Last October, a weekend before the election, 400 women gathered in Palm Desert, California, near Joshua Tree, to meet, camp, eat, talk, dance, and do yoga for three days and two nights, completely isolated from men. MOTHERSHIP’s first annual women’s festival created a spiritual feminist sanctuary that was all too short-lived—a rare opportunity for anyone who identified as a woman to come together for intentional intermingling. Ideas, conversations, songs, and connections were made easier by the campfire atmosphere and interactive workshops. Meanwhile, musical performances and dance parties went into the night, with the artists and DJs carefully handpicked for the hundreds of women bonding in the desert. So when Donald Trump took office just days after they all left the very essence of a safe space, the festival community’s conversations—both virtually and in real life—were populated by the sentiment, “I wish I never left MOTHERSHIP.” Now, at least, they can make plans to come back.
MOTHERSHIP, created by Los Angeles-based therapist Laura Wise, is returning for its second year October 15 to 17, and Wise is ready to add to the existing community.
“We all marched earlier this year, and we had this really amazing experience,” Wise says of the Women’s March in January. “A lot of things I heard, was that it ‘felt so safe.’ The connection changes when you’re in an all-female space, and I think we got a real taste of what that connection and what that motion could look like. And all I could think was, Wow, I can’t wait to see these women at MOTHERSHIP. This is so MOTHERSHIP. I think after that march, it was like, ‘What’s next?’ MOTHERSHIP is next.”
Similar festivals have certainly existed—music offerings like Lilith Fair and Ladyfest (or, more recently, Girl Cult), or camp-outs such as the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival—but are now either defunct, open to the public (meaning men come, too), aren't multi-day sleepovers, or have been plagued by transphobic history. MOTHERSHIP is different and seeks to provide an experience more akin to Burning Man in a way, a festival which Wise attended and found elements to incorporate (“and not incorporate”) from into her self-funded endeavor.
“I love that anything goes,” Wise says of Burning Man:
I love that people can wear costumes and be creative and really express themselves. I think that when people put on costumes and glitter and are really playful with their appearance, it actually translates to how they behave in the space, and how they interact with other people. Like, you can’t be taking yourself seriously in a corner or be super shy when you’re wearing a Tigger costume. It really changes the way you interact with people when radical self-expression is happening because you’re way more approachable in that state and more likely to approach others. I want this fest to feel connected, and you can talk to anyone there. That’s why there’s no VIP at MOTHERSHIP.
This communal aspect of MOTHERSHIP is one of its strengths, but it's accompanied by the ease of instant community when the person next to you is a fellow woman.
“For me, being in a place with only women feels natural,” Wise says. “It feels like a relief. It feels like I can do or say or express any opinion or idea, and I’m not going to have to water myself down in any way to cater to anyone.”
This way of thinking was partially behind Wise’s desire to create MOTHERSHIP in the first place. A former sorority girl from Cleveland, Ohio, Wise says she came into feminism while in graduate school. When her father passed away and left her with a “nest egg,” she decided to use it to “create something I think he’d be proud of, and that would make a positive impact on the world.” Wise says she used to have arguments with her late father about feminism: “He just didn’t realize yet how much we still needed it. I think a lot of people who lived through that time period saw so much progress and didn’t realize there’s so much more to go.” But she also saw him as “still coming into his [own]” on the topic, and it was his evolution that makes Wise hopeful that even women who still shy away from the word "feminism" will come around, too.
“I think, first and foremost, we’re a women’s festival, and the festival is designed for any woman to come and have a good time,” Wise says:
Yes, it’s my agenda, essentially, that they will leave feeling more attached or more connected to the idea of the word "feminist." That is definitely something I would hope to happen. But I also recognize—and I’ve had to come to terms with this throughout my life—that everyone comes in at different points in the conversation. And I’m still learning, too. I’m by no means an expert. So being very understanding that everyone’s coming in at a different level of conversation, and also that I know in my heart of hearts that when women are exposed to these ideas of gender equality, there’s really no going back. You’d have to be working against yourself to not want women to feel safe and equal to other people. I just trust that once they’re exposed, that shift will begin.
While MOTHERSHIP is “inherently feminist,” it doesn't only serve to host panels on "The State of Feminism" (although that is definitely one of the offerings); instead, it's a weekend for women to celebrate themselves and their sisterhood.
“I want it to be fun, that was always the main goal," says Wise. "I noticed a gap in feminism when I was really coming into it. There’s either panels or a night out type of thing, and there was no intersection of the smart and celebratory, and that’s what I wanted. I wanted it to feel smart and celebratory, fun but still have some meat to it.”
At MOTHERSHIP, music is just as much of a focus as the conversations. This year, Wise is bringing back Madame Ghandi, M.I.A.’s former drummer whose track, “The Future is Female,” was the unofficial Women’s March anthem. Somali sisters and refugees Faarrow will make their MOTHERSHIP debut this year, as will Tegan and Sara, who are hosting a workshop on “women in the music sphere” and will see their foundation benefit from a partnership with the fest (some proceeds and a portion of ticket sales will be donated to their funding programs and initiatives for LGBTQ girls). By putting all women artists on the stage, Wise hopes to defy the dearth of female acts that play typical music fests where male artists are always the majority.
