Safe Spaces for Women: Michfest as Exemplar

photo(1)This post was authored by Charlynn Odahl-Ruan who is a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology at DePaul University.

Immersed in the demands and expectations of our patriarchal culture, I sometimes forget to question how this onslaught impacts me or how it might feel to be in a truly women-only space.  I stumbled across such a space last August when I attended the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (MichFest) to conduct research. I had heard about Michfest through a friend whose partner was a long-time attendee. I study feminism and empowerment and the festival offered a chance get the perspective of women from diverse ages and backgrounds. I was excited for the chance to interview these women for my research but I had not anticipated how moved I would be by the healing impact of a space designed for women, by women.

MichFest began in 1976 and takes place in the woods of Michigan each summer, filled with music, camping, workshops, and ceremonies. The festival was the U.S’s first women’s music festival and one of the first large showcases for openly lesbian artists, who were mostly operating outside of the mainstream music industry. The majority of attendee identifies as lesbian, but the festival advertises as open to all women-born women. MichFest typically draws several thousand women each year and in the early 80s, reached 8,000 attendees. Most attendees camp in tents, but some come in fancy RVs.

At the festival last year, my colleague and I interviewed 19 women who shared their experiences of empowerment. I expected to hear well-spoken and thoughtful narratives on empowerment and feminism, which I did, but I was surprised about how often I heard about the power of the festival experience as part of healing. The words “dropping my armor” were repeated often. Women talked about adopting a protective tough exterior in the world. But, when they were out of the male gaze and free from patriarchal norms, they were able to let this armor fall away and experiment with more sensual, feminine, or vulnerable aspects of their identity. There was sense of safety in being in a space with thousands of other women, often walking around the woods in various modes of undress. Little girls would run through the fields during concerts in nothing but angel wings or boots and their mothers could relax knowing that their children were lovingly watched over by all the women and that they were safe from male predators. This feeling of freedom is so rare for women that I think we don’t even realize how heavy our protective armor has become.

I resonated with the younger women who expressed a greater sense of body acceptance born from seeing older women of all shapes accepting their own bodies. So rarely are we around women openly accepting and loving their appearance.   This safety and openness at the festival gave the women space to reflect and heal wounds they had suffered in a patriarchal culture. Several women shared stories of survivors of sexual trauma who had come to the festival to heal. The women spoke of having to put the armor back on when they left the festival, but they felt the festival week had given them the strength to make it another year.

Though I came to festival for mostly academic reasons, I learned about the power of safe spaces for women and I found myself reflecting more critically on the impact living in a culture that isn’t safe — physically or psychologically — for women. The women fondly spoke of the festival as being utterly unique to any other setting. I agree with them and found MichFest to be unlike any other setting I had been in. It was a week spent surrounded by women celebrating themselves (ourselves), embracing their power (our power), and building lasting community. The experience caused me to reflect on where I found safe places in my life where I could live without the demands of patriarchal norms. Sadly, those spaces are few. Such safe places need to be cultivated because, like for the women of MichFest said, this is where we find healing, self-acceptance, and growth.

About monashattell

Mona Shattell is Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Development in the College of Science and Health, and Professor in the School of Nursing at DePaul University. The College of Science and Health at DePaul University is comprised of 8 departments (health sciences, psychology, STEM studies, biology, chemistry, physics, environmental science, and mathematics), 1 school (nursing), and 4 centers (STEM Center, Quantitative Reasoning Center, Center for Family and Community Services, and the Center for Community Research). The college currently has 150 full-time faculty members, 2700 undergraduate students and 725 graduate students, and $15 million in research funding. In her role as Associate Dean for Research, Dr. Shattell promotes research in all departments, schools, and centers in the college; she enhances the culture and capacity of the college to support scientific inquiry, supports and mentors tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty, and promotes student research. In addition to her position as Associate Dean, she also serves as the PI of mental health services research teams and as board member for several community non-profit mental health advocacy organizations. She is Associate Editor of Advances in Nursing Science and Issues in Mental Health Nursing, a regular blogger for the Huffington Post, and the author of more than 100 journal articles and book chapters. She has participated in several fellowship programs: she is a former Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project, which is a media fellowship program that develops thought leaders from traditionally underrepresented groups; she participated in the Sigma Theta Tau International Mentored Leadership Development Program, and post-doctoral K30 Clinical Research Training Program through NHLBI. She is active in a number of professional organizations and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Nursing. She is also a member of the American Nurses Association, the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, the Southern Nursing Research Society, Midwest Nursing Research Society, Sigma Theta Tau International, and the International Academy of Nursing Editors. She serves on numerous community boards of mental health-related service and advocacy organizations. Prior to joining the faculty at DePaul University, she was tenured Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Assistant Professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and Lecturer at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She received a PhD in nursing from the University of Tennessee Knoxville, a Master of Science degree in nursing from Syracuse University, and a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing, also from Syracuse University.
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3 Responses to Safe Spaces for Women: Michfest as Exemplar

  1. Sue Dibble says:

    Nicely done!

  2. ruby bloodstone says:

    thank you mona, good to read of your experience at michigan..and relieved to finally read an accurate write up about our womyns’ one week of safety and sanctuary…which leads to freedom, fun and frolicking in the ferns. Perhaps you will return not because of your research but because you are now a festie goer ;)) night stage opening ceremony, ubaka and her drum orchestra, kitchen workshifts, the parades… Thanks again for the festival positivity, we needed it. a 36 yr festie goer

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