Is Lilith Fair Feminist? Sarah McLachlan’s Not Sure

After a decade of silence, Sarah McLachlan rallied another troupe to make a nationwide pilgrimage in the name of the goddess Lilith. Not old enough to drive a car the last time Lilith Fair came around, I thought I had missed my opportunity forever back in 1999. Even so, McLachlan’s “Mirrorball” was the soundtrack to my teenage angst and I knew the collaborative Lilith version of the Indigo Girl’s “Closer to Fine” better than the original. I was thrilled to finally get my chance to witness the unifying and transformative event I already identified with, especially with a press pass.

Stopping in Los Angeles over the weekend, the latest installment of Lilith Fair showcased McLachlan, Emmylou Harris, Brandi Carlile, Miranda Lambert and Jenni Rivera–the first Mexican American headliner for the tour, not to mention the first Lilith Fair performer ever accompanied by a mariachi band. Before taking the main stage, the ladies of Lilith (minus Rivera) sat down for a late afternoon press conference where they discussed the challenges for women in the music industry–sexism, media imagery, even juggling motherhood and a career.

“What makes you feel beautiful?” one reporter asked the panel.

“Being counter-cultural and defying boundaries of gender,” said Carlile (left), the last to answer.

As a feminist, she was speaking my language. While the media had been scrutinizing  McLachlan’s feminist identity for years–“Is she, or isn’t she?”–I still believed that Lilith Fair was an act of resistance. Carlile’s feminist rhetoric seemed to naturally lead into the question I had come to ask: “Who here identifies as a feminist?”

I got a long pause, followed by nervous laughter.

Finally Carlile spoke, “I don’t know, it means something different that it used to.”

Before I could ask what it meant now as opposed to then, McLachlan assumed the role of official spokesperson and began building a mystery:

It’s a tricky question, because it’s been redefined and I think we all define feminism to a certain degree. We all define femininity. I think we’re able to have a little more balance. There’s still fights to be fought. There’s still inequality, absolutely.

Not what I was expecting from the woman who founded Lilith Fair in 1997, a time not-so-long-ago when women musicians seldom crossed paths on the tour circuit because concert promoters wouldn’t put two on the same bill. McLachlan called the sexist policy “asinine” and began proving them wrong with her women-only festival. More than 10 years later, McLachlan seemed frightened of the F-word, equating it with “femininity”:

I think as long as we’re being mindful and honest with ourselves and doing what we feel is right, and that’s a very personal decision for all of us, if we’re going forth with that intention, then we are; we’re being feminists, we’re being humanists, we’re being feminine. We’re being true to ourselves, in every way, in every facet of our personalities.

(Because I feel it is right I have made a personal decision to digress here and mention the sponsors’ tent city filled with “feminine” products, such as samples of Luna‘s nutrition bars and Degree deodorant’s new “body mists”. There were also “Lilipad” stations providing concert-goers a chance to “freshen up” with moist, scented towels. Once inside, Carefree liners, Stayfree pads and o.b. tampons were abundant and up for grabs. Even mini-issues of Self magazine were distributed.)

Halfway through her lengthy, roundabout answer, McLachlan decided,

It’s more than just feminism. It’s gone above and beyond that now. At the same time … I have a great respect for the women who have gone before us, and who have had to struggle, and fight for every right ….

Were those of us who saw this as a feminist gathering mistaken? I wondered, as McLachlan went on to describe injustice in Iran, where women are stoned for adultery:

We all live in such a bubble here in North America. … When we look out on the rest of the world, the atrocities that are happening to women everyday, it’s shocking. So when I think about those things, it makes me want to be more of a staunch feminist.

Even if McLachlan can’t quite bring herself to talk the I-am-a-feminist talk, Lilith Fair has long walked a feminist walk, lending it’s voice (and funds) to women in need. The 2010 incarnation stayed true to this principle, donating a portion of ticket sales to a local charity in each city. This time around, the Downtown Women’s Center (their festival booth is pictured at right) was the lucky recipient of $9,000 dollars to continue helping homeless women. Throughout the festival, awareness was raised for a variety of causes, including Race for the Cure and OXFAM International’s eco-feminist campaign  Sisters on the Planet. Said McLachlan:

I feel like this is such a great platform to talk about all those issues, without it becoming overtly feminist or that becoming the topic of everything, because this is a musical show.

“Yeah, but just the fact that you got the idea …” started Emmylou Harris, leaving out the words  “… is feminist” that probably would have completed the sentence. Harris was quick to remind McLachlan that the passion of Lilith Fair was ignited by sex discrimination, plain and simple:

Of course you can’t put two women together. Of course they put two men on the same bill all the time. But it was accepted.  And Sarah just went up against that.”

McLachlan tip-toed around feminism like it was a sleeping lion. Despite her inability to be declarative, Lilith’s spirit of sisterhood felt as strong as ever, especially on stage. Carlile and Lambert teamed up to cover Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” while Harris (right) harmonized with McLachlan on the latter’s hit song “Angel.” The finale was a group rendition of Patti Smith’s “Because the Night.”

And while McLachlan resists, I will still credit her with shaping my feminist adolescence, or at least being a part of it. Carlile confessed she attended every Lilith Fair as a teenager (playing her guitar in line and cheering from the lawn seats). In the end, feminist actions spoke louder than “post-feminist” words.

Photos by Ali Tweten.  For more Lilith Fair photos, check out our Flickr.


  1. It is sad to see strong women who will not commit to the word feminist. Nevertheless, even though there is something to be said for embracing the label, it is still just a label, which is not as important as action.

    If Sarah McLachlan wants to run a music festival that’s good for women and is shy about embracing the feminist label, and if Sarah Palin wants to be anti-choice and embrace the feminist label, well, then I’d still rather have Sarah McLachlan. It’s better to act for the good of women even if you don’t call yourself a feminist than to call yourself a feminist and act against the good of women.

