At Lady Fest, Alternatives Rule the Day


There were some tough decisions to make at last week’s feminist art festival, Lady Fest. The six-day event, which ended Sunday, gave its 2,000 predominantly teen and twentysomething female attendees the opportunity to learn how to knit, play the guitar, start a grass-roots revolution, cook vegan, sing, sew, defend themselves, fix their cars, create alternative menstrual products, travel solo, launch businesses and swing dance.

It was like one-stop shopping for the aspiring renaissance woman.

Last Wednesday, for instance, attendees could choose between panels on prison activism, sexual assault and the unionization of sex workers. There were also discussions on topics from AIDS and domestic violence to identity politics and gender socialization in schools.

In total, there were almost 150 hours of events, spread around different venues, at this not-for-profit festival that was founded because “we still live in a world where women often make more money for taking off their clothes, sitting pretty or cleaning houses than for their art, education or desires to be something other than gender stereotype,” according to the Lady Fest program guide.


A performance art space called Midnight Sun was packed for the session that was led by an exotic dancer from San Francisco (one of the country’s only unionized peep shows) and two seasoned sex industry veterans from the Portland area, one of whom admitted that “trying to organize sex workers is like trying to herd cats.”

During a workshop on creating alternative menstrual products, women discussed using sea sponges in place of tampons and sewing their own menstrual pads out of used socks.

The festival was inspired by the Riot Grrrl phenomenon, a controversial and often misunderstood countercultural musical and social movement, founded in the early ‘90s. Its sensibility was pro-girl, anti-corporate and do-it-yourself.

The message was enthusiastically received by young women around the country who formed their own bands, writing lyrics to combat the rampant sexism they heard not only on the radio but had experienced. They rejected traditional women’s magazines that told them how to act, look and think, and started to make their own. And they formed support groups to talk about deeply personal issues with other women who had similar experiences, many of them sexually violent.

That’s why the scene inside the fest’s self-defense workshop at the Olympia ballroom was so stirring. “No! No! No!” more than 100 yelled in unison while practicing successive kicks and hand jabs.

The Riot Grrrl sensibility may have faded from public view in the mid-'90s, but its spirit was clearly alive at Lady Fest.