Olympia found itself on the feminist map in the 1990s when it gave birth to Riot Grrrl, a cultural and political movement started by women fed up with sexism in the punk music scene. Riot Grrrl groups created their own music and self-published "fanzines" to express their views on gender inequality, sexual identity, domestic violence, female empowerment, and much more. Nurtured by the creative artistic scene and progressive politics at The Evergreen State College, Riot Grrrl jumped from Olympia to Washington, D.C., and then spread across the nation and to England. A pivotal moment was the 1991 Girl Night, a kickoff concert for the six-day International Pop Underground Convention, in which some of the most iconic Riot Grrrl groups performed, including Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Heavens to Betsy. Although the movement lasted less than a decade, Riot Grrrl cleared a new path for women in rock, inspiring the next generation to carve out its own cultural and artistic space.
A Movement Born in Olympia
The Riot Grrrl movement had its origins in Olympia. Although it was a small city (the 1990 census reported just under 34,000 residents), the state capital was known for its thriving artistic scene, enhanced by its proximity to the free-thinking, left-leaning academic community at The Evergreen State College. The environment in Olympia was different than what was going on in Seattle, just 70 miles to the north. Seattle’s music scene was more focused on "bar venues and drug culture, which therefore restricted the experience of live music to those who were 21 and over. A special atmosphere, spirit and attitude was created within the Olympian music scene, fostering upbeat all-ages community shows" (Riot Grrrl, 15).
The term Riot Grrrl was said to come from a group of women students in the Northwest who were tired of rampant sexism in the punk music scene. They wanted to start a girl riot against a society in which they felt marginalized, unappreciated, and without a voice. The three repeating R’s suggested the growling ferocity of a wild animal. "It was girl power at its most brash and unfiltered" (Girl Power, 19).
At around the same time, a similar revolution was playing out in Washington, D.C., where women were organizing discussion groups around sexism and discrimination, and self-publishing photocopied magazines called fanzines, or simply zines. Created a decade before social media, these fanzines became places where women could vent their anger and explore issues important to them. "These consisted of stories and first-hand accounts of experiences with domestic abuse, eating disorders, discrimination, homophobia, racism, and more. They served as a platform in which Riot Grrrls could share their ideas, thoughts, and lived experiences with one another. The phrase 'girl power' circulated through these zines before pop culture appropriated it. The DIY, makeshift publications played a seminal role in the movement, and in an age almost completely devoid of social media, acted as a vehicle for mass communication" (Jiji).
At the movement’s core was the belief that women needed to carve out a cultural space for themselves. As Washington, D.C., punk photographer Sharon Cheslow explained: "A lot of the women and girls involved in the punk scene started to notice all these different ways that the punk scene was paralleling mainstream society. So we had all these ideas of how we were going to change society ... In order to really change things you had to look at what was going on right at your backdoor, and to address it" (Riot Grrrl, 17).
Girl Night is Launched
In the early 1980s, Calvin Johnson, born in 1962 in Olympia, founded K Records, an independent label, to showcase underground artists. In 1987, the company began issuing a series of single releases on cassettes called The International Pop Underground. This eventually gave rise to a six-day International Pop Underground (IPU) convention held in August 1991 and sponsored by K Records. The kickoff evening on August 20, 1991, welcomed nearly 20 all-girl or female-fronted bands and female singers to Olympia’s Capitol Theater. Known as "Love Rock Revolution Girl-Style Now," shortened to Girl Night, it was an evening of music dedicated to, for, and by women.
The landmark IPU convention was staged as an alternative to more commercially driven concerts and the music industry in general. Grunge, centered in Seattle, was exploding with such testosterone-fueled groups as Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains, but women were conspicuously left out of the male-dominated scene. "Women had played an important and visible role in the punk counterculture of the late '70s and early '80s. But by the '90s, the reigning sound of hardcore punk drew a younger and predominate male crowd vying to play the fastest, yell the loudest and mosh the hardest. Women remained active behind the scenes but seldom made it onstage" (Smith). Now, hundreds of young women were eager to join in. Some of the groups who performed at Girl Night are legendary in the early Riot Grrrl movement: Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Heavens to Betsy.
Kathleen Hanna and Bikini Kill
Bikini Kill, formed by Kathleen Hanna (b. 1968) -- the "archetypical punk frontwoman -- uncompromising, unapologetic, unafraid" (Hutchinson) -- is generally credited with sparking the Riot Grrrl movement. Born in Portland, Oregon, Hanna relocated with her family to Calverton, Maryland, when she was a toddler. After her parents divorced, she moved back to Portland to attend high school and then went to The Evergreen State College in Olympia.
Hanna formed Bikini Kill in 1991, with Tobi Vail, Kathi Wilcox, and Billy Karren. The music was "angry, and relentless, but also energetic, wry and optimistic. Hanna's lyrics were about girls who did and wore what they wanted, despite societal expectations. Onstage, Hanna exposed her breasts and rear-end with lust-killing bluntness; she wore a girlish ponytail and danced around with "Slut" written in lipstick across her midriff" (Brodeur). Her song, "Rebel Girl," is one of the movement’s most well-known anthems.
