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.