We sent two of our lady reporters down to Olympia (which last week's Time deemed one of America's hippest cities) to check out the post-Riot Grrrl proceedings of Ladyfest, a weeklong conference centered on the sociopolitical, artistic, and musical endeavors of modern women. What follows are some of the juicy bits from their diaries.
Laura: 'Festing headquarters: A cool mag/rag shop in the thick of downtown Olympia. As they pick up what will become the week's ultimate fashion accessory—the arty, laminated Ladyfest pass—'festers eye each other with measured caution. Nearly every faction of modern youth culture is represented here, from drag kings to skater chicks to environmentally aware college kids. The girl to guy ratio is like 20:1.
Everything in Oly looks as if it is meant to be shared, borrowed, broken-in, and loved. There tons of spaces. If youve got an art show, you can call them gallery spaces, if you want to perform, you can call them performance spaces. These spaces convey the political and social agendas of all that have used them. The writing is on the wall. A homemade poster says, Yuppies get the fuck out of our neighborhood, and stickers for the local rock bands the Gossip and Bratmobile collage a bathroom door. Inside one of these spaces, Praxis, we find our first panel, a discussion of alternative menstrual products.
Young women with punk rock hair use grown-up words to educate their peers about the environmental and health hazards of the mans feminine hygiene products. They rattle on like children do after birthday parties. They are excited. They have things to share. They seem so smart, so tuned-in and alive. They say vagina without pausing. They are unafraid and unashamed. They are at least five years younger than me. It is clear that I have things to learn.
Outside the Capitol Theater, crowds of disappointed women grumble about the beauty seminar being cancelled. The butches, the femmes, the rocker chicks, the skater girls, the college co-eds, and the drag set: were all let down. Such is the way with these decentralized affairs, a Ladyfest organizer explains. Because no single person is in charge of this week, some things are bound to fail. And thats cool, we are beautiful already.
That night, a long-time Olympian and Riot-Grrl veteran welcomes the festers and reads announcements about lost wallets and ride shares. She mentions a few of the 'fests sponsors, like gurl.com and the events underwriter, Uncle Paul and his Experience Music Project. She claims that anyone who has issues with corporate sponsorship is welcome to stop her on the street and engage her in discussion. Her tone of voice says, Money is important. If you dont like it, try pulling something like this off without some help. Before kicking off the nights musical performances, she maternally reminds us 'festers to hydrate often. Remember, ladies, here in Olympia, good 'festing is in the water.
Around midnight, I feel the Ladyfest vibe. I am glad I am a girl. Chan Marshall, a.k.a. Cat Power, plays her seven or eight semi-songs, all of which mysteriously have just two chords. The girls, packed tight as sardines, hang on every whispered word. They cheer wildly throughout the poorly executed set and call out, "You're beautiful!" when she quits halfway through a Nina Simone cover. I am both touched by their adoration and disappointed by their lack of discernment. At one point she prompts the crowd, Guess how many chords I know? One girl calls out, Three. Another voice says, Four. Chan settles with, Somewhere between three and four. Im not sure what the point is. Is she encouraging girls to play guitar or is she being self-deprecating and coy?
Outside the theater that night we pull up a piece of curb and are absolutely astounded by the sizable crowd. There are so many variations on the theme of Lady. Its wonderful and beautiful and exciting. In the middle of that thought, a Mercedes sedan pulls up and waits patiently for three mohawk-sporting teenagers to climb inside. Ouch.
Bethany: Ladyfestwhat to expect? All-girl summer camp with rock n roll and postRiot Grrrl feminism and some booze and drugs and sex around the edges? Im simultaneously cynical and excitedhopeful my cynicism will be quickly eroded in the atmosphere of female bonding and rocking out. Im also anxiousI am female: Is that in and of itself sufficient preparation?
