During the late 1970s and early and mid-1980s there were a number of groundbreaking female punk and rock musicians who later influenced the riot grrrl ethos. These included Siouxsie Sioux, Poly Styrene, The Slits, Au Pairs, The Raincoats, Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde, The Runaways/Joan Jett, The B-52's, LiLiPUT, Lydia Lunch, Exene Cervenka, Kim Gordon, Ut, Neo Boys, Bush Tetras, Y Pants, ESG, Chalk Circle, Fifth Column, Frightwig, X-Ray Spex, Scrawl, and Anti-Scrunti Faction. The 1980s also featured a number of female folk singers from New York whose lyrics were realistic and socio-political, but also personally intimate.
During the mid-1980s in Vancouver the influential Mecca Normal fronted by poet Jean Smith formed, followed by Sugar Baby Doll in San Francisco whose members would all wind up in hardcore female bands. In 1987, the magazine Sassy premiered and dealt with tough subjects that conventional magazines aimed at teenage girls did not. An article "Women, sex and rock and roll" published by Puncture, edited by Katherine Spielmann, in 1989 became the first manifesto of the movement. In 1991, a radio program hosted by Lois Maffeo entitled Your Dream Girl aimed at angry young women debuted on Olympia, Washington radio station KAOS.
During the early 1990s the Seattle/Olympia Washington area had a sophisticated do it yourself infrastructure. Young women involved in underground music scenes took advantage of this to articulate their feminist thoughts and desires through creating punk-rock fanzines and forming garage bands. The political model of collage-based, photocopied handbills and booklets was already used by the punk movement as a way to activate underground music, leftist politics and alternative (to mainstream) sub-cultures. There was a discomfort among many women in the punk movement who felt that they had no space for organizing, because of the misogyny in the punk culture. Many women found that while they identified with a larger, music-oriented subculture, they often had little to no voice in their local scenes. Women at the punk-rock shows saw themselves as girlfriends of the boys, so they took it upon themselves to represent their own interests by making their own fanzines, music and art.
In 1991, young women coalesced in an unorganized collective response to several women's issues, such as the Christian Coalition's Right to Life attack on legal abortion and the Senate Judiciary Hearings into Anita Hill's accusations of sexual harassment by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Young feminist voices were heard through multiple protests, actions, and events such as the formative opening night of the International Pop Underground Convention and later L7's Rock for Choice.
Uses and meanings of the term "riot grrrl" developed slowly over time, but its etymological origins can be traced to the actual Mount Pleasant race riots in spring 1991. Bratmobile member Jen Smith (later of Rastro! and The Quails), used the phrase "girl riot" in a letter to Allison Wolfe describing the atmosphere among women in the city. Soon afterwards, Wolfe and Molly Neuman collaborated with Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail to create a new zine and called it Riot Grrrl, combining the "riot" with an oft-used phrase that first appeared in Vail's fanzine Jigsaw "Revolution Grrrl Style Now". Riot grrrls took a growling double or triple r, placing it in the word girl, as a way to take back the derogatory use of the term.
Kathleen Hanna had been studying at The Evergreen State College in Olympia. She participated in a small collective art gallery called Reko Muse, which would frequently host bands like The Go Team and Some Velvet Sidewalk to play in between art exhibitions (partially just to keep the gallery running). Hanna started a band, Amy Carter (named after the daughter of the US President Jimmy Carter), with fellow gallery-founders Heidi Arbogast and Tammy Rae Carland. After touring with some other projects like Viva Knievel, she hooked up with The Go Team drummer and zinester Tobi Vail, who had been writing of her own experiences:
I feel completely left out of the realm of everything that is so important to me. And I know that this is partly because punk rock is for and by boys mostly and partly because punk rock of this generation is coming of age in a time of mindless career-goal bands.
They started working together on another fanzine called Bikini Kill, which, after recruiting friends Kathi Wilcox and Billy "Boredom" Karren, would eventually become a band.
Allison Wolfe met Molly Neuman at the University of Oregon. Wolfe introduced Neuman to bands such as Beat Happening and The Melvins, Neuman introduced Wolfe to sociology classes and Public Enemy.
