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Southern belles

Ladyfest brings its international feminist celebration out of the frying pan and into the South


Doria Roberts didn't expect to be at the helm of Ladyfest South, Atlanta's feminist celebration of music, spoken word, theater, visual arts, workshops and film. The local musician's first intention was to initiate the event, inspire a core group and pass the torch.

She called the first organizational meeting Sept. 14, 2001. The timing obviously wasn't right -- just three days after 9-11. The women who originally committed to planning the four-day event re-evaluated their lives and decided to change course -- some going back to college, others moving. Roberts left to tour nationally for three months. When she returned, nothing was done.

"We've been working on a three-month deficit. We really needed a year to plan and raise money," she explains. "[But] instead of giving up, we dove right in and started getting things done."

When she called the second meeting last December she attracted the attention of four women with little in common, but all dedicated to making the event a reality. Taylor Gammage is a hair stylist and mother of two living in Duluth, and Ami Mattison a Ph.D. student at Emory. Graphic designer Angela Mitchell talked her partner Christine Regan, a Web designer, to join her in getting involved.

All are an example of what the Ladyfest "brand" has come to represent internationally: a network that bridges the differences among women and uses their creative input to make a greater whole.

Ladyfest began two years ago in Olympia, Wash., in the heart of the land that birthed the riot grrrl movement. The first fest, in August 2000, was a radical feminist explosion of music, art and workshops to celebrate the 80th anniversary of a woman's right to vote. It attracted more than 2,000 people and raised thousands of dollars to benefit women's organizations.

Of course, by the current millennium, no one could deny that great female artists and musicians were everywhere. In that sense, Ladyfest wasn't simply about raising the profile of overlooked music -- or proving that "women could do it, too." Rather, Ladyfest focused on harnessing the collective power of women, uniting them under one moniker and creating a network of mutual support for female artists.

Many women were disappointed with the corporate-sponsored, woman-focused Lilith Fair, which promised diversity but delivered little of it in its three-year late-'90s run. Ladyfest attracted many independent acts that scorned Lilith and earned support from the grassroots local music scene. In some ways it also ended up challenging what it meant to be a feminist for many young women. Even the use of the word "lady" -- with its connotation of well- mannered, well-bred femininity -- sought to reclaim the language in which woman are described.

The original event in Olympia spawned Ladyfests the following year in New York and Chicago, as well as such unlikely locales as Indiana and Scotland. This year, fests have already occurred in Michigan, Canada, Belgium, London and Orlando, among others. Plans are under way for a Ladyfest in Australia, Texas and Germany next year. There's even ideas for starting one in Indonesia.

As heirs to the original Ladyfest, the nonprofit, do-it-yourself ideals are alive with the Atlanta ladies. This summer they released a two-CD compilation, Ladyfest South: Southern Belles Raisin' Hell, staged yard sales and auctions to raise funds, and received sponsorship from SONG (Southerners on New Ground), a North Carolina-based lesbian activist group. Proceeds from Ladyfest South will go to two women's shelters for victims of domestic violence: Project Safe in Athens and Refuge House in Tallahasee, Fla.

But Ladyfest South's organizers have faced hurdles. On top of convincing venues and sponsors that they were serious, there was opposition from women in the community. Roberts says that one woman criticized the event as more being "all about music, not genitalia" -- more focused on entertainment than issues. Another woman from North Carolina who claimed to be an older feminist was disappointed by the use of the word "lady."

And then there's that business of the iron skillet used in Ladyfest South's logo. When asked about it, its designer, Angela Mitchell, perks up.

"I was born and bred in Mississippi. Never a day went by when a woman in my house wasn't using one," she explains. "It signifies traditional roles, but it's also a symbol of power. Like, I'm gonna hit you over the head."

Just over a week before their nine months of incubation culminates in the first Ladyfest South, the organizers meet in Mitchell and Regan's dining room to continue hashing out the logistics of venues, booking, advertising and funds.

"This is the first time I've sat down like this for so long," Mitchell says.

"Shouldn't I be calling someone?" Gammage wonders.

"I'm sure that's my e-mail box dinging right now," Regan says.

"It's Ladyfest Tourette's," explains Roberts. "If we get together long enough we can't talk about anything else."

The women seem to have hit their stride, juggling personal lives with their festival responsibilities. Of the five, Doria Roberts has the most experience with planning an event of this scale. She's been on the "Ladyfest circuit," as she describes it, for the past year, playing five of the events around the country. Plus, she planned local Queerstock music events in the past and booked local bands for years.

She also played in the final Lilith Fair.

"Ladyfest was not inspired to be an anti-Lilith Fair," says Roberts. "It's not anti-man or in spite of anything. It's pro-ladies."

She does understand why other concert festivals, like Lilith, are more homogenous. In order to attract large crowds and top acts, Lilith had to court mainstream tastes. Plus, she says, "It's easier that way. You make a few phone calls and it's done. This is a lot of work."

While Ladyfest South is working on a shoestring budget, participating bands are being paid -- though often not as much as they might with other gigs. Still, the organizers were able to book Atlanta's most famous and visible local female rocker, Indigo Girl Amy Ray. She'll perform at the Echo Lounge with North Carolina punk band the Butchies, who frequently back her solo sets, along with other bands on her Daemon Records label.

The organizers sought out bands, events and activities that appeal to a wide spectrum in the community. They accepted applications, but then filled in the gaps by approaching acts that would present a different view. For instance, when they realized they didn't have a metal band, they asked all-girl hard-rockers Kittie to perform. When workshops seemed ho-hum, Gammage searched out presentations on drumming, figure drawing, racism and safe sex. Performances include a one-person show about transgender identity and African dance.

Ami Mattison, who spent 15 years in community organizing, wanted to bring artists together as part of a larger national and global community. She programmed spoken-word performers to expand the ommunity of artists. "We're creating an experience that is the glue that bonds communities together," she says.

Ultimately, though, Mattison echoes the sentiment of the other ladies. In plain terms, they hope to raise a hell of a lot of money. Ladyfest is meant to be a fund- raising event.

"I have a faith in the Atlanta community to support this type of event," Roberts says. "I know we're capable of producing this type of artistic event. And I think it can thrive here."

And what if Ladyfest doesn't translate well down South? Gammage quickly dismisses the thought. "We don't have a second of energy for that."

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