An Affront to Lilith's Legacy
The return of Lilith Fair to the summer festival circuit after a ten year absence is definitely good news. In the '90s the tour was a focal point of women in music--one of the few places where female artists eschewed the industry's role of "seen and not heard." With acts as diverse as Fiona Apple and Missy Elliott rocking the stage, it was hard to argue that the women couldn't hold their own every bit as well as their male counterparts.
Unfortunately, little has changed for women in the past decade--in popular music or the world at large. In fact, it seems safe to say that things have actually gotten worse. If anything, the recent controversy surrounding Lilith's ticket-sales illustrate how sorely needed the festival is in our day and age.
True to form, the festival's organizers announced that it will donate money from ticket-sales to women's charities (the initial three-year run raised over $10 million for such groups). The pulldown menu on the official Lilith Fair Facebook page allows fans to pick which charities will receive the proceeds in each of the tour's 36 cities. Most are along the worthy lines of women's shelters or health clinics.
But in late March, some voters began to notice a few discrepancies. In Minneapolis, for example, Becky Smith noticed an organization called "Metro Women's Center," an organization whose stated intention is "To actively promote the sanctity of human life through educating women and the community at large about pregnancy alternatives so that informed decisions concerning the outcome of pregnancy may be made."
If this sounds fishy, that's probably because it is. Metro Women's Center is one of countless infamous "crisis pregnancy centers" operating in the United States today. These organizations, far from offering options to pregnant women, are designed to strip them of their basic right to control their bodies.
Another such group selected on the Lilith Facebook page, Atlanta-based A Beacon of Hope, is much more blunt in its anti-choice agenda. Their website declares "we do not offer or refer for abortion services." Beacon of Hope does, however, offer a service typical of many CPCs: ultrasounds for women to view their "unborn."
The nefarious nature of these kinds of organizations cannot be understated. In an article for SocialistWorker.org, Jen Roesch cites the experience of a pregnant woman in one of these such centers:
"I asked her about abortion, and she told me that if I murdered my baby, I would go to hell. She said I would probably get breast cancer or commit suicide, or be infertile. It didn't seem right. I started to leave. The woman told me that if I left without signing up with this adoption agency, she'd call my parents and tell them I was going to murder their grandbaby.
"I started to get sick. She threatened to call me at home, to come to my house, and to tell all my friends I was pregnant if I didn't sign up. I finally ran for it. Unfortunately, they had my phone number and address. They called my dorm roommate and somehow got her to give them my parent's phone number."
Far from offering support or counseling, the mission of these centers is to lie, harass and intimidate women into not having an abortion.
The thought that a music festival based around women's empowerment would give money such groups is enough to turn the stomach--especially considering Lilith's history of pro-choice advocacy. In 1997, Joan Osbourne and festival founder Sarah MacLachlan threatened a future boycott of Texas's Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion unless officials at the concert grounds allowed Planned Parenthood to set up a booth.
Many of those seeking to buy tickets were naturally outraged. After discovering the CPCs on Lilith's Facebook page, Smith and her friend Katie Blair set up another page titled "Lilith Fair: No money for crisis pregnancy centers." Within two days, it had 500 fans, and at the time of writing almost 1,400.
The news spread quickly. Feminist magazines like Bust, Bitch and Ms. posted articles on their website urging Lilith to drop the CPCs and other anti-choice organizations. Reproductive health siteRH Reality Check also picked up on the story.
Initially, the response from festival organizers was disappointing. Terry McBride, Lilith co-founder and CEO of Nettwerk Music Group, claimed that organizers didn't intentionally select anti-choice groups to be among the voting options.
"The seeding at the start was done with a basic digital search in each market of woman's charities," McBride told the Chicago Reader's Jessica Hopper. "It's not perfect. Nor could it be, as we simply don't have the local expertise even within our own city of Vancouver." Though insisting that Lilith hadn't strayed from its principles, and stressing that the final beneficiaries would be selected by the organizers themselves, he refused to remove the CPCs from the options.
This was, needless to say, inadequate. "We are requesting that the CPCs be removed completely from the ballot and selection process," said Smith. "While we believe in democratic systems, we are concerned that, even through a democratic process such as voting, Lilith is condoning such actions as misinforming, lying [to] and deceiving women, all of which stand in direct opposition to a 'Celebration of Women.'"
The pressure continued, and after a week, Nettwerk removed the CPCs from the options on the Facebook page and admitted that some "criteria" needed to be applied to the initial options. Several other anti-choice organizations remained, however. On top of this, NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina was also inexplicably removed from the options available in Charlotte.
Though the lukewarm and somewhat confusing actions of the organizers is frustrating, their eventual removal of the CPCs shows that they are susceptible to pressure. And rightfully so. How can a festival feature such strong woman artists as Erykah Badu, the Gossip and Tegan and Sarah while donating money to organizations whose expressed mission is to deny women their basic rights? The hypocrisy is glaring, and massive enough to drive a movement through.
And in the end, that's what's needed. While Lilith's excellent track record may speak for itself, its inclusion of virulently anti-woman organizations is troubling. And even it was an honest oversight, it speaks to how much ground the anti-choice movement has gained. Too often, a woman's right to choose ends up a bargaining chip, an expendable luxury rather than something fundamental to women's control over their own bodies. It's precisely why Lilith Fair's message needs to be taken seriously--especially by its own organizers.
Alexander Billet, a music journalist and activist living in Chicago, runs the blog Rebel Frequencies (http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com), and is a columnist for the Society of Cinema and Arts. His articles have also appeared at SocialistWorker.org, Z Magazine, New Politics, the International Socialist Review, CounterPunch and PopMatters.com.
Contact him, or subscribe to his mailing list at firstname.lastname@example.org