When Laurie Fuchs, founder of North Carolina’s own Ladyslipper Records, visited the third annual National Women’s Music Festival in Urbana-Champaign, Ill. in 1976, she discovered a world of women’s music that was largely unattainable for those who were not able to attend the festival and ones like it: “There were recordings there that women didn’t have access to, feminist lesbian artists, very exciting, relevant music that was inspiring to hundreds of women that were there.”
The music Fuchs was exposed to at the National Women’s Music Festival was part of a widespread, grassroots movement that women all over the country were building at this time, creating and disseminating art, music and magazines through a decentralized and decidedly do-it-yourself social and cultural network. As opposed to the elaborate and often corporate-sponsored music festivals of today, the mood at this time was, in Fuchs’ words, “Just sort of, ‘Hey, I’ll do a music festival.’” Despite the spontaneity and seeming nonchalance of many women’s decisions to launch their own lesbian feminist cultural ventures at this time, they were facing tremendous odds; as Fuchs states, they were diving into business with “no experience, no money, no fear.” While the music, art and culture was rich, the traditional components of business success were sparse.
Fuchs’ own decision to launch Ladyslipper in its original iteration as a lesbian/feminist women’s music catalogue was informed by her own first-hand knowledge of how difficult it could be for women all over the country, especially those not located in major cities, to get their hands on the exciting music that she was able to enjoy at the National Women’s Music Festival. Fuchs’ introduction to the music came through a serendipitous gifting of lesbian feminist icon Holly Near’s 1975 record “A Live Album” by a friend of hers. Fuchs, who was living in rural Georgia at the time, adopted the same practice many lesbians did, begging friends who were fortunate enough to travel to lesbian feminist concerts to bring back records they could purchase there. Near in particular has remained a staple of the lesbian music scene to this day, in part because she was one of the first prominent folk singers to come out as a lesbian in 1976. For women seeking representation of themselves in a music world that was at best disinterested and at worst hostile toward them, the very act of getting their hands on these records was a godsend.
Fuchs’ foray into business was aided by the fact that she had mail-order and print shop experience. Nonetheless, her startup process was very improvisational and bold: the magazine Lesbian Connection was having a catalogue issue where independent catalogues could submit their own advertisements. Fuchs drew up a flyer, investing only in the paper she used to print it on, and had it published in the magazine. She and her business partner printed the catalogue itself in the middle of the night at the print shop where Fuchs worked. Because they did not yet have distribution rights to everything in their catalogue, they would buy records independently and then re-sell them to customers who wrote in with their orders. Fuchs recalls sending Holly Near’s mother a check in the mail and receiving the number of records she had requested in exchange. Ladyslipper benefitted from the growing festival world and rise of distribution services nationwide, becoming one of the region’s premier resources for acquiring lesbian and feminist records. Eventually, Ladyslipper began issuing its own records, from artists including Kay Gardner, Ubaka Hill and Nurudafina Pilli Abena.
While there was a robust women’s arts cultural movement in the Triangle and a hub for lesbian feminism in the Triangle Area Lesbian Center at the time of Ladyslipper’s beginning, lesbian nightlife was not nearly as robust as gay men’s nightlife. While Fuchs would sometimes bring Ladyslipper’s records to area lesbian bars — including one memorable ramschackle Durham establishment located underneath a 7-Eleven and owned by a straight man — it wasn’t exactly “lose-yourself-dancing” music. For a short time, Ladyslipper was able to book shows at storied local venues like the Cat’s Cradle in Chapel Hill, but eventually, the lesbian crowd’s lack of drink purchases led to the clubs declining to host more shows. Eventually, Ladyslipper began hosting listening shows in Virginia, South Carolina and North Carolina, bringing catalogues and records to sell to groups of interested women, many lesbians, most of whom had heard about the event through word of mouth.
In 2018, Ladyslipper announced that it would be transitioning its online catalogue system into an information and archive website. Fuchs credits the transition to the label’s inability to sustain itself financially, caused by factors such as the rise of online music consumption and the supremacy of Amazon.com in particular, the vanishing of most regional and national women’s festivals and a general belief that recorded music should be shared freely rather than paid for. Despite the label’s transition, Ladyslipper remains an important part of the history of lesbian feminist music in North Carolina and the South generally. The spirit of solidarity, resource expansion and celebration of LGBTQIA+ art that Ladyslipper has contributed to the community is both a testament to the historical resilience and inventiveness of the queer community and an incitement to carry that tradition into the future.