I don’t usually write about politics. If I do, it’s folded into a post about something else. Make no mistake. As a feminist, political consciousness and activism are very important to me. I just don’t think writing on policy and legislation is something I do well. I tend to forget representatives’ names and feel I lack the rhetorical nuance to report on issues the way I write about, say, Odd Future’s problematic cultural ascendancy. I provide commentary. I follow and contend in-depth analysis from folks like LaToya Peterson, s.e. smith, Everett Maroon, Amanda Marcotte, Melissa McEwan, Katherine Haenschen, and Rachel Maddow, and check in with Slate, Salon, NPR, the Guardian, Racialicious, Tiger Beatdown, and ColorLines like a good liberal. I also have friends who commit their lives to politics. I try to absorb as much of what they have to say as possible while parsing out what party ideology jibes with my own beliefs.
Where possible, I do like to take political action. I believe my work with Girls Rock Camp Austin is political in nature. If I lived in Wisconsin, I’d be picketing with the students and police officers. Matter of fact, there’s a distinct chance I’ll be marching with them soon enough if Scott Walker continues to sell out his constituents. Once I know where I’ll be next fall, I’d like to get back to volunteering. I don’t make a lot of money at my job, but I donate some of my earnings to organizations like OutYouth. I recently attended Austin’s Walk for Choice and proudly hoisted a sign I got from the March for Women’s Lives, which I participated in during college. I believe civic action is important. That is why I’m bowling with Lilith Fund in the National Abortion Access Bowl-a-Thon. It’s also why I’m taking time out to ask that you sponsor my team.
I don’t ask for money very often. I took a telemarketer job for six months in college and it was pretty degrading. I’ve never set up a PayPal or a Kickstarter account for this blog. Instead, I rely on downloading, review copies, and promo CDs to keep overhead low. As I’d love to revamp this blog and start recording podcasts for it, I may solicit at a later date. I also don’t want to perpetuate the idea that feminists of my generation come down from the mountain only when our reproductive rights are in jeopardy. There are a lot of issues that affect women and girls that we should be fighting for. Prison and education reform, equal pay, trans rights, eradicating human trafficking and child abuse, comprehensive sex education, dismantling rape culture and institutional racism, same-sex adoption and partner benefits, universal health care, and closing the technology gap most immediately come to mind.
But preserving reproductive choice is also of integral importance to me. I have always believed that giving women and girls the right to choose to enter into motherhood rather than foist it upon them improves the quality of life for all involved parties. I believe allowing abortion as an option following conception from traumatic experiences like rape and incest is a necessity we have to protect. I believe providing women and girls with autonomy by providing them education about sexual health and contraception will make the world a better place.
However, I’m not just bowling so that more girls and women have access to abortion. Anti-choice folks tend to think all we’re concerned about is making sure women and girls can get abortions. They also believe we come to our decision to have them in a cavalier manner. The former assumption simplifies a complex, interrelated set of issues into one watch word. The latter myth is just stupid and insulting. Organizations like Lilith Fund work toward providing information, counseling, and resources to their community. Facilities like Planned Parenthood provide folks with birth control and information on family planning, as well as administer pap smears and other standard procedures to guarantee women’s health. This is especially important at a time when proposed legislation is getting scary on a medieval level. Georgia state rep Bobby Franklin wants expectant mothers to prove their miscarriages occured naturally (read this great Crunk Feminist Collective enumerating recent attacks on reproductive justice). My own governor Rick Perry (who I’ve never voted for) wants me to look at a sonogram before going through with a termination. This is at a time when abortion providers are becoming an endangered species and access to contraception continues to be compromised.
It’s not a game. It’s about livelihood. I’m willing to do many things, including bowl for it. I hope you’ll support me and my team (seriously, just click on the link and provide us with whatever you can spare), as well as take personal action.
The other day after work, I caught a screening put together by UT’s Center for Women and Gender Studies for Dee Mosbacher’s Radical Harmonies, a documentary about the emergence of women’s music starting in the late 1960s. My friend Carrie was good enough to let me know about it, and I’m glad I went.
I’ll be clear. I know very little about women’s music, apart from it developing out of the lesbian separatist movement of the second wave in the 1970s. I have a cursory awareness of continuations of the tradition, particularly evident in the work of Ani DiFranco, The Indigo Girls, and (my personal favorite) The Murmurs.
I went into the screening with some background knowledge about cult figures like Malvina Reynolds thanks to Jessica Hopper‘s Tweets about getting into her music.
And I recently attended a trans education workshop put together by OutYouth, where GRCA volunteer Paige Schilt gave an great presentation that outlined instances of transphobia from within the feminist movement, touching on the ongoing rectification of exclusionary policies that dictate the parameters female-only spaces at women’s music festivals.
Going in, I had some hesitations. While I appreciate the efforts of these women, the earnestness behind much of their efforts was a bit off-putting at first. For one, with some exception, women’s music is most closely identified as the work of college-education, middle-class liberal white ladies. I’ll map out the ways in which they were cognizant of this and resistant to it in a moment, but at first hearing I felt a little uncomfortable about the precious sentiments in some of this music, particularly in songs like Margie Adam’s “Song to Susan” and Cris Williamson’s “Joana.” To be clear, I wasn’t embarrassed by what they were singing about, but how they went about delivering their message. As I described it to Kristen at Act Your Age, the music has a very “I held hands with my lover in the park” feel to it. Ugh. Eye roll. Insert ironic comment to offset my discomfort. LOL.
