"We're not anti-boy, we're pro-girl." So Molly Neuman, drummer of original Riot Grrrl band Bratmobile, encapsulates the feminist movement that shook up the 1990s punk rock scene. Riot Grrrl began as a response to the overwhelmingly male-dominated music world: mashing punk’s DIY ethos with zines and feminist sensibilities, bands such as Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Huggy Bear tackled issues such as rape, domestic abuse, sexuality, and empowerment. They created a space where women too could voice their resistance to mainstream culture, as male punk musicians had already been doing.
Though at the time, Riot Grrrl clashed fiercely with a mainstream media that caricatured and dismissed their work (riot grrrls eventually instituted a media blackout), the 20-year anniversary of its heyday has sparked a wave of nostalgia, including last week’s spread in New York Times magazine in 2011, New York University’s Fales Library created a Riot Grrrl Collection to document the music, performance, activism, and writing of the era.
It’s hard to define Riot Grrrl by individuals separate from their bands — but twenty years later, here are a few of the women who added their vision and voices to spark Riot Grrrl and shake up punk:
The frontwoman for seminal riot grrrl band Bikini Kill, Hanna was tagged early as the face of the movement. Hanna, along with band members Tobi Vail, Kathi Wilcox, and Billy Karren, saw female bands as vital to cultural change. Their vision extended to audiences too: Pushing back on the traditional mosh pit, Hanna and her band worked to create concert dynamics where female audience members could feel safe and participatory. "We're not gonna play if the guys don't move to the back and let the girls down the front," Hanna announced at shows.
Now the frontwoman for the Corin Tucker Band in Portland, Oregon, Tucker got her start as a musician in Heavens to Betsy and the influential Sleater-Kinney (named the best punk band ever by Rolling Stone). Reflecting on her riot grrrl days, Tucker recalls, “The whole point of riot grrrl is that we were able to rewrite feminism for the twenty-first century … for teenagers, there wasn’t any real access to feminism. It was written in a language that was very academic, that was inaccessible to young women. And we took those ideas and rewrote them in our own vernacular.”
In a letter to fellow Bratmobiler Allison Wolfe, Smith once wrote, "This summer's going to be a girl riot." So the term riot grrrl was born (Bikini Kill's Tobi Vail came up with the three-r spelling). Smith was an early musician in Bratmobile; when the band returned to the west coast after a summer in D.C., Smith stayed behind to publish her own zine, Red Rover. She went on to play with bands such as Rastro!, The Quails, and Cha Cha Cabaret.
Vail met Hanna as a classmate at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington; she later played drums with Bikini Kill and published the zine Jigsaw. Vail played a key role in getting more female musicians to the forefront in the Olympia music scene, with women-only shows and more women onstage as opposed to behind the scenes. “For girls to pick up guitars and scream their heads off in a totally oppressive, fucked up, male dominated culture is to seize power,” Vail says. “We recognize this as a political act.”
Elliot was the frontwoman for Huggy Bear, the leading British answer to Riot Grrrl. With two male band members, Huggy Bear called themselves “boy-girl revolutionaries.” At shows, Elliot wrote “slut” and “prophet” across her arms and was vehement in her resolve on a media blackout.
“The media always tries to pick something from the underground and make it powerless. We’re not going to let that happen,” Elliot said. Huggy Bear and Bikini Kill toured together and collaborated on 1992 split album, Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah/Our Troubled Youth.
“We were frustrated with the world and with sexism, and even with the sexism we saw in alternative culture,” Neuman says of Riot Grrrl. “It was an exciting time for me, feeling like I wasn’t crazy, and there were people who felt the same things I did.”
Neuman met Bratmobile singer Allison Wolfe when they were students at the University of Oregon; she drummed for Bratmobile, the Frumpies, and the Peechees (and sang too, on occasion). Later, Neuman co-owned Lookout! Records with her then-husband and started her own catering company, Simple Social Kitchen.
When Wolfe and Neuman were students at the University of Oregon, the pair started the feminist zine, Girl Germs (later inspiration for a Bratmobile song). Though they told everyone they were in a band, they never intended to actually perform until a friend asked them to play at a Valentine’s Day performance. Taking it as a dare, Bratmobile played its first show, launching its three-year run. When some male punk musicians told them to listen to the Ramones to prepare, Wolfe says, “Something in me clicked. Like, okay, if most boy punk rock bands just listen to the Ramones and that's how they write their songs, then we'll do the opposite and I won't listen to any Ramones and that way we'll sound different."