No press passes are available, a fact I find cutely homegrown and nonhierarchical. Transgendered ladies are welcome. We arrive in quaint downtown Oly and go to pick up our passes; the ladies handling things at HQ are beautiful and vaguely goth, uber-organized. The show tickets are beautiful too, with stark and mysterious line drawings of day-of-the-week panties for each day of the week, natch, and no other info or text. I feel part of a secret society, a feeling that implodes the instant I look into a local cardroom, my gaze met by some unabashed small-town leering. I didnt know cardrooms existed.
The festers travel in twos or small groups, talking amongst themselves. You have to smile first in order to squeeze one out of them. They look like San Francisco to me, a look I associate with girlfriends there who weld and make comix. I am attempting to approximate this look, but unfortunately the only way to fuck it up is by trying. Laura looks correct; I feel a sham: Audrey Hepburn in drag. I feel close to too old or old-fashioned, but anticipate this will pass. Note to self: Relax, feel the fest.
The first official event we attend is the "Creating Alternative Menstrual Products" seminar. I count more than 50 women here to throw off the shackles of $5-a-box Tampax. The meeting's run by Blood Sisters, an organization dedicated to helping us free ourselves from the money-grubbing, environment-wrecking menstrual product corporations. The Sisters give good science. We finally get to the actual alternative products, which include sea sponges, a diaphragmlike device called the Keeper, and homemade pads. Samples are passed around; everyone in the room eagerly handles one woman's Keeper, which must have been in and out of her vagina (or "vag," as she says) a million times.
A few things have already been cancelled: the basic auto mechanics workshop and Compact: Beauty Tips Elevated to an Art Form (as one fester says, Damn, now Ill be ugly forever). I am sorely disappointed about both. An organizer attributes it to the committee-run, decentralized nature of the Fest of Lady, something she admits has its good and bad points: good in that its supportive, and responsibilities and decisions are dispersed, bad in that things fall through the cracks and no ones really accountable for anything. She admits to secretly preferring ye olde authoritarian style.
That night: Cat Power is either completely high or an insane genius, maybe both. Every song she half-plays (and thats exactly what she does) sounds like both Knockin on Heavens Door and Helpless. Im kinda tipsy and I cannot believe the evidence of my senses: This show is completely incompetent, incontinent. By the time she plays a song all the way through I am lost in my own thoughts and pretty much miss it.
Afterward, a late-night drag show in the packed Capitol Theater confounds my attempts to play "Boy or girl?" to categorize gender, and is maddening until I realize that's the point. A guy in drag does a lunatic dance, cuts off his own fake breasts and hurls them into the crowd, then reveals a grotesquely overblown fake vagina under his skirt and cuts that out too as the crowd goes wild. An N'Sync act has everyone screaming like crazed teenagers; they're not cheesy boys but girls acting the part of cheesy boys. Plus they're really good.
Laura: The Women in Technology panel (canceled) has been replaced by the lackluster Interview This!, a discussion of resumes and cover letters. Snooze. I hope and pray that the Sewing Circle will be full of earnest girlin'. Instead, I fight to stay awake as 15 women crowd around an ancient sewing machine and learn how to thread a bobbin. If you'd only taken Home Ec instead of Auto Shop like your mom told you to. . . .
Between and around my seminars and discussions today, I take time to talk with some of my fellow 'festers. I meet a couple of girls from the Bay Area who met through a list serve on the Ladyfest site and drove up here together. One looks slightly bored, the other is thrilled to be standing in the K Records building and is not afraid to say so. One boy (!) wearing a button that reads The GAP is filled with hate tells me about a radical right wing religious group in his native Canada that equates abortion with the Holocaust and attempts to raise awareness against what they call genocide. I tell him I thought that the slogan referred to the clothing store. We agree that it works both ways.
The big country show at the Capitol Theater is sorely underattended. The hardcore, political set, girls with "I'd rather have a bike than a boyfriend" stenciled on their backpacks, is conspicuously absent. I shrug it off but secretly I'm pissed. We've made friends with this awesome woman, Kyla, from No Depression magazine and Hattie's Hat and the three of us are completely confounded by the fact that this show has been upstaged by some Riot Grrrl's house party. Lame. Nonetheless, Carolyn Mark, Trailer Bride, and Neko Case rule. The ladies in attendance, those of us smart enough to know where the real deal is going down, are treated to an excellent show. So put that in your burned bra, baby.
