A brief history of Riot Grrrl – the space-reclaiming 90s punk movement

“We are angry at a society that tells us Girl = Dumb, Girl = Bad, Girl = Weak.”

There’s a storm brewing in the Pacific North-West…

When the beginnings of the Riot Grrrl movement first began to spring up, punk rock was loud, brash, and predominantly male. Up in Seattle, flannel-clad boys in grunge bands – most notably, Nirvana – were dominating the scene. Though Kurt Cobain personally resented macho swaggering, so-called “cock rock” elsewhere showed no sign of disappearing, and rock‘n’roll often felt like it was a boys club. 

Meanwhile, in Olympia, Washington, many feminist activists began forming loud, abrasive bands and writing their own zines in response. Faced with no space in the existing punk-rock scene, they turned their attention to tackling sexism, and began to carve out their own underground alternative. A new movement of rioting girls, who set out to normalise women’s anger, and celebrate sexuality, began to gain momentum. Thanks to bands like Bratmobile, Bikini Kill, Babes in Toyland, 7 Year Bitch, Calamity Jane, Excuse 17, and Heavens to Betsy the edges of a cohesive scene started to gather together in the early 90s.

At this time, Kathleen Hanna – who had been studying at Olympia’s Evergreen State College – was putting together the first issue of the Bikini Kill zine. Though the first riot grrrl manifesto, which appeared in the second edition, wasn’t the single definitive founding moment, it consolidated many of the ideas that were circulating among the city’s activist and feminist circles. “Us girls crave records and books and fanzines that speak to US that WE feel included in and can understand in our own ways,” it reads. “We are angry at a society that tells us Girl = Dumb, Girl = Bad, Girl = Weak.”

“Girls to the front!”

In 1991 – the same year that the riot grrrl manifesto came out – the independent label K Records organised a punk festival in Olympia, dubbed the International Pop Underground Convention.  The first night of the six day festival featured an all-women line-up. The night was billed as Love Rock Revolution Girl Style Now. Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Kicking Giant, and Heavens to Betsy were among the many bands who played, and the takeover went down in history as ‘girls night’. Along with Ladyfest (which first took place in 2000, and is still going today) the international Girls Rock Camp movement, and the women’s-only Sisterhood area at Glastonbury, it’s an important example of a space that exists to platform women’s art. 

Back at the peak of riot grrrl, Kathleen Hanna famously yelled out the request “girls to the front!” from the stage – inviting all the women in the room to surge forward. NME’s own Girls to the Front series of live shows borrows its name directly from this quote, and according to many of the acts who have played so far, we need as many spaces as possible that bring women to the forefront. “Women in music need to create their own rules that work for them and not live by other people’s,” said Glowie, when she headlined back in March.

There’s also a continuing drive towards making gigs into safer spaces, led by organisations like Girls Against, and the efforts of musicians themselves. Many bands, from Milk Teeth to Spook School, now insist that any venues they play on tour change all their toilets to gender neutral. Speedy Ortiz have introduced a gig helpline for fans to call if they feel unsafe at a show. And increasingly we’re seeing bands being vigilant towards harassment at shows, and calling it out from the stage if necessary.

Girl power goes mainstream

By the mid-90s, Girl Power – originally the name of one of Bikini Kill’s zines – had become a slogan in mainstream pop. For a lot of girls and women who weren’t following the riot grrrl movement, The Spice Girls brought the concept of girl power to their attention; though admittedly, a few eyebrows were raised when Geri Halliwell cited the then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher as an inspiration. 

Meanwhile the press coverage of riot grrrl bands intensified, and key bands in the scene found themselves frustrated by what they saw as misrepresentation in the media. 

It’s a new wave

As the nineties chugged on, various bands that led the riot grrrl movement began to disband and splinter off, forming new groups with differing agendas. Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker met through their respective bands Excuse 17 and Heavens to Betsy, and by ‘94, they had formed Sleater-Kinney (read NME’s interview with Brownstein here). Though the band was certainly built on riot grrrl’s approach  (after tuning down to an unconventional C-Sharp which worked musical magic, Corin and Carrie stuck to their guns) and shared the goal of taking up space. In ‘98, Kathleen Hanna turned her attention to Le Tigre, the glitching electro-rock band who advocated for feminism and LGBT equality atop warped pop beats. Further down the line, she would also form The Julie Ruin.

Channelling the core ethos of what riot grrrl began, a fresh wave of bands – springing up towards the end of the nineties – began to appear. The most notable of the lot probably has to be Gossip, who formed in 1999 when Beth Ditto moved from Arkansas to the movement’s original birthplace of Olympia. Raging through a fuzz of mangled blues in their debut album ‘That’s Not What I Heard’, they would later break through into the mainstream in 2006 with ‘Standing In The Way of Control’ – a defiant fight back against a US government that opposed gay marriage. 

Twenty years on… 

Riot Grrrl turned twenty back in 2011, but in some respects, it has felt like the feminist movement never went away. Though great strides have been made over the last two decades in terms of gender equality, the need to fight back against sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and racism just hasn’t disappeared. 

Perhaps it’s a well-timed burst of accidental nostalgia, or perhaps their message still needs to be heard: either way, numerous original riot grrrl bands, including Bikini Kill, have reformed over the last few years, playing riotous live shows to a new generation of fans hungry to listen. When Babes in Toyland played Shepherds Bush Empire in 2015 (the very same night that Kathleen Hanna played London with The Julie Ruin, incidentally) tampax rained down on the moshpit. A horde of teens who likely discovered the band through Spotify, chanted “girls to the front” with their fists raised and surged forward accordingly. And riot grrrl isn’t just living on through all of these bands. 

Dream Wife are one prime example. The band gleefully summoned all bad bitches onstage at their riotous Girls to the Front gig, and fundraise regularly for London’s branch of the Girls Rock Camp Alliance. They also invited graduate bands of the camp to come and support them on their autumn tour last year, and this week, guitarist Alice Go announced a new vinyl compilation of all the groups who joined the tour. 

And scores of other bands are placing politics that align with riot grrrl’s space-making ethos centre stage: Petrol Girls Big Joanie, Deap Vally, Skinny Girl, and Dream Nails – to reel off just a few of the best bands going. The original Riot Grrrl movement might’ve disappeared back in the 90s, but its message is still resonant today.