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Borne of Cancellation, Feminist Radio Station WLRN Celebrates Five Years Strong

Founder Thistle Pettersen reflects on how her community’s many attempts to silence her only made her louder

Borne of Cancellation, Feminist Radio Station WLRN Celebrates Five Years Strong

In 2014, when Sheila Jeffreys accepted my invitation for a live interview to air on WORT 89.9 FM, Madison’s community radio station, I could not have predicted the backlash this single event would create in my life. Not only did the backlash cause huge problems for my budding career as a local singer/songwriter, it created problems for me at my place of employment and I was eventually pushed out of my job.

I would have never guessed that over the course of the next few years, this backlash would propel me forward into recruiting volunteers to found and run an online radio station that has featured the voices of hundreds of feminists and women since Women’s Liberation Radio News (WLRN) first went live in May of 2016. Today, as WLRN celebrates its five year anniversary, I reflect on the journey that led me here.

Cancellation Part 1: Twin Cities Anarchist Book Fair

What feels like a lifetime of radical feminist activism started in August of 2012, when my workshop entitled “Identifying and Dismantling Male Supremacist Attitudes and Behaviors” was cancelled by the organizers of the Twin Cities Anarchist Book Fair. They cancelled it due to “transphobia” because I had referred to women as “female-bodied” in my workshop description. I wrote that the “...workshop is intended for womyn, or female-bodied people who grew up socialized female. If you don’t fit into that category, you are welcome to come as an ally, but the focus of our discussion will be specifically on the liberation of female folk and how our struggle relates to anarchy, general social organizing, and anarchist circles in the Midwest.”

“Little did I know how much my life would change because of my persistence, curiosity, and drive to prove that there is nothing 'hateful' about women asserting our rights under patriarchy.”

Being cancelled in 2012 was the first time it had ever happened to me and, at the time,  I thought it an anomaly, not a trend. It not only incensed me, but made me curious. What was going on that my voice was being silenced as I sought to discuss the classic oppression of patriarchy that comes down on females within my activist community? I had noticed sexism before, which was the reason for my workshop, but I had never been accused of being an “oppressor” by my activist community for unpacking and analyzing the ways in which patriarchy works. In fact, I had been rewarded for this analysis in many ways as a creative and musical organizer in the Midwest around bike culture, community gardens, and environmental activism. I felt, until that moment, embraced as a singer/songwriter and progressive activist, and I intended to get to the bottom of what had happened at the Twin Cities Anarchist Book Fair.

Little did I know how much my life would change because of my persistence, curiosity, and drive to prove that there is nothing “hateful” about women asserting our rights under patriarchy.

The Second Cancellation: Sheila Jeffreys on WORT 89.9 FM

Right after the Twin Cities Anarchist Book Fair incident, a new feminist friend recommended I read “Unpacking Queer Politics” by Sheila Jeffreys. I liked the book so much I decided to reach out to her to tell her about what had happened at the anarchist book fair. I was thrilled when she replied to me and commented positively on the writing I had done about my experience in the zine Musings on Manarchy in the Midwest.

By the time I learned that Jeffreys was releasing “Gender Hurts: a Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism,” I was deeply fascinated by her feminist analysis and wanted to raise consciousness and awareness in my local community. I applied for an Access Hour spot on the airwaves at WORT 89.9 FM community radio station and asked Sheila for an interview, even though my show would not air for six months. She said yes so I started planning for how I would conduct it.

This was not the first time I had applied to do an Access Hour show on WORT or volunteered at the station.

The Access Hour is a free-speech tradition at WORT that has been around since the 1970’s. Anyone in the community can apply to create a one-hour long radio show to be broadcast on a Monday night via WORT’s airwaves. Some people play their favorite songs the whole time, others share their adventure stories from distant lands and still others take to the airwaves to teach a cooking class or comment on climate change.

“Calls and emails to the station poured in expressing concern and demanding that the show be cancelled.”

Many things happened during the six-month planning phase for the interview and the show I was doing, including that I invited two other women to join in the discussion. Elizabeth Hungerford is an American lesbian feminist legal scholar and Jane Doe was a detransitioning woman I had met at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival during the Summer of 2014.

I also wrote a song to go with the radio show that later became theme music in what is now WLRN’s regular monthly broadcast.

Until my show with Jeffreys, I had never heard of anyone having trouble getting onto WORT’s Access Hour airwaves. I made and distributed a flyer that went up around town announcing that I was interviewing Sheila Jeffreys. Right away, calls and emails to the station poured in expressing concern and demanding that the show be cancelled. Molly Stenz, WORT’s news director at the time, sat me down in the lobby of the station a week before the show to ask me if I knew what I was doing and what the consequences would be. She also seemed to be considering buckling under the pressure to make the decision, as news director at the station, to cancel. In the end, she decided to uphold the mission of the station to provide access to the airwaves to traditionally under-represented groups and to “challenge the cultural and intellectual assumptions of our listeners through unique and diverse programming” (from WORT’s mission statement).

Pettersen's friends protesting her banning from the Wilmar Neighborhood Center

Molly expressed concern for my safety and advised that I should not come to the station alone to do the show and that I shouldn’t ride my bike. I received phone calls from people who had never called me before, begging me to cancel the show and warning me that it would destroy my standing as a singer/songwriter and activist in Madison.

I didn’t believe them. I didn’t think they would take it as far as they did. The events leading up to the founding of Women’s Liberation Radio News (WLRN) were no less than a war on me, as an individual.

