by Hannah Levin

Ladyfest Seattle

Wed-Sun March 26-30 at various venues. Go to www.ladyfestseattle.org for more info.

DeFIning feminism is as complicated as defining punk rock. On both fronts, everyone has a different opinion about what aesthetic trappings make something genuine. It's this rhetorical quandary that makes the marriage of punk and feminist theory endlessly fascinating and frustrating, and it's the same factor that has already made this year's Ladyfest Seattle--five days of music, art, and workshops at 10 venues around the city--a controversial event for its organizers. In the year and a half it's taken to plan the femme-centric smorgasbord of entertainment and education, rumors have swirled about in-fighting and dissension, much of which has been centered on the tactics and gender of the event's male leader, Devin Williams.

"Our goal was to bring the women in the community together and share all views of feminism, because everyone has a different view," says Williams, a KGRG DJ who hosts Out of the Box, a weekly show focusing exclusively on punk-minded female artists. "I've learned that working in a group is very, very hard. You have to accept a lot of opinions that you may not agree with. I think it's exhausted everyone in the group, especially me."

Many of the internal disagreements involved choosing a date for the event and the content of the mission statement. It's clear that the planning process was often derailed by the difficulties inherent in the consensus planning model upon which Olympia's original Ladyfest was built in 2000. When the key players are all staunch supporters of DIY politics and individual expression, reaching collective agreements can be an excruciating process.

"There were a couple of girls who came to the group in April, when the mission statement was already done, and they started trying to change it," says Williams of the first of the group's major challenges. "At that point seven people had spent a lot of time developing it, and it was hard for us to accept other people coming into the group and saying, 'We want it to look this way.' It was like, 'No, this is what's keeping us going, and we're not going to be forced out of our own project.' And that got us in a lot of hot water, because people didn't think we were open to other people's opinions."

Ms. Led booking agent Heather Carter was closely involved with the thorny development of the mission statement. "I was definitely behind Devin's involvement," she says. "I mean, geez, it might have been his idea to get this going, but he made it very clear that he just wanted to see it happen; he wasn't interested in running it or being the force that carried it through. He was just there from the get-go, saying, 'I'm here--use me. I'll work my ass off for you.'"

Reese Lourde (not her real name), an active participant in early planning meetings and an influential member of Seattle's music community, doesn't remember it that way. She left the group because she felt she was not being heard, and that she was being used. "I really questioned just what the heck they were doing trying to organize a Ladyfest," says Lourde. "Couldn't it be left up to some--I don't know--ladies? I also felt like I was brought on board for my connection to resources and to do a lot of the work, yet there wasn't any space for me to be [involved with] leadership or to have any power. At the next meeting, some women called the two men out on being controlling and patriarchal--and they didn't know what that meant. That was my last meeting."

As the planning progressed, Williams began taking more hits for being the male organizer of a women's event, a charge he views as retaliatory and unfair. "People have said to me, 'Feminism is a club that you will never be invited into as long as you are male.' And I think that's so wrong; there are plenty of men who consider themselves feminists and hold very strong views on those issues. It's important for men to be involved too, because if it's only women doing the work, how can we expect things to change? It shouldn't be an exclusive thing, because then only part of the population gets it."

Ethnomusicologist Elizabeth Keenan, who is writing her Ph.D. dissertation for Columbia University on the politics of Ladyfest, believes most of the problems with our local Ladyfest have little to do with gender, and more to do with the communication obstacles egalitarian DIY groups often encounter. While not an active part of the planning committee, she's interviewed over 50 Ladyfest participants and has served as an informal advisor for festivals in several cities, including Philadelphia, New York, and Seattle. "Seattle's an interesting case.... I think [the problems lie in that] it hasn't even really tried to work on a consensus model," observes Keenan. "Devin has clearly placed himself as the head organizer of Ladyfest, which is something you might not see in other places--that's a real step away from the consensus model. On the other hand, he has done a great deal of stuff for the festival, he's taken a lot onto his shoulders. I think that for some people, it's just, 'Oh, he's a guy, he can't possibly be in charge of a women-run event,' and I don't think that's really fair. But for some other people, the principle of Ladyfest is a consensus-based principle, and this person isn't following this model."

Now that Ladyfest Seattle is upon us, though, the true test comes not so much from its organizational process as from the final product. The upside of all these conflicting views is that the festival's programming is all over the map. Whether it's the metal-tinged chaos of Ludicra, the Elastica-influenced euphoria of Ms. Led, or the hardcore harmonics of the Rotten Apples, no one can call the musical lineup closed-minded. Although it was difficult to get descriptions and details of the panels and workshops being offered, subjects like "Radical Parenting" and "Punk Rock Aerobics" are intriguing. The depth of the visual and performance art offerings is particularly impressive, especially the beautifully curated Women in Rock Photography show at the Vera Project and Friday's Girlie Fun Show, a decadent, gender-bending cabaret hosted by Consolidated Works.

So what can other Ladyfest organizers learn from Seattle's headaches? Aside from creating a steering committee to keep everyone on track (a choice Elizabeth Keenan strongly suggests), the most important tool is realizing that mammoth amounts of time and personal investment will be required--along with assertive but open-minded communication.

"It just requires a lot of work," explains Keenan. "Even people in Olympia will admit that things broke down when they were planning the first one. Everyone has problems. If people commit to it, they really need to realize how much work it is. And if you're unhappy about something, tell that person. People have done a lot of complaining behind [each other's] back, and I don't think that's a good way of promoting consensus."

editor@thestranger.com

Support The Stranger