What Philly’s ‘Ladyfest’ Means for Women in Music

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Being a woman in the music and arts scene has never been easy.  Even today, despite advancements towards gender equality, countless barriers to female empowerment exist. In honor of Ladyfest Philly—hitting our city this Friday through Sunday—we talked to Ladyfest organizers and musicians about specific challenges they’ve encountered—and how Ladyfest aims to chip away at the prejudice.

“When I first began to play [guitar], I found boys to be effortlessly intimidating,” writes Screaming Females’ Marissa Paternoster over email. “I had no confidence in my playing because I didn’t have quite as many strong reference models.  It took me a long time and a lot of sweat to get past those feelings of inadequacy.  If I didn’t actually enjoy playing so much, I probably would have quit.”

It’s hard to imagine a guitarist as skilled as Paternoster (who was named the 77th greatest of all time by Spin magazine) feeling anything but confident in her abilities. Yet the New Brunswick, NJ shredder—whose band headlines Sunday night at Ladyfest—is but one of thousands who’s overcome cultural and structural challenges to find her place in the scene. Ladyfest aims to combat these challenges by fostering a positive environment for lady rockers and fans—through music, arts, and workshops—and will hit Philly this Friday through Sunday, June 7 through 9.

A grassroots organization formed in 2000 in Olympia, WA, the first Philly edition of Ladyfest took place in 2003. Ten years later, a new group of organizers (with some old faces) decided to bring it back.

“While living abroad, I watched from afar as many of my friends played, attended, and organized Ladyfest Boston,” says Grace Ambrose, a Ladyfest Philly Committee member, and DIY booker for various Philly spaces, who was inspired to bring the celebration to her city.

“I had met Bryony Beynon, an amazing feminist punk organizer in London (who is reading at Ladyfest!) and she made me think about my own network of rad ladies making rad things happen back in Philadelphia,” Ambrose says. ” I wanted a way to activate that network, in one massive way, to make people sit up and pay attention. Shortly after I moved back to Philly, I called the first meeting and was amazed by the response. Most of the women who participated from the very first meeting are still involved.”

Ambrose joins the Girls Rock Philly girls
Ambrose joins the Girls Rock Philly girls

This year’s festival will include more than 20 female-fronted bands performing at West Philly’s The Rotunda. The roster includes touring acts like Screaming Females, U.S. Girls, and Priests, alongside local faves like Trophy Wife, Ghost Ship, Attia Taylor, and Amanda X, chosen from open submissions and organizer suggestions. The fest will also include 15 workshops on female empowerment, with topics ranging from stop-motion animation to victim-blaming in the media. A diverse palate was purposefully selected to (in Ambrose’s words) “show how you can get at feminism in all different ways.”

So what has changed in the past 10 years since the last Ladyfest? “There seem to be more women in bands in Philadelphia now than ten years ago,” says fellow organizer Sara Sherr, who was tangentially involved with the first Ladyfest. “There is also more of a vibrant DIY scene, with a lot more women putting on shows. … Right now, there is a nice network of music and feminism happening for women and girls of all ages, from Permanent Wave Philly to Girls Rock Philly.”

Positive progress for sure—yet changes still are needed. For example: a 2008 ethnographic study of rock bands in the Tampa, FL area, published in Music & Arts in Action, found that just  10% of bands contained at least one female member. “When something doesn’t apply to you, it can be easy to ignore,” says Ambrose. “It might not occur to you that only one woman is playing at the gig you organized, or that you’ve never put a person of color on your bills—but it should! Part of what Ladyfest aims to do is remind people of what kinds of things they should keep in mind.”

So what should we keep in mind when talking about, and writing about female musicians?  We checked in with a few of our fave lady musicians and friends to get their perspective on being a rocker today. Here are just some of the things they had to say.

(Note: by “female musicians” throughout we mean anyone who identifies with being female. Ladyfest is dedicated to the empowerment of ALL types of women, in addition to trans, genderqueer, intersex, and queer people, and their allies. As Ambrose puts it, “It is impossible to untie different forms of oppression from each other.”)

 

Being in a Girl Band Is Not a Schtick

“Being in a girl band is not a schtick!” —Cat Park, Amanda X

Amanda X play Ladyfest Philly this Friday, June 7, at 7:30 pm
Amanda X play Ladyfest Philly this Friday, June 7, at 7:30 pm

In some ways, the very idea of Ladyfest, which must recognize women in rock as a category in order to celebrate them, is of course, inherently fraught. “I think one main challenge is that women in music are still seen as that: women in music,” says Ladyfest organizer Jen Sperling, who also plays guitar and sings in local band Break It Up. “There are women now in every kind of scene making every kind of music, playing every kind of instrument and participating in every aspect of the process—both behind the scenes and on stage.  But reviewers, promoters, and fans alike still largely respond to women in very essentializing ways.”

Cat Park, guitarist and vocalist for Philly all-girl trio Amanda X, agrees. “Being in a girl band is not a schtick!” she says. “We’re not doing this to gain a specific audience who is amazed by the female form ripping through guitar.” Rather, playing in a girl band is about the same things that playing in any band is about: making music and having a great time with friends. “The best part about playing in Amanda X for me is sharing something that I love with [band members] Tiff and Kat,” says Park, adding that, “compared to other bands I’ve been a part of there’s significantly less farting, [and] more time spent searching for pho.” (Park also plays bass in Bandname.)

“[We] love joking about periods, gossiping, and then talking about fuzz pedals, tours, and lipstick (and how much it sucks),” she continues. “And we all file into the same bathroom doors—the one with the dress on it, you know.”

 

Girls Can Play Instruments—and Carry Them Too!

