The National Women’s Music Festival

National Women's Music Festival program

National Women’s Music Festival program

In 1974, a group of women at the University of Illinois had an ambitious plan. Led by graduate student Kristin Lems, they aimed to host a week-long music festival highlighting female artists that would draw musicians and attendees from all over the country. “Nothing like this has ever been done before,” said Lems in a Daily Illini article. “Women have been taught that they must compete with other women and go it alone.”[1] Lems and other organizers sought to create an environment that was supportive of female artists and encouraged conversation about how to operate within or outside of a music industry they felt imposed restrictions and stereotypes on women. Bolstered by the success of the local women’s music scene, students and community members worked hard to attract women with national name recognition and to draw crowds to Champaign-Urbana.

The National Women’s Music Festival was first held at the University of Illinois in the summer of 1974. The six day event was designed to include concerts, open mic sessions, art shows, and a variety of workshops on topics such as songwriting, audio equipment, and working in the music industry as a woman.[2] Unfortunately, the first festival was plagued with problems. Organizers hired a Chicago event promoter to obtain big name performers. The promoter promised that Yoko Ono and Roberta Flack, among other popular women musicians, would perform at the festival and that CBS would be covering the event. These headliners were advertised widely. As the festival drew closer, the Chicago promoter disappeared along with all copies of her contract. Organizers were forced to scramble to add additional performers and reorganize the festival schedule. With the big names removed from the program, festival attendance was less than expected. Tornado warnings and thunderstorms during the event also contributed to diminished attendance and the cancellation of some events.[3]

The National Women's Music Festival Collective, circa 1979

The National Women’s Music Festival Collective, circa 1979

Daily Illini writers Jan Baskin and Tom Compton described the festival by saying, “Take a fledgling music festival, subtract from it such promised headliners as Yoko Ono, Roberta Flack, Maureen McGovern, and Janis Ian, and you have a resounding flop, right? Well, not exactly. At least not in the case of the National Women’s Music Festival.” Despite the challenges, organizers and attendees deemed the conference a success with around 300 in attendance. Lems described the loss of the big names as “splendid serendipity” as it made room for lesser known female artists to take center stage and the bad weather encouraged more participation in the valuable workshops and forums being held indoors.[4]

The festival was organized and held annually for the next six years by the National Women’s Music Festival Collective.[5] Each year, the conference drew performers, speakers, and attendees from all across the country. The local YWCA became involved and hosted forums with local women leaders and workshops which focused on the experiences of Black women and the LGBT community. The festival grew to incorporate a Women’s Film Festival which showcased films created by women or dealing with women’s issues.[6]

Redwing Labor Singers of Milkwaukee performing at the first National Women's Music Festival, 1974

Redwing Labor Singers of Milkwaukee performing at the first National Women’s Music Festival, 1974

Eventually, the scope of the festival and the costs of the performers being booked led to conflicts as the collective tried to operate within the organizational structure of the University.[7] However, the legacy of the event extended far beyond Champaign-Urbana. The first West Coast Women’s Music and Cultural Festival, a city wide event held in San Francisco in the fall of 1980, was born out of the University of Illinois event. In 1982, the National Women’s Music Festival was officially incorporated into the work of the non-profit Women in the Arts, Inc. The festival was held in subsequent years at campuses in Indiana, Wisconsin, and Ohio and eventually found a permanent home in the Madison, Wisconsin area where it is still held today. This year’s festival will be held in June 30-July 3.[8]




[1]Ruschau, Maggie“Women’s Music Festival Coming: Ono, Koloc, Fanny to Perform at UI” Daily Illini, May 16, 1974.

[2]Baskin, Jan “First Women’s Music Festival Mixes Politics with Song” Illio, 1975.

[3]Watts, Sher “Women’s Fest Promoter May Face Legal Action” Daily Illini, July 26, 1974.

[4]Baskin, Jan and Compton, Tom “Music Festival Good Despite Absence of ‘Name’ Stars” Daily Illini, June 12, 1974.

[5]“National Women’s Music Festival: Herstory” Women in the Arts, Inc.

[6 Gitelson, Candace “Women’s Music Festival: Festival Premiere Opens Women’s Week Tonight” Daily Illini, April 18, 1974.

[7]Little, Bruce “Women’s Festival May Be Nixed” News-Gazette, October 29, 1980.

[8] “National Women’s Music Festival: Schedule” Women in the Arts, Inc.

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