Michigan Womyn's Music Fest
by Ellen Belluomini, LCSW
The 40th anniversary of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, commonly referred to as MWMF, was held in August 2015. It marked the last year the festival will be held. The detail of why or how this women’s sacred space ended is contemplated by many. The movement away from radical feminism, the legalization of gay marriage, controversies over what defines a woman - they all played a part in the festival's passing. After speaking with many women who relished their second week of each August to recharge, retreat, and reflect, a common theme emerged. The shift in the original mission of the festival had changed so significantly in the past 15 years that it was time to say farewell. I believe another significant player in this end is the emergence of social media and the Internet.
MWMF started in 1976, created by two sisters - Lisa and Kristie Vogal - and their friend Mary Kindig. The intention of this music festival was similar to many other women’s festivals at the time: to create a space where women could come together, be themselves without the constraints of a male-oriented society, and live as a community. As the festival grew over the years, it became a small tent city powered by women on private land. This last festival drew more than 8,000 women and children to its doors.
Volunteerism powered the feeding and tending of participants. Each woman used her gifts in the community to create sacred space. Besides three vegetarian meals a day, workshops, and music, one could receive medical care, mental health support, and alternative healings for only the minimal cost of entrance. Every participant donated time to manifest the festival days from driving participants, childcare, or nurturing souls. MWMF developed communal living through common ground for any woman to attend.
I started participating in the festivals in the mid '90s. MWMF allowed me to solidify my identity as a woman, a feminist, and a lesbian. The Internet, in its infancy, did not provide community and knowledge as it does now for women. No words can describe the feeling of complete sovereignty over my femaleness I experienced during my August retreats. The activists I met over the years drive my current passions. The impact on my daughter is even more profound. Her first festival was at the age of four. I did not worry about her (or myself) experiencing disrespect, inappropriate boundaries, abduction, molestation, stealing, or violence. My daughter, who is now 25, loves her body, believes in herself, has a beautiful relationship with creation and music, and is solid within her principles. This is what the festival helped bring to her and countless other women.
As my child grew, so did the ability of technology to offer some of the benefits MWMF provided. Chat rooms connected women, lesbian or straight, to like-minded discussions and interests. Support grew as our society became more connected. Social media began offering methods to reach out of our small towns to the world. Women of all ages, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic status could validate each other’s experience. I saw women’s coming out of marriage groups (for bisexual or lesbian women) go from being filled each quarter to a reduction so deep the entire agency disbanded. The Internet knows no sex - women project their beliefs as equals to men. Activism can be an article, tweet, blog, or Kickstarter, starting an entire movement, and it can all occur online.
Where does this leave women now? How can women feel the empowerment of safe space combined with technological advances? I have no answers, because I am part of the old guard, not the new digital natives advancing women’s common ground without the benefit of sacred space. I do know it is essential to have safe spaces to explore ourselves outside of a society where sexual and physical assault, laws against a woman’s body rights, and an inability to earn as much as a man continue to limit a woman’s authentic self to be free. Technology can and will provide many new avenues for connection, but that does not make women and children safe or equal.
A moment at the end of the first festival with my daughter serves as a reason to create safe places for women and girls. A volunteer, hair being allowed to grow under her chin, masculine clothes adorning her frame, helped us pack to drive out to my car. My four-year-old daughter’s first week of experiencing freedom without fear was coming to an end. She started crying. As the tears ran down her face, she pleaded with me, “But mom, why can’t we live here? I want to stay here because it feels so good!” The woman driving stopped the car, touched her shoulders, looked at her in the eyes, and said, “Honey, we are always with you in your heart. You can keep it safe there until you come back next year.”
And I understood, as we journeyed back into a world unsafe for women and children, her small soul yearned for the freedom “to be” just as the woman driving yearned for the same right.
Ellen M. Belluomini, LCSW, received her MSW from the University of Illinois, Jane Addams School of Social Work and is currently a doctoral student at Walden University. She is an educator at National Louis University and Harper College. She has developed online and blended curricula with an emphasis on integrating technology into human services practice. She writes a blog “Bridging the Digital Divide in Social Work Practice” to increase awareness about technology’s uses. She presents and consults on various issues related to social services. Her clinical work has been in private practice, management of nonprofit agencies, and programming for vulnerable populations.