The small, high-ceilinged gallery was barely big enough for the turnout Friday night. The modest rows of folding chairs easily filled, and then people found space on the paint-smudged concrete floor wherever they could. Some crouched on the stairs, others stood in the back, but everybody listened, because this was a presentation about love.
The crowd was gathered to hear Bay Area writer Wendy-O Matik talk about radical love, or polyamory, as it’s usually called. She was at Oakland’s Rock Paper Scissors Collective for Bay Area Ladyfest, a two-city festival focused on women and various forms of women’s art.
In the presentation Matik unspooled her theories and invited questions about love, non-monogamous relationships and general possibilities for subverting male-dominated culture. “I’ve been seeing someone who has a partner,” one woman ventured, “and I’ve always been in monogamous relationships. What do you guys think about that?”
Find a support group, Matik said. “This is the Bay Area,” she said. “There’s a ‘poly’ meetup every night.”
There was talk about jealousy and responsibility, too, before the Ladyfest-goers were invited to head off to the last event of the evening, a music show at Rec Center Studios.
“For me, Ladyfest is a celebration of the creative spirit, particularly focused on making women visible,” said Matik—the name she prefers over her original name, Wendy Millstine—in an interview. “I hope people get swept up in the excitement.”
The four-day festival, which runs through Sunday, includes workshops, performances and film screenings on both sides of the Bay. It is coordinated by women, queer and transgender people, but the events—held Saturday at six Oakland locales—are open to everyone, with free childcare available throughout the days.
“I love that it’s an explicitly feminist space,” said 21-year-old Elisa Gill, referring to the tone of Ladyfest, after Matik’s talk. She was one of many women in attendance, but there were also a few men. “I’m male-bodied,” said a 28-year-old Berkeley man, who gave his name as Munq, “but I’m a feminist.”
The festival includes live music, burlesque performances, an Emma Goldman impersonator and a screening of feminist short films. Workshops on Saturday and Sunday explore topics like feminist pornography, harm reduction in the punk community, vegan body care and DIY sex toys.
The first Ladyfest took place in Olympia, Washington in 2000. With dozens of bands, numerous art shows and workshops on topics ranging from making alternative menstrual products to pirate radio, it was a manifestation of feminist philosophy, the feminist punk riot grrrl movement founded in the mid 1990s, and the DIY ethos—all influential at the time, said Bay Area Ladyfest organizer Maria Yates.
Since 2000, Ladyfests have sprouted around the globe, on every continent except Antarctica, Yates said. Each is a little different, though they share a commitment to cultivating women’s creativity, and Bay Area Ladyfest—the third so far—has its own culture.
“It’s the Bay,” Yates said, laughing. “I would say ours definitely has a somewhat radical bent. The Bay is known for a long history of radical politics.” It’s not just women’s art the organizers are showcasing, she said, but feminist art. “At its core it’s about empowering and defining the female experience,” she said.
Despite the region’s reputation for radicalism, it has been eight years since the last Bay Area Ladyfest. “Burnout,” Matik said. “You do one Ladyfest, and you’re done for the next ten years. Those people fall away, and hope that somebody carries the torch after them.”
All the organizers are volunteers, and all performers and speakers are donating their time, Yates said. Among those on stage is San Franciso hip hop artist Micah Tron, who will give a performance Saturday night at AMCO Art Space. “It’s really dedicated to what I’m dedicated to—the art of feminism,” the queer-oriented rapper said, “promoting females to get out there and do what they do.”
In interviews, organizers, speakers and performers alike underscored the importance of a women-centered event—even in the Bay Area, where liberalism is often taken for granted. “We’ve made a lot of big steps since the ‘20s, since the ‘50s but we ain’t done yet,” Yates said. “This is necessary.”
Bay Area Ladyfest continues in Oakland on Saturday until 6 pm, with workshops, performers and dinner courtesy of Food Not Bombs at The Holdout, on San Pablo near Grand Avenue. Later there is a film screening at Black Hole Cinemateque, and music and burlesque performances at ABCO Art Space, both in West Oakland. The festival wraps up Sunday in San Francisco with afternoon workshops at In the Works and more live music at Sub-Mission. Farley’s East is also hosting a month-long Ladyfest art show, which opened September 7.