Women could use a win right now. Events of the past couple months have left many of us feeling helpless and muted. Not that this situation is much different from the way women have been feeling for centuries, but lately I have noticed a lot of people around me feeling more downtrodden than usual. I went searching for an optimistic message in regards to the future of women and dug up a radical third wave feminism movement from the 1990s. I discovered the Riot Grrrls.
I hope that you have heard of the Riot Grrrls at some point, or if you haven’t then I hope that you tell every lady you know about their legacy. The Riot Grrrl movement was a grassroots DIY feminist uprising that lasted for about 6 years in the early ’90s, fronted by young women who refused to stay quiet in the face of sexism. They were a counterculture of a counterculture: they were the feminists of the underground punk rock scene. Basically, the Riot Grrrls started off as a group of pissed-off women playing punk music, writing their philosophies down in zines, and talking about their new version of feminism. But it grew to be so much more than that. The movement took off, spread across the country, and gained national attention. Some scholars say that they were the spark that started third wave feminism.
I don’t think that you can fully understand the Riot Grrrl movement by just reading about it, though: You have to listen to their music. These women were grassroots politicians, friends, collaborators, artists, and creative. Their movement might be long gone but if there is one thing that the Riot Grrrls taught us, it is to not sit quietly in the face of a world that you wish to change. Sometimes you have to make some damn noise.
Let’s Start a Riot
According to Sara Marcus’s book Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution the movement started in Olympia, WA. In 1989, 19-year-old Kathleen Hanna was sickened by a society that didn’t listen to or take teenage women seriously, especially when they were abused or raped. Kathleen tried to be involved with existing feminist groups at the time, but none of them were a good fit for what she wanted to say. She wanted to create a space where young women were listened to and change was possible — but most of all, she wanted people to stop dismissing the problems facing young women. It was the punk scene in Olympia that opened the space for her to get her messages out. She started playing in punk bands and screamed what she thought. After a few collaborations with other bands, Kathleen started playing music with her friend Tobi, who produced a punk fanzine called Jigsaw. In 1990 Kathleen and Tobi created a band called Bikini Kill and started played shows around Olympia and the Northwest.
Early on, girls became Riot Grrrls when they either heard Bikini Kill’s songs or got ahold of Tobi’s zine. Many would identify with the messages both the band and zine expressed and write to Bikini Kill asking how they could be involved, how they could make a difference for the future of women. Kathleen’s advice usually was to start a band or a zine to express yourself. That is how the Riot Grrrls movement took off: girls were influenced by Bikini Kill and zines, and encouraged to start their own zines and bands, no matter how amatuer they were as musicians. In fact, in the punk scene in Olympia, amateurism was celebrated. Both of the mediums used in the movement were outside of mainstream media and had relatively low barriers for inclusion, meaning that anyone and everyone who wished to could be involved. The bands that the girls played in usually shared or had second-hand instruments that friends would teach each other how to play. Pre-internet, zines were a popular and cheap way to spread ideas (side note: Bitch started out as a black-and-white-stapled-together zine in 1995/96 and has since grown into the media company it is today).
Girls sharing the Riot Grrrl ideology got to know each other through university, pen pals, meeting at concerts, friends of friends, and together they built a feminist punk community. They started writing on their hands and arms with magic marker, which turned into a secret signal to other that they were part of the movement. As the scene spread, Riot Grrrls started making shrinky-dink necklaces with the words “Riot Grrrl” and t-shirts saying the same, another way to identify other girls in the movement. As Bikini Kill toured and more feminist punk bands were created, the movement spread across the United States. By 1993, a few of the girls had even started a zine distribution project, Riot Grrrl Press, as a school project in DC. While on tour, Bikini Kill and a similar feminist punk band Bratmobile held an all-girls meeting in DC to discuss the status of punk rock, encourage higher female scene input, and teach each other how to play instruments. This turned into weekly Riot Grrrl meetings in DC, which were a mix of support sessions (a space for girls to discuss the sexism and abuse they had experienced) and planning political action. Even after the two bands left DC and other women left to go to university, the meetings continued and different Riot Grrrl chapters were founded across the US, each with their own weekly meetings and feminist agendas.
