30 Years of Provincetown Women´s Week

Reflecting on three decades of community, camaraderie and clambakes

Back in 1984, gay Pride was still more of a protest march than a parade, homosexuality (under the guise of sodomy laws) was considered criminal activity in many states, and same-sex marriage was nothing more than a far-fetched pipe dream.

But in Provincetown, Massachusetts, 1984 was the year a small group of female innkeepers gathered on the beach on a cool October day. They held the first clambake that would become Women’s Week—and yes, the annual clambake remains just as fun (and tasty!). The gang consisted of “vivacious young entrepreneurs,” according to WomensWeekProvincetown.com. Anyone who’s joined the autumnal festivities over the past three decades can attest to the vivacity that lives on at the legendary event.

This year’s 30th anniversary of Women’s Week marks a celebration of a wonderfully colorful herstory that has touched the lives of countless women—and, of course, our supportive gay brothers and straight-but-not-narrow counterparts. Because today’s Women’s Week is chock-full of some of the planet’s most fun lesbo-centric activities, shows, discussions, group outings and sports competitions, it’s easy to forget that the event was born from a simple business need.

Those vibrant young vixens of yesteryear, after all, were entrepreneurs whose collective goal was to get women back to Cape Cod during the fall slump. They formed the Women Innkeepers of Provincetown (womeninnkeepers.com), the outfit that continues to run Women’s Week. Today that group consists of nine women-owned inns that enjoy steady tides of visitors in October, before many of them close up through slow winter months.

While Women’s Week is among the biggest lesbian festivals in P-town (find more of them at provincetownforwomen.com), the Women Innkeepers still face challenges—some of them echoing the issues from yesteryear. Cathy Nagorski, general manager of the Sage Inn and Lounge (336 Commercial St., 508-487-6424, sageinnptown.com) – which occupies the former Vixen nightclub space-says that while the weeklong event clearly boosts guest reservations and restaurant patronage, there’s always room for more. “There’s been a general feeling about the lack of lesbian travelers as of late,” Nagorski says. “It is such a special place, but it has been perceived as a gay men’s destination.”

This includes the month of October, where at the 2013 Women’s Week it was obvious from strolls through the town’s quiet streets that lesbian attendance seemed to be in almost equal proportion to non-lesbians. One gay male couple even admitted that they prefer P-town during Women’s Week, because it promises “fewer assless chaps and a more chill vibe.”

But, ladies, P-town Women’s Week is truly what you make of it. Nightly parties keep the socializing on a high burn. For a lower flame, there are barbecues and late-afternoon tea dances. If intellectual stimulation is your thing, join a reading, seminar or workshop, or perhaps catch daily screenings of first-run and old-favorite, lesbian-skewed films.

And because we’re talking lesbians here, join a golf outing, or get on the flag-football roster for a wildly memorable – and more humorous than hard-core – gridiron bout.

One huge bonus of the week is comedian Kate Clinton’s involvement. She performs her own stand-up show at least once a day, and helps organize and promote a handful of other hilarious events. Her presence has upped the lesbian-comic quotient through the years, and today’s Women’s Week now sees a bevy of amazing stand-ups take the mic day and night mainly at the centrally located Crown & Anchor (247 Commercial St., 508-487-1430, onlyatthecrown.com). The annual lineups read like a who’s-who of America’s funniest women, including Suzanne Westenhoefer, Judy Gold, Vickie Shaw, Karen Williams, Jennie McNulty, Poppy Champlin and Mimi Gonzalez.

It’s not just comedy, though. Diverse and multi-talented performers take Women’s Week by storm. Lea DeLaria, Melissa Ferrick, Cris Williamson, Suede, Zoe Lewis, Betty, Sister Funk, Dirty Blonde and others rock all manner of musical genres through the week, many of them returning to P-town each October. And for the 2014 edition, organizers will bestow the Woman of the Year award upon local activist and longtime Women’s Week emcee Char Priolo, who also founded the gender-bending band the Fabulous Dyketones, now in their 29th year.

Then there are the special events, from drag shows to bingo. And let us not forget “Lesbian Idol,” with aforementioned comedians serving as judges–and sometimes as contestants’ duet and dance partners. Oh and FYI, the wet T-shirt contest may compromise the soft-spoken reputation of otherwise laid-back lezzies.

Whether you’ve been to Women’s Week 29 times before, or not yet once, here are some tips for gearing up for this year’s throwdown-set for October 13 through 19. First, reserve your room(s) early. Check out WomenInnkeepers.com for availability at its nine affiliated inns, each offering something different, from location to special events to rates for any budget.

If the lesbian-owned inns fill up, there are plenty of other great and gay-owned B&Bs, like the polished Crowne Point Inn & Spa (82 Bradford St., 877-276-9631, crownepointe.com), where six historic buildings and fantastic spa are situated around a large inner courtyard with a hot tub and swimming pool.

Like accommodations, it’s also wise to think ahead on event tickets. Come mid-summer when program details are released, you’ll want to book advance seats at the always sold-out clambake, as well as the big shows for Clinton, Women’s Week Idol and other top shows. There also are those great limited-capacity functions, like the sunset dunes tour, and schooner tours of the bay (remember to pack lunch and windbreakers.)

P-town dining tends to be a casual affair with more seafood choices than you can shake a fishing pole at. If you plan it right, you can often pair your meals with cabaret at the Post Office (303 Commercial St., 508-487-3892, postofficecabaret.com), or find the catch of the day at the Lobster Pot (321 Commercial St., 508-487-0842, ptownlobsterpot.com). For some authentic P-town flavors, duck into the circa-1929 Mayflower (300 Commercial St., 508-487-0121, mayflower-ptown.com) for Portuguese kale soup with spicy linguica sausage and other local fare.

So come Columbus Day on Monday, October 13, 30 years of Provincetown Women’s Week will kick off with style and fanfare. Sure, there’s the Dinah, and Pride-weekend Dyke Marches, and many other great lesbian events that will keep you busy from coast to coast. But there is only one Women’s Week. And if longevity proves anything, it has no rival.

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