By Dakota Parks for Inweekly
Kirstin Norris Gartner juggled baby monitors and a chef’s knife while preparing dinner for her family during our Inweekly interview. For the new mother and founding organizer of FemFest, she wasn’t sure whether or not the intersectional feminist festival would come back from its two-year pandemic hiatus—that is, until the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Charged with its mission of creating spaces for people of all backgrounds to share their voices, advance equality, educate the community and raise funds for organizations which advance the cause of feminism—Gartner knew that we needed FemFest now more than ever.
“The day that the Supreme Court overturned Roe, I was rocking my son to sleep and crying. In his nursery, I have the Better South Beliefs framed above the rocking chair, and it talks about a woman’s right to her own body,” Gartner explained. “So I was sitting there crying over these beautiful words, feeling angry, sad and hopeless at the state of our country. I felt the weight of responsibility to bring FemFest back, and I texted Hale Morrissette a few days later, and we both agreed that we had to do something. It’s a scary time to be a person with a uterus in this country. It would be irresponsible of me not to use the resources that I created to do something about it.”
At its core, FemFest was created to inspire joy amidst the heavy and emotionally draining work of feminism and community organizing. Although Gartner explained this year’s festival may be shrouded in a somber and poignant ambiance, she hopes that the evocative art, music and storytelling provides a sense of comfort and empowerment to those in attendance. Gartner and her co-organizers plan to do that by hosting two nights of programing back-to-back at Artel Gallery later this month.
Her Roots: A Southern Woman’s Song Rooted in this power of collective storytelling, the first FemFest event, “Her Roots,” combines music and personal stories to explore and expand the notions of Southern womanhood. This new event was conceived by Gartner and Juliana Child, the assistant artistic director for Pensacola Children’s Chorus. Set against the backdrop of a stereotypical Southern porch where stories are shared amongst generations of women, this intimate space will break down the barriers between audience and performers while intertwining monologues with choral pieces.
“This concert is celebrating the strength of the bonds that can be created between women—relationships that women have with one another, supporting one another,” Child explained. “One piece within the performance is called ‘Lineage,’ and it’s celebrating our ancestors and generations of women that came before us—the shoulders we’re standing on. In many cultures, women are the keepers and bearers of traditions and stories, so we wanted to create a musical event that celebrated that and shattered preconceived notions that people have about Southern culture through the lens of women’s experiences.”
The monologues shared will include vulnerable stories that explore themes of abortion, misogyny and racism. With more than 20 performers and a program of choral pieces composed almost entirely by women from the South, the concert aims to not only highlight the diversity and intersecting identities of Southern women but also expand the understanding of womanhood itself.
“In our call for singers, we tried to be as intentionally inclusive and welcoming as possible by acknowledging that the definition of womanhood is expanding,” Child said. “I come from a vocal and choral background where something as simple as which part you sing in a choir is deeply gendered. So, it was important to reach out to cisgender women, transgender women and people who identify anywhere along the spectrum of womanhood and femininity, including nonbinary people who feel comfortable in spaces that center the experiences of women or have this lived experience of womanhood. Some people are threatened by this, such as Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs), but we’re hoping the event can broaden these perspectives. If those among us who are the most marginalized can be free, it creates more freedom of expression for everyone. It should excite us all that the definition of womanhood is constantly expanding and evolving.”
As Child explained, “Her Roots” not only centers a diverse group of singers, but it also provides them with a space to explore gender presentation and wear whatever they are most comfortable in— unlike many professional choral concerts which adhere to a strict gendered dress code. This constant evolution is at the heart of FemFest. By creating and holding a space for feminists and womanists to gather, they can center the stories of marginalized groups who face systemic injustice.
“From the very beginning of FemFest, we discussed the importance of using our positions of privilege as white, cisgender people who live above the poverty line— who have this disposable income to invest into grassroots organizations— as a force for good,” Gartner explained. “We have to make sure that we’re using our privilege to create spaces for other marginalized people to come in and not just sit in the audience but to also participate, tell their stories and share their voice. That’s why we are constantly partnering with local organizations and activists. I hope that FemFest continues to spark this conversation in Pensacola and brings a sense of security to those of us who feel scared or threatened from their rights being infringed upon. I want people to feel empowered to share their own stories once they leave.”