This fact shouldn’t flabbergast me but it does: a political movement was started by photocopied zines and people playing amateur punk music. These girls didn’t even know how to play instruments! Yet they were starting punk bands and singing about being tired of getting cat-called on the street. At shows, the bands playing would ask girls to move to the front, physically creating space for them. The songs that they eventually recorded were extremely amateur, but the words were so real. The words that they sing are exactly what you think in your head—but don’t say out loud—whenever someone is condescending or aggressive towards you. Whenever someone tells you that you can’t do something and you just want to scream at them that they don’t know what you can or can’t do, that they do not get to decide that for you — that’s what these Riot Grrrls yelled out on stage.
Revolution Girl Style Now
What started as a music subculture turned into a new feminist ideology. These women were young, fed-up with the patriarchy, and pissed-off. They spoke out about rape, domestic violence, and female empowerment (or lack thereof). As they were so young, many of them didn’t have the money, resources, or political ties necessary to influence the system in any other way besides being loud. So they were loud, they mailed their handmade zines across the country, and they made themselves heard. Feminist groups have been campaigning for change for centuries but the Riot Grrrls screamed for change, literally.
Riot Grrrl’s goals were to resist traditional gender roles, fight personal acts of sexism, and call attention to violence against women. Jessica Bennett, author of Feminist Fight Club, cites that along with addressing rape and violence in their songs and popularizing “girl power,” the Riot Grrrls also heavily believed in supporting other women (for example, the girls-to-the-front aspect during punk concerts) which many teenage girls were drawn to. The girls were furious about issues such as parental-consent abortion laws, domestic violence, and nearly-naked women in commercial advertisements. They were ready to revolt over things like hallway gropes, sidewalk heckles, leering teachers, homophobic threats, sexual double standards, dress codes in schools, and domestic violence. The girls did not have the power to change the laws regarding these issues, but they could fight back. It is this “fighting back” that resonates with me. I can’t imagine that these ladies had any grand notions of changing major laws or influencing politicians with their fanzines or songs, but they still spoke up anyways. At the very least, to let the world know that they weren’t going to take the sexist injustices that they faced lying down anymore.
Nostalgic for ’90s Feminism
This movement grabs my heart because of how it was conducted. This girl power revolution was carried out by young women who photocopied zines and played in bands with their friends, with very little money and very little skill. And it mattered. What some people at the time (and even now) dismissed as a youth rebellion was actually a grassroots counterculture movement, one that allowed women to feel more in control of their futures. This was not a revolution that changed abortion laws or domestic violence laws, or any laws for that matter. But the Riot Grrrls made young women feel like they had some power, that their concerns were at least being heard by someone, somewhere. They made young women not feel alone and gave them a sense of community.
The Riot Grrrl revolution was not perfect by any definition (read more in Riot Grrrl Revisited). They were limited by their lack of intersectionality (most of the Riot Grrrls were predominantly white and middle-class) and 1990s technology. But the girl power vibe still holds power today and books like Feminist Fight Club discuss the strength of girls standing together. I harbour a secret hope that it is these adult fight-clubbers who are not putting up with underhanded sexism in the workplace that were once Riot Grrrls in their teenage years. This music subculture-turned-ideological-revolution proves that grassroots DIY activism can make voices heard, even if they were all amateur musicians and writers. Being involved in the movement was a way for girls to resist the outside world’s attempts to define them.
At their heart, Riot Grrrls stood for making noise, expressing women’s needs, and not hiding behind societal norms. Keeping with their grassroots origins, the movement remained essentially DIY and thus accessible throughout its existence, encouraging girls to write their own words, start their own bands, make their own zines, and develop their own opinions on what kind of feminism they needed in their lives. The movement had long fizzled out by the 2000s, but they made a whole lot of noise in the previous decade. So please don’t feel downtrodden; if you feel a need to raise your voice for women, do something. Write a zine and distribute it to five friends. Start a band in your basement. Talk about your concerns with your friends. Write on your body with magic marker. These loud-mouthed punk feminists might have faded into the background, but their legacy remains. And it all started with a few girls spread out across the country who refused to stay quiet.