From Grrrl to Lady

By Caroline Ly

Still stuck in the mindset of the early ’90s — the backlash against feminism’s excessive victimization of women — I found myself rolling my eyes at the idea of Ladyfest Midwest Chicago. Later, when some of my friends decided to pack in a van and trek over from the East Coast especially for it, my curiosity was piqued. I decided to go. More importantly, I ended up realizing that my idea of feminism was antiquated. A far cry from my earlier impression, this four day festival touted “an expansive feminism that is not dogmatic, exclusionary, or rigid.” What does that mean? It means that feminism isn’t dead, not just yet. How female equality is asserted, however, has changed, and the feminist thinking behind Ladyfest, drawing from the tradition of Riot Grrrl Underground, has grown up a little too. As Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney put it in reference to last year’s festival, “Riot grrrls organized all-girl shows and events at the beginning of the ’90s. Now some of the riot grrls have become riot ladies and are organizing Ladyfest 2000.”

Ladyfest Midwest, not quite exactly the Lilith Fair, has its origins in Olympia, Washington(state), the site of last year’s original Ladyfest. This year’s Chicago offspring lined up exciting events such as workshops and performances, all geared toward the promotion of women in the arts. The feminist celebrators congregated in both the Wicker Park and Humboldt Park neighborhoods, with music performances headquartered at the Congress Theater.

A refreshing change from the mainstream Britneys, headlining female acts included ESG, Amy Ray from the Indigo Girls, Loraxx, the Butchies and Le Tigre, fronted by former Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna. ESG, a South Bronx band, played it up in their reminiscently 80s dance music style, diving into classics “UFO” and “Moody.” Le Tigre showed, as music critic Greg Kot said, that “feminism can have a daft, ditzy side and still pack a political punch.” Chicago’s Loraxx was…loud — in fact, a lot of the music was just loud, but it was nevertheless good to see rock grrrls take their place behind guitars and drums. Even for those unfamiliar with the music scene at Ladyfest, the message was reassuring and clear: there are females out there who don’t rely on the good ol’ formulaic flaunting of pretty faces and scantily clad bodies to market their music.

Along with live music, the other events included workshops, films, and spoken word performances that rallied together academics, artists, and activists. Even I, strangely never finding myself at such forums on campus, was struck by some of the workshops being offered, with titles ranging from “Busting Out Loud to Proud: Queer Youth Speak from the Front Line” to a “Stitch and Bitch [Sewing] Circle.” The different avenues of emotional expression that surfaced ranged from the powerful anger of spoken word performances, to the academic, Freudian overtones in analyzing the importance of pornography to the informative encouragement of seeking pleasure through sex toys.

True to its credo, Ladyfest made its point. It wasn’t too mainstream. It wasn’t too underground. It was right on the ground. As in their “Ladyfesto,” “LMC knows that the battlegrounds are in culture, on the stage and screen, at the water cooler, and in the streets. LMC believes in creative rebellion and the power of art, expression, and community.” Not to get too corny, but I think I bought into it. Simply put, it was cool; I probably won’t even cringe anymore whenever I hear the word feminism. As for future of the festival, there won’t be another Ladyfest Midwest Chicago, but the tradition will likely continue elsewhere—indeed a few other Ladyfests in the same spirit sprouted up this summer in Scotland, New York and Bloomington. Where next year’s will be, I don’t know, but come next August, I’ll probably be packed in a van in search of it.