Sort of like video Christmas, I looked forward every year to the Women’s Festival and Conference, held at the University of Arkansas in the spring. Not only were the programs and workshops interesting, but I taped a lot of them to be shown on public access television. Many of them, in fact, can still be seen to this very day, so in a sense, it lives on.
In 1999, the UA cut its ties with the Festival, which later sort of morphed into what we now know as the Goddess Festival, held every spring in Fayetteville, with some of the same participants involved.
Of all the events I have been invited to tape over the years, the Women’s Festival was one of my favorites, not least of which was the fact that the folks running it understood that the people who I brought in with me as crew were preserving their work, and every effort to be cooperative to their needs. I always contrast this with another event I taped every year - and which they offered me the princely sum of one of their chicken dinners meals off the buffet line as compensation.
“Why is he getting free food?” I heard more than one person mutter, not too quietly. “Doesn’t he realize he’s doing this as a public service?” Ultimately, I decided I didn’t need a free meal all that badly.
For information on this years’s Goddess Festival:
Now, as then, I am indebted to the work of Natalie Mannering, whose work contributed greatly to this article.
UA Kills Women’s Festival?
Withdrawal of money, support threaten future of conference
The 11th annual Northwest Arkansas Women's Festival and Conference has been tentatively scheduled for March 2-5, 2000. But the future of the Conference is now in jeopardy. The University of Arkansas has severed its long-standing ties to the annual meeting. By rescinding the funding that former UA Chancellor Dan Ferritor had earmarked to be used in perpetuity to support the Festival, current Chancellor John White has perhaps dealt a fatal blow to the event, and to its celebration of diversity. In addition, a financially strapped UA Humanities Department is unable to help the Festival as it has in so many years past.
Compounding the problem of the UA's lack of financial aid, this past summer the committee responsible for the Festival was informed that over the past four years, the university has made a series of accounting errors. Therefore, it had not billed the Conference for printing costs; the total bill came to almost $7,000. Following negotiation, the bill was pared down to $2,600, still a substantial figure when the UA loss of funding comes into play. As a consequence, the UA could not book any space for the Festival unless the bill was accounted for.
Dr. Joanie Connors, UA liaison for the Conference, says, “Except for this unexpected setback, the Conference has always come in under budget, and kept accounts as accurately as possible, so that debts were always paid.” Given the scope of the event, this was no small accomplishment, since, as Connors explains, “Most of the work was done by volunteers and students.”
The Women’s Festival and Conference has a proud history, beginning in 1990. Throughout the years, the various conferences have been organized by the Graduate Students in English, the Alliance for Women's Concerns, and individuals in the community, both UA and non-UA related.
There were rumors in the past year that John White personally did not want the Festival to take place at the UA. Though his exact views have never been made public, certainly cutting the funding which the conference organizers had been told was there as long as there was a Conference may speak volumes. In the past, some have felt that the Festival may have featured the “wrong” sort of diversity; some of the organizers and a certain number of workshops have been lesbian oriented.
That sort of bigotry is always hard to pin down, though many involved with the gatherings over the years have felt the sting of criticism. The organizers have long sought to make the meeting all-inclusive, but the presence of even one lesbian-oriented workshop has often been enough to turn some against the Conference altogether.
However, the Conference should not be considered down and out just yet. Chairing the 2000 Conference is Anita Shekinah, who also headed the 1999 event. She feels that a stripped down version of the Festival/Conference might still be held, perhaps at Fayetteville’s Mount Sequoyah. She says, “We need not only financial help, but volunteers who can help with planning and coordinating.”
Certainly, without a strong show of support from the community, the Conference may not occur, at least in 2000. This would be unpalatable to many who have traditionally traveled great lengths to come to Fayetteville to attend the event. One way to “save” the Festival would be to hold it away from the UA without any university affiliation at all.
There is always the possibility that the UA may reinstate the Conference at a later date, with a reinvigorated Gender Studies program running the entire affair. Besides being years in the future, this may also leave an unpleasant taste in the mouths of those to whom the UA is essentially turning its back on now.
Faced with the cold reality that if this program were not held this year, it might be more difficult to resurrect it in the future, the 2000 steering committee has decided to remain open to the idea of putting on a conference. Although it might meet at least some of the needs of the women’s community, it would not be as elaborate as in past years. All agree, however, that even this cannot be done without more support from the community.
Ozark Gazette - November 29, 1999