfest began offering intensive workshops on topics such as racism, disability, music production, and drumming to strengthen community ideals and bonds. Separate communal areas for different groups create networks: Over 40s and Jewish Womyn tents, and Over 50s and DART (Disabled Access Resource Team) camping. African, European, and Native American traditions based on nature and Goddess worship infuse Michigan. Opening and closing ceremonies establish a sacred bond between festiegoers. Ceremonies involve blessings over the Land and singing the traditional Michfest anthem: Maxine Feldman’s “Amazon Women Rise.”
Standard Michigan activities cultivate physical and emotional intimacy among festiegoers as they share meals, sing and dance together, work collectively, live naked on the Land should they choose, bathe in open-air showers, and find long- or short-term relationships. Although Michigan lasts only a week, many womyn maintain the bonds they forge all year. In 2000, the festival’s website created a bulletin to reinforce the sense of community while away from the Land.
The first festivals featured artists Meg Christian, Cris Williamson, Holly Near, Margie Adam, Alix Dobkin, Linda Tillery, Teresa Trull, Linda Shear, Kay Gardner, Rhiannon, and Sweet Honey in the Rock. The music ranged from gospel to acoustic folk rock. The producers and audience valued raw, unpolished music that represented the festival’s grassroots theme. Many attendees privileged a musician’s Lesbian identity and the politics of her lyrics over the sophistication of the music. Songs focused on solidarity, Lesbian desire, coming out, gender equality, social justice, spirituality, and Michigan experiences.
As Michfest built more stages – Day Stage, Night Stage, August Night Café Stage, and Acoustic Stage—it offered additional acts. The music at Michfest did not remain static as a second generation of women’s music performers took the stage and introduced new styles and topics. For example, Girls in the Nose played satirical rock music and put a humorous spin on serious Michigan issues. More diverse music and musicians appeared as the producers actively sought to provide greater representation of womyn of color, such as African-American drummer and vocalist Vicki Randle, the Latin-folk-reggae-influenced duo Casselberry-Dupree, Native American ensemble Ulali, and Maori songwriter Mahinarangi Tocker.
The 1990s brought forth a host of new, eclectic artists: jazz guitarists Mimi Fox, drumming ensemble Ubaka Hill, jazz vocalist and acoustic-guitar player Pamela Means, Faith Nolan, Zoë Lewis, Alana Davis, Nedra Johnson, Toshi Reagon, and Monica Grant. As corporations capitalized on women’s music in the late 1980s and 1990s, more successful musicians performed, such as Tracy Chapman, The Indigo Girls, and Ani DiFranco.
Musicians performing at twenty-first century Michfests include God-Des and She, Rachael Davis, Gina Breedlove, Leslie and the LY’s, Northern State, Reina Williams, Lez Zeppelin, Tegan and Sara, and Melissa Ferrick. Styles range from rap and Latin folk to computer music and soul. First generation musicians still perform, establishing a connection between older and younger musicians. Nedra Johnson’s “Ahha (It’s a Good Thing)” (2005) extols the value of singing women’s music and praises those who paved the way, and Le Tigre’s “Hot Topic” (1999) presents an exhaustive tribute list of artists and activists who fought for Lesbian visibility.
White privilege and adequate representation of womyn of color (primarily Black and Latina, but not exclusively so) have been issues since the first Michfest. In the 1970s, very few womyn of color attended or performed. Decisions such as sleeping on the ground and serving vegetarian meals were interpreted as being made from a middle-class White perspective, thus lacking sensitivity to the experiences of other races and classes. Other problematic issues included appropriation of indigenous spiritualities, symbols, and drumming by womyn of European descent. In 1980, womyn of color began organizing meetings to address these topics. By 1986, they established a womyn-of-color-only sanctuary. Some White women argued that their segregation was reverse racism (bias against women of European descent). However, since 1976, the number of womyn-of-color musicians, staff members, and festiegoers has increased, and many attribute such growth to the sanctuary.
The presence of children on the Land has been a point of contention. Initially, male children of all ages could attend the festival and no official policy had been formed, despite growing concerns that their presence disrupted a womyn-only space. Debates continued to address the pros and cons of separate childcare camps. Some argued for a womyn-only space, one that is particularly safe for young girls. Others worried about separation anxiety for mothers and reverse sexism (bias against males).
