TWO words: Pussy Riot. You don’t get any more punk-feminist than a balaclava’d Russian protest group and rock band, imprisoned for hooliganism for two long years in a Moscow prison*. OK, so they are probably the most salient, and frankly frightening, example of musical feminist movements; yet point is, for decades we’ve seen many women use music to help promote an agenda of gender equality. (*And sure, I could have used Beyoncé or Taylor Swift as examples - pop culture’s more ‘palatable’ feminist figureheads - but the Russian rebels won out).
In Manchester, we’re very lucky to have so many creative and talented women, and we have the spaces to promote them
Next month, from 7-9 October, Manchester will see its own feminist movement with Ladyfest: three days of feminist-fuelled gigs, parties and workshops following in the footsteps of trailblazing events in Washington, New York, Amsterdam and twenty-plus more cities around the world.
Ladyfest first appeared in Manchester back in 2003, 2008 and 2015 with one-off events. Journalist Sarah Hughes, for the Manchester Evening News, insisted the events were “putting the fun back into feminism” (although, international ‘zine the F-Word remarked that the headline inferred that a ‘women’s festival wasn’t enjoyable' and, whisper it, fun’).
This year, with a new team, they’ve expanded to three days and seven venues across the Northern Quarter, from Gullivers on Oldham Street to Nexus art cafe (see here). The line-up features twelve bands, eleven DJs, fifteen free feminist workshops, twenty community group stalls, three poets, three comedians, a choir, an ex-member of The Fall, an honorary member of The Slits, 400+ attendees, and all the hot feminist discourse you can handle - plus a screening of Clueless.
So why another Ladyfest in Manchester? We spoke to organiser Carly Vandella:
What's Ladyfest all about? And just how radical is it?
Carly: “Ladyfest was set up by women who are heavily influenced by the DIY music scene but found that the events were male-focused, and sometimes women were being sexually assaulted at these gigs. They thought they’d launch an alternative event where women would feel safer, and that promoted female artists."
How do you think Manchester will take to Ladyfest?
C: "There’s a big social justice movement within Manchester and one that comes off the back of the feminist and queer movement. There are already very creative, radical and alternative club nights like Bollock and Homoelectric, and -especially on that queer feminist scene - they've always been a really great source of creativity for Manchester. I think the conditions here are very ripe for something like this - whereas in other cities it might not have taken off in the same way, because they don’t have that tradition of edgy clubbing and music scene. In Manchester, we’re very lucky to have so many creative and talented women, and we have the spaces to promote them as well."
Do you have to identify as a feminist to enjoy the shows?
C: "There’s a creative and a political side. There’s a lot of really interesting and creative women who maybe aren’t explicitly feminist in what they do, yet in doing what they do they are faced with particular barriers that force them to reassess why they come up against those barriers. Which means feminism will inevitably fall upon them in some way. And on the other side, there are people who identify quite strongly as a feminist on the political side of things, and this influences the type of music they consume and the type of club nights they attend, and the sort of atmospheres and environments they’d like to find themselves in. It’s a two-way thing."
With Beyoncé and other pop culture icons identifying as feminist, feminism feels very much the social-media agenda at the minute – is this a good thing?
C: “We’re definitely at a point where more women are willing to identify with feminism these days. And we’ve moved away from the previously negative connotations people forced upon it. I think a lot of people had very strong ideas on who was a feminist and the type of things a feminist did, and how they behaved. In the current age, and with the proliferation of social media and the way that messages get across to people, there are many more different types of feminism that people can identify with. Feminism was a very university-based, very white, very middle-class movement – you had to have read all these books and it was a very academic thing. Then people realised that’s it’s not. It is just how you view yourself as a woman in modern society and how you want people to treat you. For young women to see Beyonce identify as a feminist shows that it has become a lot more accessible to a lot more women. It’s been demystified and women are able to engage with it at their own level."
Why did you get involved with Ladyfest and could you see the festival expanding?
C: “I’ve been going out and clubbing in Manchester since I was a teen – almost twenty years now. And I’ve always been in love with Mancunian creativity. A lot has changed over the years. I don’t think there’s been overt sexism in Manchester; I think people value creativity more than they make judgements about people. Our model is the LGBT scene, which - what with the nights out and Pride celebrations - is really strong. We'd like something like that but for women. A more community-focused place for women would be a great idea. It’s obviously needed given the amount of people volunteering with Ladyfest. It seems to be the right time for this to happen."
There's live DJs, bands, workshops - a whole lot going on. Just how many women are running this?
C: "A core group of ten women do all the planning and fundraising. Then we have a really big group of 50 other women – the bands, DJs, workshop facilitators who actually deliver all of the different aspects of the events. There’s a small nucleus group and then the wider community – probably over 100 women who are actively contributing"
What’s the highlight event of the weekend?
C: "The Ladyfest live event at Gullivers on Saturday night, which will be a culmination of everything. It's where we’ll pull in the creativity, the political side, the community aspect and all our supporters. The music will always be the basis of everything. And it becomes a huge celebration."
Find out more about Ladyfest events on their website and Facebook page.