are women-only music festivals really necessary?

Yes, and 2016 is the time to take such initiatives seriously — whether it's Glastonbury recently announced a women-only venue called The Sisterhood, or Este Haim's call for a riot grrrl revival of female-led Lilith Fair.

by Hannah Ongley
22 June 2016, 4:31pm

During the riot grrrl glory days of the 90s, women-led music festival Lilith Fair was one of the most successful on the calendar. It was founded by Sarah McLachlan in 1996 after she became frustrated with the lack of women on radio stations and major stages, and decided to book lineups featuring only female solo artists and female-fronted bands. Yes, there was a lot of folk-rock and yin-yang chokers. But there was also Erykah Badu, Missy Elliott, Luscious Jackson, Lauryn Hill, and Neneh Cherry (in 1998, they all played the same stage). Lilith Fair ended in 1999, and when it was revived in 2010 after a ten-year hiatus, the response was not exactly rapturous. "Bringing the same thing back last year really didn't make any sense, in retrospect, without due diligence being done on how women have changed," McLachlan told Rolling Stone in 2011 after the failed revival. "In 12 years, women have changed a lot. Their expectations have changed, the way they view the world has changed, and that was not taken into consideration, which I blame myself for."

Journalist Amanda Hess was less forgiving about the revival, writing for the Washington City Paper: "On the one hand, it was great to see so many successful female musicians all sharing one stage — the original 1997 line-up included Sarah McLachlan, Meredith Brooks, Paula Cole, Shawn Colvin, Natalie Merchant, Joan Osborne, and Jewel. On the other hand, who the fuck wants to listen to that shit?" Annie Clark, aka St Vincent, shared a similar opinion in 2009. "Hey, hop aboard the marginalising train," she told "It was just white people who wanted to see the Indigo Girls. It also helped perpetuate this idea that what women do in music is acoustic, sincere, sentimental, and without an edge to it."

It's difficult to make that claim about a new women-only space announced by festival behemoth Glastonbury earlier this month. "The Sisterhood" is billed as an "intersectional, queer, trans, and disability-inclusive space" open to "all people who identify as women." Evidently organizers learned a lesson from the annual Michigan Womyn's Music Festival that ran from 1976 through 2015, and was eventually canned after attracting massive backlash for its trans-exclusionary "womyn-born-womyn" policy. The Sisterhood is promising levels of both musical diversity and general badassery — there's even a power tools workshop(!) — that Lilith Fair ultimately fell short of in 2010. And, unlike its defunct predecessor, The Sisterhood is strictly no boys allowed.

Unsurprisingly, this has earned The Sisterhood a heavy amount of backlash from men, which if anything seems a pretty powerful testament to its necessity. The problem of sexual assault at music festivals is so pervasive that you're considered very lucky if your most uncomfortable experience has been getting smooshed in a giant man's armpit. Far worse experiences have led to the creation of groups such as Girls Against, an intersectional feminist social media campaign founded by five teen girls after one of them — Hannah Camilleri — shared her own story of being assaulted at a Peace gig on Instagram. Girls Against has a popular Tumblr where the founders note that they support "all victims" of harassment. Other digital campaigns like #thisdoesntmeanyes, while not founded with music festivals directly in mind, have resonated in environments where women are frequently social media-shamed for wearing revealing clothing. Men get the run of most festivals' entire grounds, even when ticket sales are technically split 50/50 — can't women have just one safe space?

One of the biggest criticisms of women-only festivals or stages is that female artists should be booking the same stages as men. What a cool idea! Unfortunately, we've been complaining about this for decades to little avail. Coachella has still only had one female headliner in its nearly 17 year history. And while the 2016 lineup saw more female-fronted acts than ever before (27% compared to a usual average of around 16%), this is hardly a cause for celebration. You know what's also not worth popping bottles over? Barren gig posters stripped of all male-fronted bands and solo artists. Glastonbury, to its credit, has made a valiant effort to book more female acts under the brilliant Emily Eavis. The festival's co-organizer told us earlier this year that upping the numbers involves booking younger bands and artists at the start of their careers. "They're some of the things we like doing, starting bands young, giving them a chance to play here, and then booking them in the years that follow on the bigger stages," she told us. The Sisterhood is a leg up to the bigger stage, not a consolation prize. PJ Harvey and Adele are not going to play there instead of the main stage.

We're arguably in a revival of female rebellion in 2016, though riot grrrl remains firmly a product of the 90s. "Look at what punk rock feminism brought to the table and find the stuff that you can take into the future that's great," OG women-only space creator Kathleen Hanna said last year, voicing apprehension of an identical 2015 movement, "and throw the stuff that was stupid away." Two things we could do without in 2016: the sidelining of women of color, and the gendered language that was often employed as if "female music" was a genre rather than a meaningless and sexist term. Hopefully enough men voice genuine grievances for festival organizers to realize that female artists can draw crowds of all genders. Yin-yang chokers and tie-dye are prevalent enough at mixed music festivals anyway. 


Text Hannah Ongley
Image via WikiCommons

music festivals
The Sisterhood
lilith fair