  2. Feminist for Sarah! says:

    I commend Sarah for actually creating such a wonderful festival. I think it shows how supportive she is of women by investing 100s of thousands of dollars into showcasing the talents of women artists. Isn’t that enough… or rather, isn’t it a great start???
    I mean, she has put women more on the map than ever, isn’t that enough? I think had she thrown the word “feminism” around and ranted and raved over it being a feminist gathering, then it would not have become so mainstream, people would not have accepted it so much, thus not putting feminists/feminism more on the map. I don’t believe she has to throw the word “feminist” around because it is SO obvious that she IS supportive of women. Again, I totally agree with her, it is a music festival supporting great women artists.
    “Gender equality”? She IS supporting gender equality, that is WHY she created the festival and gave a big “F you” to the men who didn’t think it could actually be successful without having men headlining. Why does she HAVE to go crazy over the word? Why can’t she just be accepted. She has done enough (for now) without turning people off. Equality starts in baby steps. For example, if you are unfortunately having an argument with someone and they automatically come off at you with ‘guns a blazin’, you’re probably going to shut down and not care to hear what they have to say. If they begin an argument calmly, it is probably going to end better than expected, all parties happy.
    She is opening the minds of sexist men etc by starting off slowly. It’s a first step.. again, aren’t you happy that she even made that step for us??
    For people that don’t like to be judged, they’re sure judging her when she’s just trying to do some good. It’s a start. AND the cherry on top is that the proceeds GO TOWARDS various organizations that *SUPPORT WOMEN*. Also, these various booths that are set up aka feminine products are helping to sponsor Lilith.
    It’s all a start. I think if anyone thinks they can do better, then create a hardcore feminist music festival-see how mainstream it can go to open the minds of those who may be opposed to the feminist movement. I really don’t think it would go mainstream (not yet, but later down the line maybe). Michigan Womyns Festival for example is NOT mainstream. I don’t know many people who have even heard if it outside of the gay community.
    So, I think Lilith has done an incredible amount of good. Be grateful and thankful to Sarah and those involved for giving so much back to the women’s community. Stop judging her.

  3. In its first three years, Lilith raised more than $10 million for women’s charities. In 1997, the fair grossed $16 million. Its 104 shows between 1997 to 1999 grossed $52.9 million and attracted 1.6 million people, according to Billboard magazine.

    Cmon now. Look how much she has raised?!

  4. Iris Braydon says:

    Wow– this blog was not only well written and articulate, but also quite a huge eye-opener. Hats off to Kate Noftsinger for truthfully sharing her opinion and experience when life gave her a bit of a eye-opener; especially from someone that she’s admired for years. very interesting….

  5. Dawn O'Connor says:

    This makes me very sad. Feminism is easy to define – so either you believe in equal rights for females, or you don’t. There really is no “grey” area! Fundamentally, it has nothing to do with how one defines “femininity.” Only in a patriarchal culture would a word such as “feminism” exist – & it’s a shame that women in this culture who Behave like feminists would be hesitant to Identify as such. Societal conditioning is powerful & effective – this proves it.

  6. Nectarine says:

    I remember when Lilith was running before it was the same line – Sarah McLachlan stated that she was more comfortable defining herself as a “humanist” than a “feminist”.

  7. Tom Vitale says:

    Gloria Steinem, Susan Brownmiller, Andrea Dworkin, Robin Morgan, Katharine A. MacKinnon, and many others from that era, the sixties and seventies, gave us the definitions and meanings of the words “Feminism” and “Feminist”. We (I am a man and I did indeed say “we”) must keep to the original concepts and constructs for all time. we cannot water down those meanings. We cannot include people who have fought against Feminism and who now declare themselves “feminists” (like Sarah Palin). I am not saying we must have a narrow definition and conception of what Feminism is and includes. I am saying go with Andrea Dworkin and stick to your terms and don’t water down anything to make it more inclusive and less exclusive or more palatable to “the masses”. Go past those words, (“inclusive”, “exclusive”, “palatable”) without changing the meanings of the original concepts. PLEASE !!!
    Andrea Dworkin could do it and so can Y-O-U!!

  8. Tom Vitale says:

    “American Feminism A Contemporary History” by Ginnette Castro, from France, gives a very beautiful description of Feminism in the USA and gives very good definitions.
    Susan Brownmiller’s “In Our Time” gives a beautiful description of life for the early Feminists.

  9. “Carlile and Lambert teamed up to cover Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,”

    The song was written by Willie Nelson, not Cline.

  10. The Downtown Women’s Center ( was the local charity at Lilith Fair LA. Sarah, the other female artists and all the fans help raise $9,000 that will go directly to empowering and supporting women in LA’s Skid Row who suffer from homelessness, poverty and other issues such as substance abuse, violence and mental health.

    Speaking on women’s rights at the press conference, McLachlan said, “I have great respect for the women who came before us and have made it easier for us. We don’t take our rights for granted, and we should talk about those women who don’t have a voice.”


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ms. Magazine, Delta Waters. Delta Waters said: RT @msmagazine: How can the founder of concerts for all-women be afraid of the "F" word? […]

  2. […] Ms. Magazine reporter Kate Noftsinger asks a panel of Lilith Fair artists a question: “Who here identifies as a […]

  3. […] liked a few of the singers on the lineup, and the concept seemed like a good one. McLachlan may be too much of a wimp to admit that the tour’s concept had anything to do with the big, scary F-word, but I think, at least […]

  4. […] artist Brandi Carlile said: The best thing that ever happened to women in music in my opinion is a sense of community. Surround yourself with people who teach and inspire you and you might find the power in numbers. […]

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