Standing onstage Thursday (August 16) in Chicago's Congress Theater, Kathleen Hanna caught her breath between songs and attempted to boil down the impetus behind this month's feminist Ladyfest music gigs to a single sentence.
Society, said the former Bikini Kill frontwoman, tries "to make you feel stupid because you're making work about your friends and neighbors." But your friends — and your bands and festivals — are just as valid as anything else on the mainstream's radar, she implied.
Then Hanna and her new band, Le Tigre, laid waste to the mainstream's dismissals with a new stick-to-your-guns tune called "My Art Is Better Than Your Art."
Le Tigre's lo-fi, disco-punk set was a clear rallying point for Ladyfest Midwest, underscoring that women of all genres could and should create their own art, with their own values, based on their own experiences.
The four-day event, which ended Sunday, saw more than 1,000 women (and dozens of men) trek to the Windy City for sets by minimalist funk pioneers ESG, Indigo Girl Amy Ray backed by queercore punks the Butchies, country singer and Mekons member Sally Timms, art-metal punishers Loraxx and scores of others.
The Chicago festival followed the smaller but equally energized Ladyfest Scotland, held August 12-14 in Glasgow. Like its Midwestern sister, Ladyfest Scotland featured numerous do-it-yourself and feminist workshops on topics such as DJ skills, violence against women and alternative ways to deal with menstruation. Scottish synth-pop outfit Bis, American garage acts Bratmobile and the Gossip, plus Katastrophy Wife — Babes in Toyland leader Kat Bjelland's new band — all took the stage, along with numerous other rock and spoken-word acts.
Both events took their cue from last summer's inaugural Ladyfest, a
stridently independent arts and activism conference that took place in Olympia, Washington, a hub of the 1990s riot grrrl feminist-punk movement.
"This time, people haven't allowed it to remain in Olympia," said Glasgow co-organizer Lee Beattie, 22, taking a breather in the basement of the 13th Note Club on LF Scotland's opening day. "With Riot Grrrl, lots of people were happy to just sit back and take what they were doing. The riot grrrl creators were exhausted. You cannot maintain the energy to keep doing that and produce things all the time. This time it hasn't just moved from Olympia to Seattle or Washington, D.C. It actually moved across the world."
An emphasis on empowerment connected events within each festival and linked the independently organized Midwest and Scotland Ladyfests to each other.
In Glasgow, women plotted to commandeer the reins of publishing during a workshop on postering zines throughout one's neighborhood; in Chicago, they got seductive in "Kinky Crafts: Cheap and Fun Ways to Enhance Your Sex Life."
Meanwhile, Amy Ray and the Butchies stomped through a cover of Tom Petty's "Refugee," turning the song's chorus ("You don't have to live like a refugee!") into an anthem of lesbian and gay rights. In the cloistered confines of the 13th Note, the Gossip's hefty singer Beth Ditto spread her "fat positive" message by shimmying and shaking through a raucous set stripped down to her underwear.
Numerous fans at both Ladyfests said they came to the events for the music but were heading home inspired to become producers of zines, shows and festivals of their own. Just as last year's Ladyfest inspired Beattie and Ladyfest Midwest organizer Marf Wright, this year's events have sparked the DIY urge in other attendees. A handful of Glasgow fans began talking about staging a Ladyfest in Nice, France, next summer, while in Chicago flyers circulated for a 2002 Ladyfest South in Atlanta.
Another offshoot, Ladyfest East, will take place in New York in early September.
Standing out in the Glasgow rain, getting ready to catch a set by Brighton, England's electronic-buzz band Electrelane, Bratmobile singer Allison Wolfe observed that a resurgent energy is coursing through women in the indie punk scene.
"It feels like the spirit of riot grrrl all over again, though maybe in a slightly modernized package," said Wolfe, 31. Bratmobile were one of the earliest Riot Grrrl bands, and the only act to play Ladyfests in Olympia, Glasgow and Chicago.
"It's interesting, because it's a little bit looser-knit. People can put on their own festival and make it however they want, whatever suits their communities. And a lot of us will attend. It's great that the pressure's not always on the same people. I don't think it has a chance to get too stale."