Border Crossings: Canadians at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival

The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival started in 1976 and is still held annually near Grand Rapids, MI. MWMF is a woman-only event featuring female musicians and personal-development workshops around pretty much any topic you can think of from yodeling, to massage, to sex (technique and politics), to health, to cats, to white privilege, to coming out as a lesbian, to child rearing. About 7000 women from more than 20 countries attend the Festival every year.

A lot of Canadian women have crossed the border into Michigan to attend the festival and I want to know more about why they go, what they learn and who they meet. I already know that members of (what became) the Montréal-based group LG5 (lesbiennes grosse cinq or five fat lesbians) were inspired to form their organization after meeting fat activists from the Fat Underground and Boston Area Fat Liberation groups in Michigan in 1979. Last week I was visiting the Brooklyn-based Lesbian Herstory Archives to try to clarify the origins of the LG5/FU/BAFL relationship.

As is often the case with archives, I came across something completely unexpected. Starting in 1982 Michfest held special events for Francophones. The Francophone caucus met for workshops and conversation, and also organized a translation buddy system for women who spoke no English at all. Francophone women positioned themselves as a minority group within the Festival and within all of North America. The following note was published in the 1986 program:

As Francophones living in Québec and in other parts of Canada, we struggle for our cultural survival in an ‘Anglophone-wide’ continent and we are confronted with assimilation in our daily lives, a form of linguistic and cultural oppression which is akin to racism, ableism, etc. but we also, because of this specificity, live in an unique and rich culture in the context of North America.

When we come to the Festival as lesbians, as womyn, we all come here to share a common vision, but it is only by learning more about our different realities that we can really make Michigan a ‘safe home’ for all of us….

I am fascinated by this notation for so many reasons. This document shows that Francophone women brought their politics and concerns about cultural sovereignty to the Festival. It shows that Québecoises/Canadians had an influence on the way Michfest was organized and were helping to shape the discourse of solidarity and equality at the Festival. And, perhaps most provocatively, this notation suggests that the Francophone caucus positioned itself as an oppressed group alongside disabled and non-white women.

Border crossings like those that occur at Michfest show that ideas and social movements are not contained within national boundaries. We (academics) tend to think of trans-nationalism in terms of concepts of Empire or post-colonialism but Michfest shows that there was a rich exchange of ideas about sexuality, the body and feminism going on across the American and Canadian borders. As Kathy Davis has pointed out in her work on Our Bodies, Ourselves, ideas about gender, health and the body were transformed as they moved between activists in different local and national contexts.

I’m adding this issue to my research to-do/books to-write list.

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