I think my initial misgivings speak most closely to a different generational sensibility afforded to women my age who are allowed to have an irreverant, sardonic attitude toward romance, sex, and sexuality. While considerable gains still need to be made for the equality of LGBTQI folks, attitudes have changed that my peers may take for granted. But in the late 1960s, a woman performing a song about being a lesbian was grounds to shut down a concert. This very thing happened to Maxine Feldman when she had the “nerve” to sing “Angry Atthis,” an ode to her lover and a wish to not have to live life in society’s closet.
In addition, these women were fighting rock music’s sexism and misogyny. Not only were they up against having to prove that they were musicians and not groupies, but they were also in opposition to rock’s use of euphemism and suggestion. One need only look toward the mainstream success of rock’s bad boys The Rolling Stones, whose catalog boasted songs like “Brown Sugar” and “Under My Thumb” to get a sense of what women’s music was fighting against. Within folk music, some male artists like Tim “I Never Asked To Be Your Mountain” Buckley were denying any responsibility past their own carnal interests. Even a woman like Joni Mitchell wasn’t safe from rock’s patriarchal strangle-hold, as she was once given the dubious honor of being named Rolling Stone‘s Old Lady of the Year early in her illustrious career.
So I understand the mindset of these women. These songs seem to say “not only are we going to sing about the complex poetics of lesbian desire, but we’re going to make absolutely sure that you know exactly what we’re singing about and to whom. For good measure, we’re going to sound as stripped down and intimate as possible.” Take that, Glimmer Twins.
That said, some associated acts with women’s music knew how to shred. Take Fanny as an example. Boasting Philippine American sisters June and Jean Millington on guitar and bass, the group was, at their time, one of the few all-female bands recording and touring with support from a major label (in their case, Reprise). They also rocked.
As mentioned earlier, women’s music tended to be a white woman’s game. That said, there were women of color on the rosters of female-only record labels like Olivia and Redwood. Some of these acts, like Sweet Honey in the Rock, did not identify as lesbians but were on board with Redwood’s pro-woman message. Leader Bernice Johnson Reagon, who was a member of The Freedom Singers and founded Sweet Honey after being moved by Joan Little’s case, could also identify with the label’s political leanings.
Other artists, like Gwen Avery, Judith Casselberry, and Deidre McCalla were openly gay African American women and developed substantial followings. Apparently Avery developed quite a following with her song “Sugar Mama,” which was featured on Olivia’s Lesbian Concentrate compilation.
In addition, I really appreciate women’s music’s emphasis on historical context and continuation. In addition to their fandom of older artists like Reynolds, artists like Holly Near helped resurrect the career of artists like Ronnie Gilbert, once a member of a fairly obscure country band called The Weavers. By the 1970s, Gilbert had gotten her therapist’s license and come out. By connecting with a younger generation of listeners and working with younger artists, Gilbert helped to forge links between queer and straight women across age ranges and strengthened women’s historical significance in popular music.
As musical artists began developing their repertoire and labels like Olivia, Redwood, Goldenrod, and Ladyslipper took shape, more women forged careers in technical positions. Musician Linda Tillery was perhaps Olivia’s most noteworthy producer. In addition, women like Olivia Records’ co-founder Ginny Berson taught fans how to become concert producers so that her artists had gigs to play, which were usually run by female-only personnel. Some of these fans, notably Kristin Lems, started events like the National Women’s Music Festival in 1974 because no female artists were deemed good enough to play a local festival.
One thing festivals like the National Women’s Music Festival and the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival emphasized was inclusion of women with disabilities. As a result, ASL interpreters like Susan Freundlich and Sherry Hicks developed reputations as instrumental virtuosos. They also allowed for many deaf women to experience music for the first time.
While I find the notion of the ASL interpreter as instrumentalist to be fascinating, it cannot be overlooked that sign language is culturally developed and thus has regressive potential. In the documentary, Reagon talks about an interpretter tugging on her nostrils to sign the word “Africa” and requested she spell it out instead.
Another thing I was surprised about is where these festivals started to develop. They didn’t originate from the coasts, but instead in parts of the Midwest — particularly Michigan and Illinois. They also caught on in parts of the South. Thus, it can’t be overstated how brave these organizers were. Many of them had no professional experience putting together gigs and events. Several of them also had not yet come out to their communities and faced considerable opposition, if not outright threats to their livelihood.
The one big elephant in the room in this documentary is the transphobia that maligns feminist history. In addition to many festivals’ exclusionary women-born women policy, some feminists were far more invective against transgendered women. Janice Raymond wrote The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male in 1979, a book wherein she reportedly espoused that transgendered women were she-males, male rapists, and associated with Nazis. She also went after Olivia recording engineer (and UT faculty member) Sandy Stone, organizing a boycott of the label’s output.
Transphobia is an ugly presence in feminist history, but one that I think requires greater context besides the uncomfortable head nod and polite smile. Here’s hoping that future feminist historians confront it, learn from it, and work to correct it.