Later, as Calvin Johnson, king of K Records and Olympia too, cycles by on a banana seat bike and an MTV crew tries desperately to assimilate, I have the distinct feeling that I will one day say quite smugly, "Yeah, I was there."
Bethany: At the bicycle repair workshop, about 50 women are crammed into a tiny hot room to hear a funny, tan, soft-spoken woman dispense bicycle wisdom; everyone laughs, Chicago, New York, and San Francisco are in the house. I realize I need to raise my seat and "toe" my brakes. You can feel the love.
Feminism: Let's just get the f-word out there right now, shall we? I see four short movies about: 1) the horror show/gorgeousity that is YOUR PERIOD; 2) five cute girls sneaking into a concert in London; 3) supercool women who make 'zines; and 4) fat women who do and do not work in the sex industry (later I see a woman with a FAT GIRL MILITIA patch sewn on her bag). Sorry to bring up blood and fat and music and art and sex, ladies. Are you grossed out? Thinking that's-not-me-those-dykey-freaks-in-Olympia-running-amuck? Ladyfest may have made me feel old and straight, but it was about me, and you, too.
In the afternoon at the Ladyfest fashion show, indie-rock celebs and local teens and cute little girls and beautiful, differently weighted women model gorgeous, futuristic creations to the space-pop sounds of the Space Ballerinas. It is joyous and somehow poignant; it almost makes me cry. My reverie is interrupted by a white-trash model catfight staged by the designer Tammy Illfigure.
Lauras friend Monica shows up. She works for EMP, which is a major sponsor of Ladyfest, a fact that everyone seems to be shoving under the rug. Ah, these ambivalent Annies to Paul Allens Daddy Warbucks. Monica rules; she crashes with us and we have the kind of discussions it seems like you ought to have here, about work and sexuality and the future and favorite shirts and music.
During the divine ladies of country show this eve, we meet Carolyn Mark in the alley of the Capitol Theater and she asks where everyone is; I feel ashamed for Ladyfest, knowing that all the cool people have gone to a private party. Laura and I make excuses for the lack of turnout as if its our fault. Carolyn Mark is beautiful and she gives me some whiskey. We enjoy the psychedelic surf-country of Trailer Bride from the alleyside stage door, which suits us fine.
Laura: I get the evil stink eye from ber-punk chick. What did I do to you, sister? Shave my legs too closely? The Oly insiders really annoy me.
A seminar/discussion on gender identity leaves me confused and disappointed. The room is hot and crowded and a couple of the women seem intent only on loudly espousing feminist theory just to show that they can. The discussion strays wildly from the topic at hand. I am disappointed in the lack of sharing and open dialog. Am I the only one here who thinks that exerting ones knowledge and playing intellectual tag is not the most effective way to participate in the revolution?
Later, a panel on women in business is led, in part, by the chick that runs Rocker Grrl magazine and Rebecca Pearcy, proprietor of Queen Bee Creations, a funky line of bags and accessories. Again, the room is packed. Sweating women ask questions about online sales, dealing with competition, and marketing your product. Now this is good.
Im pissed. I missed the all-girl skate jam.
Capitol Theater: Aislers Set from San Francisco plays a good li'l show at the Capitol. Its like the Ramones getting their wires crossed with Belle and Sebastian. And all the 'festers are digging it. The theater is packed with bopping bodies. This, my friends, is what I call 'festing.
At the Factory-esque K Records art gallery/performance space, we are just in time to hear Calvin Johnson pontificate on the word "lady" and its evolving connotations. He launches into a warmly sarcastic version of Tom Jones' "Lady." There is lemonade for sale, neo-hippies sit cross-legged and obedient, and there are like 10 boys here, more than I have seen in one room all week. Bethany does not look happy. I sit in front of a bookcase that holds what appears to be the masters of studio recordings for bands like IQU, Dub Narcotic Sound System, and the Sub Debs. Over in the corner I see the racks of decks and figure that this is where most of the K Records stuff gets done. There are small children running around with cups of lemonade and girls twirling and throwing batons. Maybe those arent the masters after all.
