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The Arts

Defining Women

Planning First Ever Ladyfest Baltimore Was as Important as The Upcoming Fest Itself

Sam Holden
GRRRL POWER: (from left) Sarah Gooding, Harriet Moon Smith, Sara Stiegman, Meg Lindsay, Lorraine Laprade, Anne Bankard, Erin Chrest, Jessie Xander, Kristal Lukacs, and Safara Fisher-Ballard reached consensus on organizing Baltimore's first Ladyfest.

By Raven Baker | Posted 4/9/2008

Ladyfest Baltimore

April 11-13

"I had this big vision of it being all music," says Meg Lindsay, 23, about this weekend's first-ever Ladyfest Baltimore, sitting at a Charles Village café; she will being teaching crafts to kids during the fest. "Since it developed into a lot of workshops, I'm more attracted to that."

Anne Bankard, 23, who is leading a guerrilla gardening workshop, also envisioned a Ladyfest focused on music--one that would reunite her favorite, defunct riot grrrl bands. "I really changed my mind," she says about the fest. "Workshops are the most important aspect, to be able to teach people and learn different things."

Eight years ago, a group of Olympia, Wash.-based young feminists organized a six-day festival celebrating women, with a heavy focus on the underground politicized arts scene. The event, dubbed Ladyfest, raised $30,000 for its beneficiary organizations, including a rape crisis center, and featured workshops discussing everything from racism and body image to car repair and self-defense. Other events showcased spoken word, puppetry, drag, and, yes, music--women musicians and even metal karaoke.

And while Ladyfest Baltimore kicks off with a dance party and includes a concert and cabaret performances, it deviates slightly from prior music-heavy models. At the core of this festival are the workshops--including discussions of anarcha-feminism, gynecology, and sexual consent, alongside so-called skill-shares about identifying plants, screen-printing, and body-casting. Some workshops were suggested by outside supporters, though many arose internally, exploring the organizers' own diverse takes on feminism and unresolved issues. "This is just bringing all kinds of things about life and politics" into the discussion, Bankard says. "It's women teaching. It's still relevant to feminism without being explicitly feminist."

That attitude extends into Ladyfest Baltimore's outreach. Thanks to financial assistance from Fusion Partnerships, which supports up-and-coming community activists with fiscal resources and helped Ladyfest Baltimore get off the ground, this year's fest benefits Power Inside, a community-based organization, also partnered with Fusion, that provides health and treatment services for sex workers and incarcerated women.

And that's fine by Ladyfest's decentralized spirit--there is no handbook for organizing, nor a main headquarters doling out institutional support. According to the international Ladyfest web site, which urges women to organize their own events under the name, by 2005, 95 groups--from Indonesia to South Africa--had heeded the call. While there is no official count, the Ladyfest movement is still going strong: this year, at least seven have occurred or are in the works, from London to New Zealand.

Organizers are free to make Ladyfest over in their own image, addressing issues specific to their community and on any scale. Still, there are similarities--Ladyfests are often informed by DIY values and draw organizers and attendees from a highly mobile but loose network of young, radical feminists. As these activists move around, they seed Ladyfests in their new homes, as was the case in Baltimore.

In 2003, Kristal Lukacs attended Ladyfest Philly while a La Salle University senior. She had cut her teeth organizing queer activism, but credits Ladyfest Philly as her first encounter with feminist activism outside of academia. "For the first time I could envision this world that was different and better," Lukacs, 27, says over a beer. "It was beyond a college campus--it was this city. Philadelphia has all these women who really care about creating spaces for each other to be creative, to do music and art, to talk about their vaginas."

This experience stuck with Lukacs as she finished school and relocated to Baltimore. In late 2006, after a couple of years juggling odd hours as a waitress, Lukacs began talking up the idea of organizing a Ladyfest to her friends, some of whom had never heard of the festivals. And she initially met some resistance. "People were saying it couldn't happen, that feminism in Baltimore didn't exist, and that people were OK with sitting back and not getting involved," she says. "In the end, it made me want to do it even more."

On Jan. 18, 2007, Lukacs and four others met at her apartment, including current organizer Sara Steigman, 24, for the first planning meeting. Word got around about the effort, and by the second meeting new faces started appearing--such as Erin Chrest, 27, who was invited by a mutual friend, and Harriet Moon, 24, who discovered the group through a forwarded e-mail.

"I wasn't really sure what Ladyfest was," Moon says. Moon, who had been involved with transgender outreach at UMBC, didn't know anyone at the meetings and struggled to find her place in the group. "It seemed like a lot of theoretical [ideas]," Moon says. "I stayed with it because I wanted to be involved with some kind of feminist organizing. I didn't really know where I fit."