“I think music festivals overall have a huge problem with feminism,” Wise says. “Not only do many women at festivals report sexual assault and rape in these spaces, but also over half of the music festival attendees are women, but that’s not reflected on stage. At MOTHERSHIP, I want to combat that by putting all women on stage and creating spaces for these amazing female performers and voices to be heard because women are equally as talented as men and we need to give them a platform.”
Wise said she chooses her acts (which, this year, also includes L.A.’s queer pop rock duo WASI, model-musician Madison Paige, and post-punk disco DJ LP Giobbi) based on their “strong voices… appealing to the [MOTHERSHIP] audience” and/or those “with potential to help grow an audience.”
“This is another space where we can go,” Wise says. “We can have these really important conversations; we can regroup and keep the political momentum going while having a really good time, being in this beautiful desert setting, eating good food, watching awesome music, and learning about other things we really enjoy.”
Some of the other offerings at this year’s fest include yoga, meditation, self-defense classes, and a chance to turn your orgasms into art. The all-women start-up Lioness Health will be on-site with their “intuitive vibrator,” Wise says. “[It] syncs up to an app, and you can view your orgasms in beautiful art. Their whole thing is to empower women to have better, longer, stronger orgasms.”
And for women who might be less interested in the handful of sex and pleasure-themed panels, there are plenty of other options, including chilling at your campsite, eating at the food trucks, trying 420-infused goodies from MJays Catering, or taking a dip in the private lake. Providing so many different options for MOTHERSHIP-goers can make it harder to explain the concept, Wise says, but she ultimately knows it represents women’s varied interests.
“So often, women are viewed as a trope. We are the manic pixie chasing after the guy. We’re this yoga girl who only wears sports bra and yoga pants,” she says. “I think one of the reasons people are like, ’Wow, there’s a lot going on at MOTHERSHIP’ is because I created the event to be reflective of women with diverse interests. We don’t have to be just this spiritual girl that goes to spiritual events. We don’t have to be just the girl that’s interested in sex and pleasure and BDSM. We can be all those things, and all those things can exist in one place, and I think that’s why this festival’s so inclusive.”
As a self-professed “white woman…[who is] in a constant state of unlearning my own ideals and my own privilege,” Wise says she is not crowning herself as queen of feminism and that she’s “receptive” to feedback from other women. (The MOTHERSHIP mission refers to the collective community as “the new wave riot grrrl, sex-positive, LGBTQ encompassing, ultra-inclusive creatives who believe in the power of women supporting other women.”)
“I’m learning, too,” Wise says. “I’m not propping myself up as an authority on feminism—I’m an enthusiast. I’m interested in it, and I care about it.”
Basically, Wise admits she created the festival that she wanted to go to; one that would be multifaceted, with vulva tutorials and chakra aligning and an eclectic group of up-and-coming performers—a festival that would provide the instant camaraderie of sleeping under the same stars, all together in the Coachella Valley, clothing optional.
“It’s not just narrowed down to one digestive, manageable idea,” Wise says. “It’s reflective of women who have diverse interests, and they can explore all those interests in one spot. What it comes down to, is I’m unwilling to compromise that women are so diverse, just to make it more marketable. I’m going to make an event that I would like to go to, and that would include a lot of different things—a multitude of different activities and performances and ideas.”
While this year’s festival will be just a few weeks before the anniversary of Hillary Clinton’s loss, Wise is expecting there to be similarly sorrowful sentiments expressed after MOTHERSHIP inevitably ends again for the year.
“I think we’re only going to grow as a community,” Wise says:
I think that more political action could come out of this eventually. I’ve already seen people go on and collaborate from MOTHERSHIP that met there in so many different ways. It can be art, it can be music. We’ve been doing the work for all these women to have been so energized by the Women’s March and the recent election. There’s a war on women’s health and women’s rights that happened this year. If you want to do something, but you don’t know where to start, this is a good place to begin by having these conversations and educating yourself in a fun space, and I think that being in a space like MOTHERSHIP, you learn a lot inherently through conversation that can empower you to go on and do other things.
Wise expects 600 to 800 women at this year’s fest, and the new, larger space will accommodate the growth. But she still refers to the event as “cozy,” small enough for the majority of campers (or glampers who prefer the more modern accommodations available) to connect with other women in very intimate ways over the three-day weekend. And, maybe even more importantly, it provides the opportunity for women to connect with themselves.
“I feel like MOTHERSHIP is not so much about ‘You’re going to come here, and we’re going to empower you!’” Wise said. “MOTHERSHIP is more about claiming your own power—whatever that looks like to you. We’re just providing the space for you to step into and claim your own personal power and whatever feels right to you as an individual.”