This weekend sees Ladyfest, a worldwide arts and music festival, roll into town for its second annual celebration of feminism and female artists. Organised and run by local volunteers in their respective cities, the festival offers a place for women to feel empowered and embrace their femininity whilst being soundtracked by the best in new bands. Whilst focusing on the future, it also pays deference to the past, and celebrates Manchester’s radical feminist history through music arts, debate, writing and film.

I spoke to Niki, one of the organisers of the Manchester festival, about Ladyfest and why their work is so important.

What is Ladyfest? And how did it come about into being?

Ladyfest was founded off the back of the DIY scene and the Riot Grrrl movement in Washington in 2000 to celebrate women in arts and activism. A group of women recognised a need for this movement because of the male dominance many of them experienced. They felt unsafe and marginalised and so set up the Ladyfest Festival, which soon took off and became international. 16 years on and it is still going strong, taking place in over 20 cities worldwide, including Amsterdam, Berlin, Brussels, Brazil, Bristol, Cardiff, Dijon, Toulouse, Dublin, LA, San Francisco, London, Barcelona, Johannesburg, Melbourne, Shanghai and Wellington. All the festivals are DIY with little or no funding.

What’s the aim of the festival?

The main aim is to promote women in all parts of society, and is driven by music and other art forms such as poetry, spoken word. Creative expression is a powerful vehicle to convey important messages and is far easier for the public to grasp than some of the more serious stuff we have on. However, the underbelly and the roots of the event is the political stuff where debates and discussions take place. It is a little more serious, but there is a symbiosis between the art and politics and they’re not mutually exclusive.

Why do you think the work you do is important?

We need to keep the momentum behind the idea that women have a right to be visible in society in all areas. There are still many industries and communities that are male dominated and many women don’t recognize the barriers they’re faced with to break into them, or if they do, feel very isolated and unsupported. This year we are having a Women in Tech day, to coincide with Manchester being the City of Science, where we’ll be holding tech workshops in sound engineering, film editing, coding and game design. All these workshops are facilitated by self-defining women and non-binary people.

It’s hugely important that we keep up this work as the more we show our presence the bigger our voice will become and eventually people will listen.

Manchester has a proud tradition of empowered, radical women, be they artists, musicians, poets. Who are your inspirations from history and who are the new kids on the block?

Manchester certainly has a radical history, and despite having a love for the music and the arts, my main drive to be involved has been around women’s rights. My inspirations from History were Sylvia Pankhurst – the most radical suffragette, who turned her back on her family for being pro war – and Elizabeth Wolstenholme who was a real radical feminist on the margins of the movement, she fought for things like the rights of prostitutes and for better education.

In terms of a feminist movement, we are the new kids on the block I suppose. We provide a platform for some real contentious debates with a diverse group of women, as well as an amazing line-up of live music, DJs, creative workshops stand-up, spoken word, music, talks, crafts, zines and poetry.

What do you hope to achieve through Ladyfest?

To shine, to make ourselves known and to pave the way and inspire other women to continue with the good work. We have carefully selected the workshops because we recognise a real need for them in society and also because they are topical in the media, for example reproductive rights in Ireland, Poland and the USA. This year we have teamed up with the Spirit of Manchester Festival, who do a lot of good work with community organisations to spread the word to women that are harder to reach. We also have a community fair promoting the work that many of those organisations do. The other political workshops we have are covering subjects on consent and social media; trans against new prisons; women, race and resistance; trans and non-binary experiences as a feminist; and sex workers’ rights. All the workshops are free, as we want to make them accessible to all.

What else can be expected from the festival?

We have expanded to three days and seven venues across the Northern Quarter, Kickstarting the festival at 3 Minute Theatre with a film screening of Clueless and then a late night session of all-female DJs playing at Eastern Bloc, where you can hear Manchester’s legendary Veba and AFRODEUTSCHE working alongside Carl Craig, Graham Massey and Paddy Steer. Other venues on the Saturday and Sunday include Gullivers on Oldham Street to Nexus art cafe. The line-up features 12 bands, 11 DJs, 15 free feminist workshops, 20 community group stalls, three poets, three comedians, a choir, two ex-members of The Fall, an honorary member of The Slits and over 400 attendees.

Ladyfest features some of the most exciting female artists coming out of Manchester at the moment in comedy, poetry, art and music. So far we’ve featured and will be featuring some ceiling smashing bands and solo musicians such as ILL, Factory Acts, Ajah UK, Esper Scout, Galivantes, Tekla, Mr Heart, Liines, Poppycock, tAngerinecAt, Elena Cau. Our aim is to break through the barriers that hinder many of these musicians. Ladyfest has become something quite special and it needs to have a firm place in Manchester’s culture – long may it continue here.

LadyFest runs from 7-9 October across various Northern Quarter venues.

David Ewing