After more than three years of female-focused arts and advocacy events, FemFest has raised over $13,000 for local beneficiaries. Proceeds from this year’s two-day event will benefit Sister Song, a national activist organization dedicated to reproductive justice for women of color. “Her Roots” will also include an art fair and resource fair with vendors ranging from legal services and nonprofits to mental and reproductive health.
“At its core, FemFest is a celebration of intersectional feminism that also recognizes the current political moment we’re in. It’s a weekend where people from different walks of life can stand together behind the causes that are important to them while holding space for each other to feel, express and process the whirlwind of emotions surrounding our various identities. I hope ‘Her Roots’ can be a catharsis for people and that we raise a lot of money for people who need that support the most right now,” Child said.
Womanhood in Lavender: Renaissance Noir For Hale Morrissette, “Womanhood in Lavender” is about creating a space of one’s own—a space for Black women to gather, celebrate and create art together. As FemFest’s most popular and well-attended event, Morrissette hopes that bringing it back for night two this year can help bridge a gap in the community and educate attendees about the experiences and struggles of Black women through its diverse lineup of performers including musicians, actors, dancers, poets and visual artists.
“Just imagine you’re walking into this event—the lights are low, there’s an illuminated altar full of sunflowers and candles, and there’s a throne there. In the background, there is some upbeat music like Solange Knowles playing while someone’s talking in a real sultry voice reading poetry or dancing. One year, we even had a live boudoir photo session happening. All of the art on the walls is created by Black women and vendors are laughing and selling their artwork. There is so much happiness radiating in the room. It’s just a night of Black women existing however they see fit in this creative space together. It means a lot to me, because Black women don’t typically get a space of our own,” Morrissette said.
As a womanist abolitionist, Morrissette is a dedicated activist and community organizer fighting against race and gender inequality, police brutality, mass incarceration and community violence. Her journey to womanism—a term coined by Alice Walker that focuses on uplifting women of color— is integral to her work both as a community organizer and as the organizer of “Womanhood in Lavender.”
“My journey started off with unlearning a lot of things that society told me was a Back woman’s place,” Morrissette explained. “I thought I had to accept sexual harassment, and I thought it was just a part of how the world worked. I thought I had to accept having to choose either being Black or being queer. Then I realized what it means to be a mother and what it means to fight for the liberation of all people. Womanism speaks to the fullness of who I am.”
By welcoming this fullness and intersectionality, Morrissette is able to use their voice to speak out on a myriad of interconnected issues and place this at the forefront of their organizing efforts.
“The overturning of Roe v. Wade sparked this immediate need for FemFest to come back and raise money, because there are dire consequences to this ruling,” Morrissette explained. “It’s a violence against the whole body—not just people with ovaries. Everything is connected. As an abolitionist, I can already see arrests happening to women in other states. There is going to be a push to incarcerate even more minority and Black women or Black people that violate any of these anti-abortion legislations. It’s a life-or-death issue that introduces even more violence to women that can’t afford an abortion or who might suffer abuse from a spouse because of an unwanted pregnancy. Murder is one of the leading causes of death for pregnant women.”
These issues are at the forefront of FemFest and its beneficiary, Sister Song, a reproductive justice organization focused on women of color. Like Gartner, Morrissette hopes that “Womanhood in Lavender” can offer a reprieve from the physical and emotional burnout of organizing and fighting against unjust systems. This year’s theme is “Renaissance Noir,” which celebrates the influx of Black creativity, community and artistic activism.
“The Black renaissance is the celebration of new art,” Morrissette said. “Beyoncé has definitely influenced this, but I just wanted to emphasize the Blackness of it all. I’ve been saying for a while that we’re in the midst of a Black renaissance in Pensacola. There are so many people within our community doing amazing things. Black artists and businesses are blooming. I wanted to be able to highlight that. ‘Womanhood in Lavender’ really represents the creativity and soul that we pour into our community. The personal is the political, and it’s our way of standing in our glory. We’re going to have fun while we do it, but we are going to hold our space.”
FEMFEST 2022 WHEN: Her Roots: A Southern Woman’s Song: 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 28 Womanhood in Lavender: Renaissance Noir: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 29 WHERE: Artel Gallery, 223 S. Palafox PRICE: Suggested donation $10; proceeds go to Sister Song DETAILS: Facebook @femfestpcola, Instagram @femfestpensacola
*For more information on the nonprofit organization that FemFest is raising funds for, visit sistersong.net.