Just over a decade ago, Melanie Estable-Porter saw the need for a local women-only festival while she and other women watched a gay-positive singer at the Tulip Festival.
“I remember — just for those two hours — being outdoors and feeling comfortable holding my partner’s hand. And just for those two hours, we could sort of experience this euphoria of entertainment in the great outdoors, surrounded by other women,” she says.
At the time, she was enrolled at Algonquin College’s events management program, so for a class project, she created a concept for a women-only festival with camping, music, and recreation.
“We had a lot of women’s festivals in the States, but there weren’t a lot in our area,” she says.
In the summer of 1997, after months of planning, she made her class project into reality, and the Women’s Voices Festival was born.
Roughly 300 women showed up. Clearly, the event was popular enough to move off the property of her friend’s home on the outskirts of the city.
Next summer, the festival relocated to the Bean Town Ranch in Plantagenet, about an hour’s drive east of Ottawa. The chick-oriented weekend expanded to include more recreational activities, including swimming and canoeing. Momentum continued to build over the years, as women from across the country came to the event. Canadian and international all-female acts performed, and workshops featured everything from car maintenance to sex toys.
“It was a great event, but it was clearly struggling in the last number of years. There didn’t seem to be an answer that was able to turn it around,” says the festival board’s most recent president, Holly MacKay.
In 2004, the festival went on a one-year hiatus to reorganize and fundraise for the 2005 event. On a high note later that year, the festival received a $20,000 grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, as well as official charity status. The event was back on track in 2005, but financial pressure persisted.
Unfortunately, says MacKay, fundraising efforts were minimally successful. Many events barely broke even or lost money, and at least one fundraising event was cancelled entirely.
“We decided it would be best to fold the organization. It was a very difficult decision to make,” says MacKay.
A debt of $12,000 remains, but so does the desire for a women-only festival.
Marika Jemma, who worked as the festival’s marketing coordinator for three years and created a documentary about the festival, says the event played an important role by supporting Canadian women in the music industry.
“A lot of young performers often commented on how this was their first opportunity to play in a women-only festival. They were just blown away at how different it felt and how supported they felt,” Jemma.
She cites the example of groups that had male drummers, but were forced to reconfigure because the festival was a women-only event. Certain kinds of drumming require a lot of physical strength, so women had to take on what is traditionally a male role.
“Women said ‘we’re actually strong enough to do that!’ so it was empowering in a way that was completely unexpected for them,” says Jemma.
The Women’s Voices Festival was not the only festival struggling financially. Capital Pride was nearly cancelled last year due to debt troubles, and the Tulip Festival was scaled back this year to no longer include evening concerts. Successful festivals either have large audiences and major corporate sponsors, two factors that were challenges to the Women’s Voices Festival, says Estable-Porter.
“You have to take into account the economic status of women. We don’t have the same financial base to support stuff that’s for women only. In smaller communities like Ottawa it’s hard to keep a women-only restaurant or a women-only bar going because the money is not there,” says Jemma.
Although MacKay says that more might have been done to save the festival, she says that the board was “very committed” and they did the best they could. “We really wanted to see this work,” she says.
But she also adds that the community could have been more supportive by going to fundraisers or attending meetings to help organize the event.
“People need to understand that to have a thriving arts and cultural community, they need to be involved. These events happen because people are involved and committed to it. The arts — and women’s voices in general — in the Ottawa community needs to be stronger.”