I was harassed at the grocery store, threatened with violence by members of the Madison community on social media, gossiped about constantly, and generally treated like a pariah in my own town. WORT’s programming committee rejected my proposal to do a regular monthly feminist news program, calling the proposal “transphobic.” But I had made some friends at WORT. In 2016, with the help of some anonymous WORT staff, I created an online “radio station” at my dining room table. WLRN was born.

The Third Rail: Meghan Murphy and Julie Bindel on Access Hour

Despite this initial blow-up over the Jeffreys interview, it wasn’t until three years later, in February of 2017, that my “community’ here in Madison nailed me to the wall so hard that it was impossible for me to recover my reputation and career as a musician and activist.

In 2018, as WLRN kept up our Totally Excellent Radical Feminist radio show once a month featuring music, interviews with feminist scholars, activists and musicians, world news and commentary, I applied for another Access Hour to interview Meghan Murphy and Julie Bindel.

I didn’t think about what I might lose; I hoped that if Madison heard the truth, especially told so articulately, that reasonable people would drop their name-calling and come to the table for a real conversation. I felt strong in my conviction that being able to say that no man is female no matter how he feels or desires to be seen, is not “hate speech” and I could not resist continuing to force this basic truth into the discussion of sex and gender in Madison. I felt driven by a sense of entitlement to the words “woman” and “female” —so much so that I was willing to risk my livelihood in order to hit that point home in my community. I wanted to be like MaryLou Singleton, who told me that she had “TERFed” her town by answering articulately and with integrity to the accusations of “transphobia” and “hateful bigotry” some in her community leveled at her.

“I lost multiple gigs, my band, and my ability to even play at area open mics all due to trans activist complaints to venues around town calling for me to be banned.”

But to be honest, I had to fool myself a bit, in order to take the final steps and not cancel my WORT interviews with Murphy and Bindel scheduled for March of 2018. If it hadn’t been for the sisterhood and sense of community I was building in the Midwest via WLRN and organizing WimCon, a radical feminist conference held in Chicago in June of 2018, I may not have had the fortitude to go through with it.

I had gotten my band together once again for a regularly scheduled show at another music venue in town so I knew that at least some in Madison were not opposed to me playing my unrelated music (I never played songs with lyrics about trans issues). But as soon as the Murphy and Bindel interview aired, my regularly scheduled show with my band was canceled due to my alleged “transphobia.” I rolled my eyes publicly and cried them out privately as I lost another opportunity to play my music with a band regularly in my community.

I lost more than just that regular show. I lost multiple gigs, my band, and my ability to even play at area open mics all due to trans activist complaints to venues around town calling for me to be banned. Local journalist and musician Emily Mills wrote a libelous piece about my feminist interviews on WORT for Our Lives magazine.

Thankfully, I have the honor and privilege, during this COVID-19 era, to work with a friend on producing a record of my original songs in his basement studio (set to be released in late 2021 or early 2022). This individual happens to be a regular volunteer at WORT as well. Reconnecting with a fantastically talented musician and producer again has been a light at the end of the tunnel and a wonderful experience.

Pettersen and feminist activist Julia Beck at a WLRN event table

WLRN and the Feminist Sisterhood that Drives It

Throughout all of my struggles with “trans activists” in Madison, WLRN has been going strong.

WLRN has felt like home and provided me with the sanity I needed to keep going in this insane world. The women who have stepped up over the years to help produce our monthly podcast have consistently been there to make it work. We have figured out ways to share the load so that none of us is overly burdened with tasks around any given show. April Neault and Jenna DiQuarto have been especially heavy lifters, always coming through with their work and rarely missing a deadline. And most recently, Jenna wrote, performed and recorded new theme music for our monthly broadcasts.

I have been a heavy lifter too, sometimes doing the interview, the commentary, and the script-writing for a show —but never having to put together an entire show alone, because my feminist sisters have always been there to help make it work.

“WLRN has felt like home and provided me with the sanity I needed to keep going in this insane world.”

Sekhmet SheOwl joined the team early on and is the longest standing member of the WLRN collective besides me. She has offered our listeners insightful and challenging radical feminist commentary throughout the years that has touched us and made us think in ways we wouldn’t have if she hadn’t been with us. I salute you, SheOwl, for your years of service to the cause.

There are many others who come to mind to thank for helping to build the foundation on which WLRN stands today. DJ Phoenixx, Nile Pierce, Sarah, Natasha Petrov, Dani Whitaker, Dana Vitalosova, Damayanti, Julia Beck, and Catina Hyman all contributed to WLRN immensely early on. More recently, Emiliann Lorenzen and Mer Safina have stepped up to contribute their talents to the team. There are still others who wish to remain anonymous and others who have volunteered or donated to keep us moving forward as a community of radical feminist media activists.

This is my shout-out to all of the feminists within our larger feminist community who have come forward to support the idea of an online community radio station for and by women about the issues of the day facing us as a sex-class and as a community of people building our solidarity and sisterhood. And this is my shout-out to WLRN, a creative collaborative project put together by volunteers that helps steer us all towards greater inquiry, thought and insight into woman’s existence in a man’s world and her ability to liberate herself and her sisters from male tyranny.

Thistle Pettersen is a singer/songwriter, eco-feminist and founding member of Women’s Liberation Radio News (WLRN) living in Madison, WI. To hear and buy Thistle’s original music, visit www.ThistlePettersen.com. Listen to WLRN online, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

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