Bikini Kill’s fanzines expressed many popular feminist concepts. In issue number two, the fanzine summarized what became a Riot Grrrl manifesto: "Us girls crave records and books and fanzines that speak to US and that WE feel included in and can understand in our own ways. We are angry at a society that tells us Girl = Dumb, Girl = Bad, Girl = Weak" (Hunt).
Hanna is also credited with one of the movement’s most well-known phrases -- Girls to the front! -– yelled during one of her concerts in reaction to men who had commandeered the space up front by the stage. On a literal level, the cry emboldened women in the audience to surge forward and replace the men; metaphorically, it served as a feminist battle cry.
In a 1999 interview, Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail (b. 1969) talked about the early days of Bikini Kill and the Riot Grrrl movement: "I feel like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile and our friends sort of had this idea that was called 'Revolution Girl Style Now!' And that was sort of like our idea of like, let's just, you know, 'Let's get all these girls to learn how to play instruments and take care of ... and change everything.' When Bikini Kill first started, people reacted to what we did very strongly, you know? Either they really loved it or they really hated it ... We had a lot of fans and we didn't have any crowd control, we didn't have a manager, you know? We'd just play these crazy places, like bowling alleys and they'd cram like 600 people in there and stuff. No security" ("Bikini Kill Describe Revolution ...").
Bikini Kill split up in 1997 and lead singer Hanna formed Le Tigre a few years later with writer Johanna Fateman and filmmaker Sadie Benning. In 2006, she married Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz of the Beastie Boys. Following years of unexplained fatigue that often left her too weak to move or speak, Hanna was diagnosed with late-stage Lyme disease in 2010. After two years of intensive treatment, the disease went into remission. But bad timing continued to follow Hanna. Bikini Kill was in rehearsals in Oregon for a world reunion tour when COVID-19 struck in spring 2020. After two years of inactivity, the group was back on track with a kickoff concert held at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles in spring 2022.
Bratmobile, another early Riot Grrrl group, was active from 1991 to 2003. Based in Olympia, it was led by Allison Wolfe (b. 1969) with Erin Smith and Molly Neuman. "Before #metoo was a glimmer in its mother's eye, there was Riot Grrrl. Singer Allison Wolfe, guitarist Erin Smith and drummer Molly Neuman inspired teens and young fans to start bands and fight sexism with songs such as 'Cool Schmool,' 'Kiss and Ride' and their cover of The Runaways' 'Cherry Bomb'" (Kelly).
Wolfe and Neuman met as students at the University of Oregon and started publishing their own fanzine. Music came later in "a reaction to grunge, which had completely taken over the Northwest and was too male dominated. We wanted to have a girly voice" (Krombholz). The women started traveling to Olympia on weekends to participate in the music scene and considered themselves a "band in theory" (Krombholz). In 1991, with very little experience under their belts, Bratmobile was asked to play at a Valentine’s Day concert on the same ticket as Bikini Kill. That meant they needed some actual songs to sing. Inspired by female rap and hip hop performers, Bratmobile rose to the occasion. Lead singer Wolfe described that evening as "a little bit of guitar and drums going on but not much ... We jumped off stage and Kurt Cobain walked in right then and I walked up to him and said 'You missed us!' and handed him one of our fanzines" (Krombholz).
In 1999, Wolfe was one of the primary instigators of Ladyfest, a community-based female-driven music festival that began in Olympia and has since expanded worldwide. She continues to record and play with other musical groups, and in 2022 was the host of a Los Angeles-based podcast called "I’m in the Band" and performing in a group called Magic Witch Cookbook.
Heavens to Betsy … and Beyond
Another of the original Riot Grrrl groups, also formed in Olympia in 1991, was Heavens to Betsy, featuring the power duo of Corin Tucker on vocals and guitar, and drummer Tracy Sawyer. Although the group released only one album, Tucker became notable for her later role in another iconic girl group from Olympia called Sleater-Kinney, which came together in 1994. "Formed by Carrie Brownstein of Excuse 17, Janet Weiss and Heavens to Betsy’s Corin Tucker, the trio put female-led rock back on the agenda. They played just as hard as any guy with a guitar while singing about complex feminist subject matter, both personal and political, be it motherhood or war. And they were also the only band to really transcend riot grrrl and bring it to a wider audience" (Hutchinson).
As the movement grew, Riot Grrrl meeting and conventions proliferated nationwide as places where women could express themselves, talk freely, and discuss issues important to them. The first Riot Grrrl convention was held in Washington, D. C., in 1992. By the mid-1990s, conventions were held in Omaha, Tacoma, Santa Barbara, Boston, New York City, and Chicago, among other locations.
The first wave of Riot Grrrls was generally over by the late 1990s, but the movement continued to be influential in both feminist expression and the music scene. Its early proponents brought about "a new way of thinking, one that combined art with politics and catered to the young minds of its audience. In this way, Riot Grrrl still lives on today, and its influences can be heard in newer bands like The Regrettes, Childbirth, and GRLwood to name a few. The movement paved the way for rightfully angry girls and budding feminists alike to express themselves wholeheartedly. It allowed for them to feel seen and heard in a world that otherwise seldom encouraged such, and became an empowering force that reached beyond subculture" (Jiji).