“Do I wish that my ability to play wasn’t sensationalized solely because of my gender?  Sure.  It’s far deeper than rock n’ roll…it is a systemic problem.” —Marissa Paternoster, Screaming Females

Screaming Females play Ladyfest this Sunday, June 9, at 8:15 pm
Screaming Females play Ladyfest this Sunday, June 9, at 8:15 pm

Perhaps it’s because there are fewer women in rock in general—or perhaps it’s a result of old-fashioned stereotypes, which dictate that men should be better at hands-on tasks like hunting (and playing rock guitar). Either way, a recurring theme for almost all the women I spoke to was the false notion that men are somehow better at playing instruments. A 2011 NPR story about women in rock cites no less than 32 cases of sexist sound guys—and Paternoster too admits she encounters comments about how she rocks—“for a girl”—all the time.

“I take it with a grain of salt,” she says. “Do I wish that my ability to play wasn’t sensationalized solely because of my gender? Sure. [But] it’s far deeper than rock n’ roll … it is a systemic problem.  Until humanity can stop linking one’s assigned gender with particular norms, certain folks are always going to have hackneyed expectations out of men and women.”

Ladyfest organizer Kristina Centore agrees that the problem goes much deeper. “Women very often aren’t taken seriously as musicians, artists, or skilled craftspeople of any kind by cis-gendered men and sometimes even by other women,” she says. “The psychological and emotional effects of this are just as real as the pay gap between men and women.”

For Park, it’s the assumption that she’s incapable of carrying her own gear that really drives her crazy.

“In past tours [with Bandname], when I was often the only girl, I found that people asked me—and only me—if I needed help carrying stuff, even when it wasn’t heavy. And truth be told, I don’t need a stranger dropping my equipment and busting it (which has happened). Asking to help is great, but not when the person asking seems like they are trying to assist a 4-year-old who just dropped their ice cream cone. We are capable of loading in [ourselves]!”

 

It’s Not About the Clothes

“[Being a woman,] critics describe what you were wearing at the show as opposed to what you sounded like.” —Stephanie Luke, The Coathangers (via NPR)

Atlanta-based punk band The Coathangers
Atlanta-based punk band The Coathangers

When it comes to women in music, the focus on appearance is hard to ignore. Indeed, it’s hard to even consider some of the more famous women rockers throughout time without automatically being reminded of their fashion statements—from Madonna’s cone-shaped bras to Stevie Nicks’s gypsy shawls to Ga Ga’s meat dress. Yet this can be frustrating for women who want to be recognized for their music … and not for their wardrobe choices. “[Being a woman,] critics describe what you were wearing at the show as opposed to what you sounded like,” The Coathangers’ Stephanie Luke tells NPR.

Today, many female indie rockers combine their dual loves of fashion and music into separate, successful creative endeavors (consider: Kim Gordon’s Mirror/Dash line, Best Coast’s Urban Outfitters collection), and in many of these instances, fashion represents a positive, related artistic endeavor. Yet it’s important to be able to separate these two realms—especially in cases where a woman’s appearance might not align with what’s popular in current fashion.

“[Music press and fans today] focus on appearance, sexuality, fitness, fashion, etc.,” says Sperling. “So even though there is space for women in music, that space still feels ghettoized—and I use that term deliberately.  And I think that that phenomenon creates challenging incentives for women themselves, who want to be authentic but also want to have their music heard.”

Heard of course, without fear of harassment.

“We get honked at while driving,” says Park, who says such harassment is unfortunately a very real reality. “Didn’t really get that with Bandname… Don’t really want it now.”

 

The Scene Makes All the Difference

“It’s up to us to try to diversify what people see at the bar level and in the DIY scene. —Sara Sherr, Ladyfest organizer

Sperling with her band Break It Up
Sperling with her band Break It Up

Ultimately, everyone seems to agree that finding the right scene to participate in makes all the difference. “I think the specific scene you are involved with reflects how you are treated as a woman,” says Park, explaining that 2/3 of Amanda X live at Big Mama’s Warehouse, a NoLibs space with “9 occupants with 9 drum sets in separate bedrooms” where gender is the furthest thing from anyone’s mind.  “When somebody, male OR female, is trying to learn a new instrument you are just flooded with ‘use this pedal, try this fill,’ and late night jams. It’s an incredibly loving environment for musical endeavors.”

Ambrose and Sherr agree. “I think it’s up to us to try to diversify what people see at the bar level and in the DIY scene,” says Sherr, who also curates Sugar Town, a monthly concert series featuring women rockers.

In the end, the importance of a positive scene is very much in line with Ladyfest’s goals, which are to provide a “safer space” free of discrimination, and encourage women to explore artistically and musically. “[The goals of Ladyfest are] expanding people’s perceptions of what’s possible in their own lives: a teenage girl learning about feminism for the first time, women starting bands (or merely picking up instruments), booking shows, organizing around a political cause, or just making new friends,” says Sherr. Perhaps if Ladyfest had existed when Paternoster was young, she wouldn’t have felt so self-conscious around the boys!

And of course, it’s not all about the music.

“I think that one of the most important things to remember about Ladyfest is that it is about much more than women in music and arts,” says Ambrose. Centore agrees. “We hope that Ladyfest will be a catalyst for people to continue having conversations about how to improve our social conditions, to keep working together respectfully, and to find new ways to support one another in Philadelphia’s amazing music, arts, and activist communities,” she says.

Sounds like they are well on their way.

Ladyfest Philly hits West Philly this Friday through Sunday, June 7 through 9. The complete schedule of bands and workshops is available here. Tickets are available here.

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