In 1978, the producers created the Brother Sun Boys Camp for ages five through ten. Although the camp was on the Land, those male children did not participate in the rest of the festival. Currently, mothers are required to camp with their children at Brother Sun. Male children four and under can stay at Sprouts, and girls five and up at Gaia Girls Camp, but these female and male children can also join their mothers on the Land outside of Gaia and Sprouts. Although some womyn dislike the policy, it was designed to fulfill Michfest’s original vision by refusing to mirror the patriarchal world.
In the 1980s, Leatherdykes brought the performance of sado-masochism (S/M) to the Land. Many festiegoers found such eroticized performance objectionable, arguing that it endorsed violence against women. In 1984, a pornography audition was held, triggering vigorous protests and resulting in a ban on explicit pornography and S/M. In 1990, an aircraft scattered pamphlets that protested the ban. In 1994, Tribe 8’s performance fusing aggression and eroticism undermined the policy. Producers permitted Leatherdykes to display S/M in the Twilight Zone, the “loud and rowdy” camping area, and to hold S/M workshops.
No band was protested until Tribe 8’s 1994 performance. The dyke punk band’s self-promotion—“blade-brandishing, gang-castrating, dildo-swingin’, aurally pornographic snatchlickers”—led some womyn to demonstrate before the show with signs saying “TRIBE 8 PROMOTES VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN.” Veteran performer Alix Dobkin’s brief on-stage appearance with the band calmed protesters. However, the noisy distortion and unintelligible vocals coupled with sexually aggressive lyrics sparked a negative reaction, as did their stage antics, involving the dildo-castration of a “rapist,” and the song “Neanderthal Dyke,” which criticizes women-identified politics for being too serious. Still receiving criticism two days later, the band had an open-discussion workshop. Some womyn remained upset, and since Tribe 8’s performance, hardcore punk bands have not frequented the Michigan stage.
Womon Born Womon Space
In 1979, the producers mandated a womon-born womon (alternatives: womon born womon, womon-born-womon) attendance policy to address concerns about the presence of male-to-female transsexuals. Transwoman Nancy Burkholder entered the Land in 1991 and was asked to leave. Leslie Feinberg’s discussion of hir (non-gendered second person possessive pronoun) experiences as a transgendered individual in Stone Butch Blues (1993) inspired the formation of Camp Trans. In 1994, this counter-group, led by Riki Wilchins, protested the womon-born womon policy directly outside of Michigan’s opening gates. Five years later, Camp Trans reconvened as Son of Camp Trans with Wilchins, the Transsexual Menace, and members of the Lesbian Avengers. Two preoperative transwomen entered the property. One was discovered when she took a shower, and the other flashed workers in the kitchen, arousing heated debates between festiegoers.
In 1999, Lisa Vogel issued a statement on behalf of Michigan, supporting the policy to preserve the Land for womyn-born womyn:
We recognize that the Festival and Son of Camp Trans symbolize and express divergent views on the larger gender discussion that is going on in lesbian and gay communities. We support this larger discussion and value and respect the transsexual community as integral members of the broader queer community. We ask that they in turn respect womon born womon space… We are saddened and angered that political energy is being directed at tearing down womyn’s space, instead of at the external institutions that still concentrate power and control in patriarchal hands… We remain united in our commitment to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival as womyn’s space. This is basic to the power and philosophy of what brings womyn from around the world back to Michigan every August.
In 2000, Michigan organizers attempted to reduce conflict by offering a workshop on the festival policy and transgender experiences. Policy proponents argue that an operation cannot erase male privilege nor generate an understanding of oppression since birth. Some interpreted Camp Trans’ forced-entry and aggressive protests as sexist, patriarchal strategies. Policy opponents argue that Michfest advocates a rigid notion of gender as a physical concept, not a socially constructed one, and prohibits progressive gender and sexuality politics. Despite persistent controversy, Michfest staff has kept the womon-born womon policy. However, Vogel and staff members say they refuse to perform panty checks, and they will not police gender.
Unity in Diversity
Other controversies include Straight bashing (aggressive behavior against Straight people), biphobia, non-egalitarian authority, differently-abled access, and establishing a drug and alcohol-free environment. Festival producers, staff members, and festiegoers negotiate disagreements, not always in everyone’s favor, but in hopes of building a diverse and flourishing community.
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Carson, Mina, Tisa Lewis, and Susan M. Shaw. Girls Rock!: Fifty Years of Women
Making Music. Lexington: The University of Kentucky, 2004