Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Commentary: The Power of Women-Centered Spaces

In my doctoral program in Communication Studies, female friendships, academic texts and music collided to fuel my nascent feminism. As I read diverse feminist texts and listened to the music of marginalized female artists, I began to understand that by centering the experiences and voices of women and girls, it transforms what has been rendered trivial into topics of significance. Female-centered spaces that embrace intersectional identities can be sites of empowerment and resistance.

In a course on Feminist Theory, I met Ann who would become one of my closest friends. We bonded over opaque course readings, the challenges of navigating the androcentric climate of graduate school, and especially music created by female artists like Ani DiFranco, the Indigo Girls, and Tori Amos. As an avid concertgoer, Ann introduced me to feminist bands and lesbian artists on the fringes of what, in the 90s, was called alternative music. We started attending concerts together and over thirty years later, our excitement for live music by women persists. Most recently in January, we attended Brandi Carlile’s Girls Just Wanna Weekend music festival in Riviera Maya, Mexico for the fifth time. But before Girls Just Wanna Weekend, there was Lilith Fair.

In the summer of 1996, we heard about a concert at music venue Pine Knob outside of Detroit that included Paula Cole, Lisa Loeb, Patti Smith, Aimee Mann and Sarah McLachlan. Our excitement about this line-up was unparalleled. Little did we know that this was a test of an idea McLachlan had after a promoter said she couldn’t have a woman open for her, that two women in line-up wouldn’t sell tickets. This was a pilot concert for what would become Lilith Fair the following year.

Lilith Fair was visionary. I marveled at the fierce collective power of the women who performed at the festival and those who attended. There were booths set up in the concert venue dedicated to progressive activist causes and attendees were encouraged to donate to these charities. It felt bigger than a music festival. For the first time in a public space, I witnessed the decentering of masculinity. The vibe was completely different than a concert performed by male artists. Ann and I attended Lilith Fair in at least one venue each of the three summers it toured in the late 1990s. Each time we left giddy, liberated and renewed by feminine energy. How could we know there would be a more intensely positive experience decades later?

While Lilith Fair was liberating, Brandi Carlile’s Girls Just Wanna Weekend is transcendent. Brandi Carlile was motivated to create this weekend all female-fronted acts, in part, by the social media account Book More Women that tracks the number of female musicians on stage at major U.S. music festivals; the current number is less than 25%.

Ann had read about the first GJWW and, because we were both scheduled to be on sabbatical from our respective academic institutions, we were Mexico bound without expectations beyond sun, sand, and music. At that time, we listened to Brandi Carlile’s music but had yet to become members of her fan club “Bramily.” The feminine power of an all-female-fronted lineup created an atmosphere of radical unconditional acceptance and compassion; what is affectionately referred to as the “Brandi bubble.”

What makes each iteration of GJWW special is Carlile’s inclusion of artists from different musical genres and generations. Carlile demonstrates a reverence for foremothers on whose shoulders she stands as she gushes over headliners like Mavis Staples, the Indigo Girls, Patty Griffin, Tanya Tucker, Sheryl Crow, Sarah MacLachlan, and Annie Lennox. She also creates space to spotlight up-and-coming female artists of color and queer artists which has included Allison Russell, Joy Oladokun, Yola, Celise, Sista-Strings, Tish Melton, and non-binary artist Corook.

The spirit of inclusivity pervades the event. In the announcement for the first GJWW, Carlile wrote, “I would absolutely LOVE to see a ton of men there supporting women in rock and roll. I want to see mothers with children, single people, LGBTQ brothers and sisters letting it all go for a weekend together in harmony.” While all are welcome, GJWW decenters both masculinity and heteronormativity as attendees are overwhelmingly queer women. Racially, however, despite Carlile’s attempts to diversify the line-up, the audience is predominantly white and from the U.S. At the most recent GJWW Brandi included a Mexican artist and encouraged us to speak Spanish to honor the fact that the festival takes place in Mexico.

The sense of community, body positivity, and radical compassion shared among attendees is like nothing I’ve experienced. The music played on the sound system around the resort is by all female artists. For the first time ever, I walked around in a bathing suit without shame or self-consciousness. Women of every shape and size strut around the swimming pools and beach in bathing suits of varying coverage. We share sunscreen, band aids, towels; we apologize for bumping into each other, we assist those who may have over-indulged.

In the many months between GJWW festivals, attendees and members of Bramily remain in contact on social media platforms where we share concert information, seek advice, offer counsel and support. A dating group was even launched on Facebook after this last year.

In a post-festival social media post from January 25, 2024, Brandi Carlile wrote:

“It’s hard to put into words what Girls Just Wanna Weekend has become. To me it was always a tropical snow globe of possibility… that on a face-to-face level it is what we hope is possible for all of us in the “real world”. Radical unconditional acceptance, hysterical laughter, accountability, and responsibility…total togetherness with the space to express ourselves as individuals.

The shows absolutely leveled me this year... This was the ultimate expression of power matriarchy and every kind of personhood associated with it! We even had our first taste of theytriarchy!

I hope your batteries are recharged, that your joy is peak fullness and that you’re ready to BE the ripple effect of time spent in love and respect for one another. I know I am.”

It’s not Utopia, after all, we are all human beings. There are complaints, crankiness, and loss of patience. The crowd at GJWW has grown significantly from year one to year 5 and some of the intimacy of the inaugural festival has been lost but any shard of negative energy is incapable of bursting the radical kindness of the “Brandi bubble.” Once a year for 4 or 5 days in January, I am privileged to get a respite from patriarchy and to celebrate the collective power of women; an indescribable feeling I wish persisted year-round.

Trudi Peterson taught Communication Studies at Monmouth College for 25 years and now works as an asylum officers for the federal government.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Western Illinois University or Tri States Public Radio.

Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.