Feminism is a vital part of being a woman in the 21st century. There are some who think we don’t need it, but that is probably because they have no idea or empathy about the struggle women went through to allow us the freedoms we have today.
During the 3rd wave of feminism in the 1990s, there was an underground phenomenon happening in the United States called ‘riot grrrl’. It was what is sometimes referred to as the “punk” arm of feminism.
Riot grrrl started in the Pacific Northwest of the US, in Washington and Oregon. Most of the movement consisted of female musicians who were using their platform to speak up about important issues where they didn’t have a voice elsewhere.
Many bands came out of the movement, including Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, whose lead singer Kathleen Hanna was the focus of a recent documentary called ‘The Punk Singer’. In that documentary you may have seen snippets of Allison Wolfe, a fellow musician, feminist and friend of Kathleen’s, whose band Bratmobile were also instrumental in the riot grrl movement not only because of their music, but their community gatherings and fanzines which became iconic symbols of the movement.
We met up with Allison, who today is still looking as fierce as ever and singing in a new band called ‘Sex Stains’. The name was a Facebook suggestion, but clearly, the objective of attention-grabbing names and monikers is still important to her, and once we heard her story, we understood why.
Allison was born in Memphis, Tennessee a year after Martin Luther King was assassinated. That gives you an idea of the tumultuous time she grew up in with her twin sister, mom and dad. Soon after, the family moved to Washington State where Allison remained for a long time before eventually moving to Los Angeles.
In 1981 her mum decided she wanted to open the very first feminist women’s clinic in Olympia which meant they would offer abortions and rape kits.
“My mom was super feminist. Her and my dad got divorced in the 70s, she came out as a lesbian, and started taking my sister and I to political rallies.”
Allison’s mother influenced and shaped her views of the world from a young age. But it wasn’t all superwomen and punk rock in the early days. Her family was harassed because the clinic was so controversial, and because Allison’s mom would often testify in court, against men, for rape cases. Her mother had no qualms about getting mad at the police when they didn’t stand up for women’s rights.
After finishing high school and studying abroad for a year, Allison came back to Olympia in 1989 which was the start of an exciting time on the scene in that city. Nirvana was on the verge of igniting the grunge music scene.
“Bikini Kill and other girl bands were also starting to get a name for themselves on the local music scene.”
Female bands were emerging as an antidote to all the grunge bands which were projecting a lot of sexual imagery
“When I saw Kathleen at a show, her aggressive performance had such an impact on me.”
Allison met a girl called Molly Neuman at college at the University of Oregon, who she ended up becoming best friends and started the band Bratmobile with. They became a formidable duo where Molly influenced Allison with her political views, and Allison shared her love of DIY music.
It was while taking “socially conscious” classes at college where the girls noticed the disconnect between generations of women and the emerging wave of feminism.
“We were expected to speak ‘academically’, but whenever we spoke in our own punk/slang and used the word ‘girl’, we felt devalued and were often corrected.”
They started to realize the under-18 demographic was excluded from feminism. The girls craved a feminism that was less academic and spoke more to the real issues that girls were going through.
While Bikini Kill and Bratmobile (sometimes referred to as the “little sister” band of BK) were becoming more well known in the Pacific Northwest, they realized their voices had impact and wanted to expand their reach outside of music. The original idea was to start a feminist radio show, but what culminated instead was a fanzine called ‘Girl Germs’.
The zine contained interviews with various female punk bands and discussed issues that were taboo elsewhere in mainstream media.
It was Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna who ended up penning the ‘riot grrrl Manifesto’ in 1991, and it was she who spearheaded the movement. Kathleen and other girls started volunteering at women’s shelters, and encouraged other musicians and non-musician feminists in the community to get together on a regular basis to talk about their issues and form a support group for each other. They started looking at sexism in an institutional way, which unfortunately is still the biggest instigator of where it stems from even today
The bands started handing out flyers at their shows to inform more girls about their gatherings, in an effort to form a strong alliance in a male-dominated world.
“Riot grrrl was a way for girls to start projects and share resources away from men.”
By 1992 riot grrrl got the attention of the mainstream media, and by now Nirvana was huge which meant there was a big focus on the music that was coming out of the Pacific Northwest because of them.
But the riot grrrls didn’t feel like there was a place for the media in their movement, as their fanzines were their own network.
“The media trivialized our movement and took our representation away from us. But at the same time it gave a lot more girls around the country knowledge of riot grrrl and inspired them.”