I find myself unamused as headliner Mirah takes the "stage." I have her record, and it's great. Her performance isn't. Yet the adoring crowd is adherent to her every dull word. Like scary religious folks, they are unquestioning in their devotion.
Bethany: At the Spar, a handsome old-school caf鬠for breakfast, the ladies at the next table videotape me talking about alternative menstrual products, my new obsession, and laugh when I say, "Yeah, you just jam it up there." Ah, a cherished and unfortunately rare interaction with other 'festers.
In the afternoon, Susan Faludi and I busily scribble notes at the trans-gender issue panel. One person on the panel is biologically female but identifies as "a faggot"; another is biologically female, taking male hormones, and considers herself 'trans'neither male nor female. I will leave this considerable topic for Ms. Faludi to write a book on, and note here only the very good humor the panelists displayed as they discussed how they've freaked various people out in both men's and women's rest rooms.
I seem to interrupt my festing with obscure errands: looking for a doorknob at a salvage place, going into a mechanics to talk to them about my cars brakes, stopping at an old-man bar for a pitcher of Oly. Note the traditionally male nature of these venues: Do I miss the patriarchal, or am I merely inextricably linked to the quotidian? Do I want a man to help me, tell me what to do, or do I just need a doorknob, want to be able to bring my automobile to a halt, and experience thirst?
On that note, what's up with the absolute lack of liquor at all Ladyfest events? Sure, we've got to think of our under-aged sisters, but damn. Capitol Theater: Dry. K Records fiasco: Dry. Note to self: Buy flask.
This evening I begin to get an inkling of the Olympia music scene and its peculiarities outside Ladyfest. It's the water, all right, and they seem to be putting some lo-fi appreciation additive in it. The genius here eludes me in a big way; witnessing the slavish devotion to cloyingly cute singer/songwriter Mirah, the crowd's roar for the punk assault of Bratmobile at the packed Capitol Theaterit seems like a pretty bad case of the emperor's new clothes to this lady.
Laura: I bring some of my rad vinyl, denim, and leather bracelets down to the bazaar at Praxis, thinking that a bazaar is a whole bunch of women hanging out and showing off their wares. Instead, I am quickly asked if I had paid my five bucks and had I signed up ahead of time and was that my own table? I look around the room and see that everyone there has far more elaborate set-ups. They have tables and wall displays and signs and cards. Even though our Ladyfest program said, Buy, trade, and sell stuff you made or just junk, it's clear that the bazaar is for chicks who have experience selling their stuff. I do not see any trading. Some of the women here have had their things in the local shops, some of them have been featured in art shows and galleries. This isn't a little-old-ladies-in-a-church-basement bazaar. I get some good feedback on my bracelets before I pack them up and get the hell outta there, and besides, yesterday I met the Softies Rose Melberg by the pool at our hotel, she liked my bracelets so much that I made her a very special, custom-built one. But still, I'm kinda disappointed.
Later: Sleater-Kinney puts on one hell of an amazing show. Before "All Hands on the Bad One," they invite a few chicks up on stage to fess up to the bad shit they've done. One woman admits that she just stole some tampons from Safeway in order to have more money for beer. I wonder where she was during the Keeper discussion, but I don't lose any faith in Ladyfest. Whatever Lilith Fair did for women, this week has done a million times more. The revolution is going down in alleys, rock clubs, and forgotten places. We're all in this together, despite our different social and political agendas, and perhaps, even, because of them.
Bethany: Its impossible to summarize Ladyfest, but I know people will want me to, not to mention that Laura and I have only 1,200 paltry words for the print version of our article. Damn. Is it fun? Yes and no. Would I go back? Yes, and Id bring an army of women of different ages and dispositions with me: We should all be here, ladies. I love it, I hate it; I am confused, I am inspired. I worry continually about doing this thing justice.