Moon's experience is indicative of the collective's early days--a mixed group of strangers and friends, experienced activists and the curious, most of whom had never been to a Ladyfest. While membership fluctuated--Lukacs guesses that upward of 40 women have attended at least one meeting (disclosure: this writer attended early meetings but hasn't been a part of any organizing of the festival)--the group struggled to define itself.

One thing was certain, though: Ladyfest Baltimore would have to be committed to consensus-based organizing. The consensus model requires that before the collective can move forward on anything--whether a small detail like a particular sticker design to vital issues such as the wording of a mission statement--everyone involved must come to agreement. If even one person disagrees, a decision is stalled while organizers work toward compromise.

Consensus decision-making can be a tiring, drawn-out affair, as Ladyfesters--even cheerful, upbeat Steigman--are quick to acknowledge. "It got really strenuous and tedious," she says. "Sometimes, [I] was like, `I cannot talk about this again.' But that is part of the whole consensus-based decision. We've always tried to make sure that everyone's opinions have been heard and discussed."

The model has its benefits, too. Chrest, who had not participated in grass-roots organizing before joining Ladyfest, is a convert eager to use consensus-based tactics in her personal and work life. "It took us a while to get the hang of it, but once we adopted that method, I fell in love with it," she says during a phone interview. "I thought, How can you do things not this way? It was really intriguing to think everyone's viewpoint matters so much. We have to stop everything until we're all on board."

One issue that did stop everything was whether the group would accept organizers who identify as male. From separatist '70s-era communes to the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival--whose "womyn-born womyn only" policy has incited divisive debate among many feminists and transgender activists--the tradition of women-only spaces is long and fraught.

Further complicating the notion of "women-only" is the radical feminist view that gender is fluid and multifarious. Far from a binary of man or woman, many radical feminists see gender as a performance or social construct that is as varied as each individual person. And, as feminism increasingly intersects with and embraces transgender issues, essentialist, biological definitions of "woman" and "man" are further called into question.

Initially, the group settled on having only women organizers but agreed to include male-identified volunteers at the festival--in particular, as baby sitters. "Women have done child care for society for so long," Moon says. "Since this event is largely for women, we wanted to give women a chance to go and participate. I've been so surprised that we have [received] such a great response from men wanting to do child care."

The group has not, though, been able to fill all security positions with women, as it had hoped. "There's still gaps we need to fill," Steigman says. "And when push comes to shove, we decided its better to have Ladyfest than to not have Ladyfest"--meaning male-identified supporters will also present two panels at the festival, including one on male privilege and being a feminist ally.

The other panel, about gender inclusion, brought the group's conflicted stance on women-only spaces back to the forefront. Looking for someone to teach a workshop about positive erotic experiences, the group approached Sugar, a self-described "lesbian-owned, women and trans operated" sex toy store based in Hampden. The shop offered a male-identified presenter, Owen Smith. In keeping with its mission to highlight people who identify as women, the group turned the workshop down.

"But then, the person who had been offered to teach the workshop was kind of offended and upset that we weren't recognizing the whole range of his experience in life because he had grown up as a girl and been socialized as a woman," Chrest says. "So, we came to [the] consensus on having him present a gender-inclusion workshop."

For these Ladyfesters, the process of organizing is just as important as the end result. Thus, as with gender inclusion, issues the group struggled with have shaped events. White privilege was another hot-button topic among some organizers, who've built a discussion panel around it. In the earliest planning stages, members discussed having a citywide festival in diverse neighborhoods and how best to reach out from their own young and mostly white community. For a variety of venue- and transportation-related reasons, the festival was scaled back and the group continued struggling with outreach.

"Being a feminist [is] a different type of mind-set that certain people and demographics take to," Lorraine LaPrade, 22, says during a phone interview. "I don't necessarily know if Baltimore black women or women of color are less likely to consider themselves feminists. Maybe it's the group--[it] is pretty trendy and funky [and based] in the Charles Village setting."

LaPrade, a self-described shy writer studying at Coppin State University, and struggling to balance her newfound activism with school and work, is Ladyfest's sole African-American organizer. "What attracted me was just feminism," she says. "It was kind of weird getting used to it--when I went to my first meeting [I thought], Oh, OK, I kind of stand out, other than the fact that I'm new."

Looking to future organizing, and emboldened by her Ladyfest experience, LaPrade would like to lead a workshop, perhaps centered on her love of writing. "If we had a poetry spoken-word slam, we would be able to attract some different types of people," she says, echoing the old feminist adage of the "personal is political." "The only way feminism is not going to be about [just] white women is if I really present myself as a black woman. Or if I present myself as a writer and share a little bit more of myself."

Like LaPrade, a number of organizers are interested in continuing Ladyfest Baltimore, though the group has no concrete plans to do so at this time. "I would like to see the idea continue on in some form, by people who have different ideas than us," Chrest says. "It's an empowering and fun experience, the creation of the festival itself, regardless of how the event turns out."

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