Maintaining the goal to compare and contrast the feminist activism of forty years ago with that of today, we continue our examination of the artifacts within the scrapbook. Having chosen to operate under the assumption that the main factors in any differences can be attributed both to the increasing focus on intersectionality, and to the globalization and rapidly evolving methods of communication brought about by the digital age, there are a number of items that seem to stand out.
“At Michfest, she can experience a degree of safety that is not available to any woman any time anywhere except at the festival. And what does that mean? It means she achieves a level of relaxation, physical, psychic, cellular, that she had never experienced before. She is free, sisters. She is free. Often for the first time in her life.”
— Carolyn Gage
With the knowledge of the incredible spectacle that the festival grew into, and of the circumstances that lead to its ultimate fate, it’s interesting looking at these mementos from its beginning. In the 38 years since these flyers were printed, MWMF went on to become a symbol of women’s freedom, and then to transform into a symbol of the stubborn, exclusionary views of days long past.
The incident that sparked what would eventually lead to the festival’s downfall happened in 1991, when a transgender attendee was asked to leave after others expressed discomfort with her presence. A protest group, Camp Trans, formed as a result of this, and would assemble outside festival gates beginning the following year. Festival founder Lisa Vogel stuck hard to her position that the festival was intended for “womyn-born-womyn”, and for years little came out of the protests.
By 2006, platforms like YouTube and MySpace had begun to take off, and society was becoming more accepting of the idea of LGBT rights. That year, a handful of trans women were openly admitted to the festival, and even held a workshop on transgender inclusion. Without an official statement from MWMF organizers, members of Camp Trans announced on stage–and afterwards in a press release–that the festival had reversed their policy on trans attendees.
In the face of media attention as a result of these actions, Vogel chose to double-down on her policy and “set the record straight” that the festival was still only for cisgender women.
By 2013, social media had exploded into worldwide use, and messages could easily spread across an audience of millions. With LGBT issues firmly in the spotlight, more and more feminist activists were choosing to boycott MWMF and speak out against its exclusionary policies. An online petition calling for an end to the “womyn-born-womyn” policy garnered thousands of signatures, but Vogel refused to relent. Artists began to withdraw from the show at the behest of their fans, believing that performing there would be detrimental to their image. The 40th annual festival, in 2015, was its last.
The rise and fall of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival serves as a perfect example of the changes in feminist activism and methodology over the past 40 years. It grew in popularity through flyers and word of mouth–the diligent work of women in the 70s and 80s to advertise–and it faced scrutiny when communication became faster and easier. It began its life representing a new idea, a bastion of freedom when feminism focused only on women, and ended seen as a holdout of outdated exclusionism once intersectionality among all marginalized groups had became a central theme in feminism.