The National Women’s Music Festival (“National” or NWMF) is a four-day, annual indoor event in July. Started in 1974, National is the oldest festival for the performance of women’s music (music created by and for women). The festival is open to all genders and sexualities, but the majority of organizers, performers, and participants are Lesbian. Although National is not a women-only event, it is designed to promote a physically and emotionally safe environment for women.
Launching the First Women’s Music Festival
Folksinger Kristin Lems established National in 1974 as a response to the lack of representation of women in the music industry. The first National was the beginning of women’s music festivals as a tradition that not only preserves and cultivates women’s music, but also defines and validates Lesbian culture. It took place at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana and consisted mostly of Lesbians who needed a venue and community for their music. Famous musicians Yoko Ono and Roberta Flack were supposed to be the headlining performers, but they canceled. Women’s music musicians Cris Williamson, Meg Christian, Vicki Randle, and Margie Adam replaced them.
At the first National, some women thought men’s attendance and involvement contradicted the festival’s goals. As a result, women took over production roles and some even protested the presence of men. Since the festival took place at a university, however, the producers had to allow men to attend. Consequentially, National became an event produced by and for women but with an open-door attendance policy regarding attendees. In 1982, it became an official non-profit organization called Women in the Arts (WIA). NWMF expanded its festival to offer theater, dance, spoken-word, comedy performances, films, workshops, speakers, auctions, and a marketplace for craftswomen.
Locations and Public Spaces
While many festivals occur on self-contained private land, National occurs in public spaces, including the following Midwest universities: 1974-1981 at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, 1982-1997 at Indiana University, 1998-2002 at Ball State University, 2003 at Kent State University, 2004 at The Ohio State University, and 2006-2007 at Illinois State University. Participants began requesting non-university locations with less confining spaces, and in 2008, National met at the Alliant Energy Center Exhibition Hall in Madison, Wisconsin. It currently takes place at the Marriott Madison West, where the WIA board hopes to create a permanent home.
These public locations differ from the experiences afforded by secluded, outdoor women’s music festivals. Public spaces provide access to public facilities and businesses and options for attendees who do not wish to camp out or deal with inclement weather. At events held in public space, participants encounter men and women from outside the festival (such as employees and staff) that might enhance or destroy the festival’s safe space.
Women’s Music and Representation
National offers Main Stage evening concerts and afternoon Day Stage concerts. There are late night drumming jams and a Festival Jam featuring a gathering of musicians on the last day. Prominent artists since National’s inception include Maxine Feldman, Ferron, Kay Gardner, Ginni Clemmons, Therese Edell, Tret Fure, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Linda Tillery, Gwen Avery, Janis Ian, and Deidre McCalla. Musicians emerging in the 1980s and after include Jamie Anderson, Zoë Lewis, Ubaka Hill, Sawagi Taiko, Melissa Ferrick, Lucie Blue Tremblay, Kara Barnard, Ember Swift, Wahru, Capital b, Heather Bishop, and Lyndell Montgomery. All of these women have brought innovative sounds to National, cutting across genres with electronic folk, gospel-infused a cappella, African drumming, jazz, classical, blues, and singer-songwriting folk music. Like many women’s music festivals, many attendees prefer Lesbian musicians who openly express their sexuality and address women-identified topics in their lyrics. Since Straight and Bisexual people attend National, this preference raises issues of exclusion and representation. Straight women who feel marginalized have created their own networking groups within the festival.
Comedy, Artists, and Crafts
Musicians such as Alix Dobkin, Sue Fink, and Lisa Koch incorporate humor into their musical acts. Comedian and singer Koch has performed queer carols such as “I’ll be a Homo for Christmas” with the quartet Venus Envy, and she puts a humorous spin on women’s issues with songs such as “Women’s Healthcare Medley” that wittily discusses the discomfort of gynecological and breast exams. Stand-up comics such as Suzanne Westenhoefer, Kate Clinton, Karen Williams, and Vickie Shaw have also regularly performed at the NWMF.
Each festival provides a variety of performances as well as spaces and activities that support women’s arts while raising money for WIA. A large marketplace exists for craftswomen to sell goods and services. Some Nationals have the Circus Room with balancing acts and drag king shows, Drumming Room, and Idol competition with a main stage performance by the winner. Live and silent auctions offer items and services to the highest bidders. At the fundraising Artist Breakfast, participants can purchase a ticket and spend time with their favorite performer.
Supporting Women’s Folklife
Not all of NWMF’s festivities focus on entertainment. One-time workshops as well as daily and annual workshops address topics such as writing, music, dance, cultural traditions, racism, psychological therapy, and spiritual-religious practices. Sessions on Dianic Wiccan traditions have featured Z. Budapest and Ruth Barrett, sessions on songwriting have been hosted by Meg Christian. Speaker panels have featured Geraldine Ferraro, Rita Mae Brown, Margot Adler, Judy Chicago, Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer, Anita Hill, and Betty DeGeneres. In 1994, Leslie Feinberg spoke about the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival’s exclusionary womon-born womon policy and thanked National for opening its doors to transwomen. Other activities offer emotional and psychological support, such as support groups for incest survivors or alcoholics anonymous and networking for specific groups of people, including S/M practitioners, Straight women, Bisexual women, and women of color.
Dissonance & Harmony
Although National does not exclude transwomen, male children, and men, controversies arise over Straight bashing (prejudice against heterosexuals), biphobia, unpleasant encounters with the non-Festival public, and participants not being accepted as festival performers or craftswomen. In addition, there is concern about racism, White privilege, and the underrepresentation of women of color (primarily but not exclusively Black and Latina women). Since 1974, participants, performers, and producers have consisted largely of White, middle-class women. Progressively more diversity was encouraged throughout the 1970s and 1980s as more women of color performed. In addition, an annual women-of-color workshop series, created in the late 1980s, has offered sessions on racism as well as women-of-color-only workshops.
An annual series on spirituality features workshops on Kabbalah, the occult, sacred musical performances, performing rituals, Goddess worship, and healing. Some of these events draw on specific African, East Indian, and Native American practices. The final festival day contains a Universal Worship Service, a candlelight ceremony that draws from multiple sacred texts with universal messages. The event welcomes participants of all spiritual and religious practices and those with no religious affiliation.
Morris, Bonnie J. Eden Built by Eves. Los Angeles and New York: Alyson, 1999.
Hayes, Eileen M. Songs in Black and Lavender. Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois, 2010.
Gaar, Gillian G. She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock & Roll, 2nd ed. New
York: Seal, 2002.
Carson, Mina, Tisa Lewis, and Susan M. Shaw. Girls Rock!: Fifty Years of Women
Making Music. Lexington: The University of Kentucky, 2004.