“The media were portraying us as competitive females and musicians, but that’s not what we were about. People like Kathleen always made sure there was an overarching politicism in her music.”
“We didn’t consider ourselves on the front lines of feminism, per say, but we were cultural activists using art to send a message.”
Eventually toward the end of the 1990s, the riot grrrl movement dissipated, but not before being firmly etched into the social and cultural conscience of modern day American women.
Allison counts the dismissive portrayal of riot grrrl in mainstream media as a big reason many women in the movement distanced themselves from it. But her experience through it all has given her a firm grasp on why feminism is still very much needed, and how the millennial generation are viewing it
She is an ESL teacher for adults in their 20s, and is seeing the culture firsthand through their eyes.
“I’m sometimes surprised at how sexualized girls think they need their images to be these days,” she says. “And a lot of musical content is so watered down, there aren’t serious messages like there used to be.”
Riot grrrl had a completely different objective, and it was a movement that was never trademarked or exclusive. The idea was that any girl, who wanted to raise their voice about an issue, could do so because they were part of the greater collective movement around the country.
It seems as if we need another feminist revolution similar to that of riot grrrl. One that uses art, creativity, passion, talent and whatever it is that we possess, to speak messages that are relevant to our lives and to support one another.
“Women onstage nowadays don’t seem as challenging anymore, as I remember. Mainstream media and music is all about the money, and because women’s bodies sell, the burden falls on them to act sexually.”
While being sexual is not the crime, it is the message of being an empowered woman in control of her own sexuality and body that gets faded out because of a much more institutionalized agenda.
Allison is quick to point out that her and her punk friends weren’t the only women who were taking a stand against sexism back in the early 90s. Bands like Salt-n-Pepa, Bytches with Problems, TLC and artists such as Queen Latifah were not overly sexualized and always sent powerful messages through their hip hop music. They were important role models for their generation, much of which we don’t see any more.
These days to find a woman with a message, we often have to consciously venture outside mainstream, but there are exceptions like Beyonce, who are heavily criticized on both sides for her “brand” of feminism. Some say she is teaching girls to be sexual from a young age, even though she is in her 30s, married with a daughter and has every right as a performer and an adult to express her life however she chooses.
Others say her brand of “feminism” is hypocritical because of her sexuality, which in and of itself teaches girls that the two are mutually exclusive. Can you see how confusing this all is? Might this be why women prefer to stay away from feminism? Because there is still such a thick air of segregation amongst different view points, instead of women combining forces despite our differences.
“The third wave of feminism said you don’t have to be like men to be a feminist, which is what may have been necessary or was often the imagery of the second wave . It was about embracing yourself, reclaiming formerly derogative terminology, and owning your sexuality but not being afraid to challenge the imagery that is out there in some way!”
For Allison, the definition of feminism is one that is a simple prospect, but sadly not promoted enough.
“It’s about women feeling empowered to live life to the fullest as they choose, in a society that doesn’t treat genders equally.”
“It is recognizing the systemic sexism in society and fighting that, not blaming those problems on an individual.”
So why is feminism important today, in an age where women can vote, work, speak up, become CEOs, stay single, have babies without a partner, and live however they want in the western world?
“As long as sexism exists, as well as racism and classism, so should feminism. We can’t move forward if we’re ignorant and pretend it’s not happening. Feminism gave marginalized voices a platform.”
Another movement we can think which gave a public voice to marginalized people was the civil rights movement. A powerful display of what happens when people are empowered in their state of being.
“If someone is marginalized, how do they know what they are capable of? Oppression affects our self-esteem. We keep ourselves down because we don’t see any familiar or realistic representations in the media and therefore we feel we can’t do anything.”
If we all had the impetus to do what Allison Wolfe and many of these riot grrrls did with their talents, we would see some huge shifts in our society.
We would count people like Malala, Tavi Gevinson, Beyonce, Sandra Fluke, Cameron Russell, Janelle Monae, Pussy Riot, and Sophia Amoruso as the norm, not an anomaly, because feminism allows women the platform that traditional places in society don’t give us.
For those of you who are still debating whether feminism is for you, think about it like this: Feminists are pioneers. They reinvent the parameters of “possible” and violate the laws of “impossible”. A pioneer reaches the unreachable and includes the excluded. A pioneer stretches the boundaries and extends the horizons.
A pioneer is…a riot grrrl.
(Photos of Allison: Conor Collins)