They began working on zines called Girl Germs, and later riot grrrl with Tobi Vail, Kathleen Hanna and Jen Smith.
It was a really hippie town, and we were getting really politicized, but also really into this DIY thing, so we kinda started creating. 'Let's make our own fanzine!'
Wolfe and Neuman started frequenting shows by bands like Fugazi and Nirvana. In 1990, Calvin Johnson called them up and asked them to play a show on Valentine's Day with Some Velvet Sidewalk and the newly formed Bikini Kill. They accepted it as a dare and played the show at Olympia's North Shore Surf club. Guitarist Erin Smith joined in March 1991.
International Pop Underground Convention
From August 20 – 25, 1991, K Records held an indie music festival called the International Pop Underground Convention. A promotional poster reads:
As the corporate ogre expands its creeping influence on the minds of industrialized youth, the time has come for the International Rockers of the World to convene in celebration of our grand independence. Hangman hipsters, new mod rockers, sidestreet walkers, scooter-mounted dream girls, punks, teds, the instigators of the Love Rock Explosion, the editors of every angry grrrl zine, the plotters of youth rebellion in every form, the midwestern librarians and Scottish ski instructors who live by night, all are setting aside August 20–25, 1991 as the time.
An all-female bill on the first night, called "Love Rock Revolution Girl Style Now!" signalled a major step in the movement. The lineup featured Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy, Nikki McClure, Lois Maffeo, Jean Smith of Mecca Normal, 7 Year Bitch, and two side projects of Kathleen Hanna: the first was Suture with Sharon Cheslow of Chalk Circle (DC's first all-women punk band) and Dug E. Bird of Beefeater, the second was the Wondertwins with Tim Green of Nation of Ulysses. It was here that so many zinester people who'd only known each other from networking, mail, or talking on the phone, finally met and were brought together by an entire night of music dedicated to, for, and by women.
The convention featured other bands such as Unwound, L7, The Fastbacks, The Spinanes, Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, Girl Trouble, The Pastels, Kicking Giant, Rose Melberg, Seaweed, Kreviss, I Scream Truck, Scrawl, Nation of Ulysses, Jad Fair, Thee Headcoats, and Steve Fisk, and spoken-word artist Juliana Luecking.
Decline and later developments
By the mid-nineties, riot grrrl had severely splintered. Many within the movement felt that the mainstream media had completely misrepresented their message, and that the politically radical aspects of riot grrrl had been subverted by the likes of the Spice Girls and their "girl power" message, or co-opted by ostensibly women-centered bands (though sometimes with only one female performer per band) and festivals like Lilith Fair.
Of the original riot grrrl bands, Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy and Huggy Bear had split in 1994, Excuse 17 and most of the UK bands had split by 1995, and Bikini Kill and Emily’s Sassy Lime released their last records in 1996. However, Team Dresch were active as late as 1998, The Gossip were active from 1999, Bratmobile reformed in 2000 and, perhaps most prolific of all, Sleater-Kinney were active - initially - from 1994 to 2006, releasing 7 albums.
Many of the women involved in riot grrrl are still active in creating politically charged music. Kathleen Hanna went on to found the electro-feminist post-punk "protest pop" group Le Tigre and later The Julie Ruin, Kathi Wilcox joined The Casual Dots with Christina Billotte of Slant 6, and Tobi Vail formed Spider and the Webs. Corin Tucker of Heavens to Betsy and Carrie Brownstein of Excuse 17 co-founded Sleater-Kinney at the tail end of the original movement, and reformed the band again in 2014 after an 8-year hiatus, while Bratmobile reunited to release two albums, before Allison Wolfe began singing with other all-women bands, Cold Cold Hearts, and Partyline. Molly Neuman went on to play with New York punk band Love Or Perish and run her own indie label called Simple Social Graces Discos, as well as co-owning Lookout! Records and managing The Donnas, Ted Leo, Some Girls, and The Locust. Kaia Wilson of Team Dresch and multimedia artist Tammy Rae Carland went on to form the now-defunct Mr. Lady Records which released albums by The Butchies, The Need, Kiki and Herb, and Tracy + the Plastics.