It was 1964 and singer Genyusha “Goldie” Zelkowitz had a problem. The all-girl band she formed in 1962 with drummer Ginger Bianco, Goldie and the Gingerbreads, had a major label record contract and an upcoming Las Vegas stint ― but the bassist, Nancy Peterman, had just told the band that she was pregnant. She’d formed an attachment to the organist of a band they’d been performing with; things had taken their natural course. In the 1960s, birth control for unmarried women was still illegal in certain states. Roe v. Wade was not yet a glimmer in the Supreme Court’s eye, and an attempt to get her an illicit procedure fell through. The situation was unsurprising, and the conclusion was unfortunate: Peterman had to leave the band.
Zelkowitz, who now goes by Genya Ravan, practically explodes with laughter remembering the incident now, 50 years later, during a phone conversation. “She kept saying she was ‘so lonely’!” Ravan hoots. “Had I known I would have bought her a vibrator.” A vibrator and a career, or a sexual partner and parenthood: That’s a choice The Beatles likely never had to make.
For Ravan, who was determined to make it in the music business, settling down wasn’t an option. After forming Goldie and the Gingerbreads, she saw the branding benefits of keeping the lineup all women, to capitalize on the exotic appeal of an all-girl rock ’n’ roll band. But over the years, they lost members, and it was difficult to fill all the parts in the group with women.
“A lot of the girls that were canned down the line … they wanted to have a family, they wanted to have children,” said Ravan. “There’s no room for that here.”
Womanhood used to usher women off the stage in fairly obvious, biological ways. But it’s 2017. Seven years ago, Pink put in a rousing performance at the American Music Awards while expecting a baby. In February of this year, Beyoncé performed gravity-defying moves during a Grammy performance while pregnant ― with twins.
Nonetheless, pockets of the music world remain startlingly male. Our greatest pop stars today might be women, but in instrument-heavy rock ― indie, punk, metal and beyond ― the standard-issue band is still a group of three to six guys. Less common: a group of male musicians with a female vocalist, or even a female keyboardist or bassist. Least common: a band comprised primarily or entirely of female musicians.
The music internet periodically offers up listicles of all-women bands to check out, which feature a common core cast of incredible indie groups: Hinds, Ex Hex, The Prettiots, Chastity Belt, Warpaint and so on. Plenty has been written about the the chart-topping pop-rock sister group Haim, but even in a diverse musical landscape of EDM, hip-hop, pop and hybrid music, a wide variety of all-male bands still flourishes. Why is the all-female band relatively elusive?
One might be tempted to blame women as a group. Perhaps we’re biologically uninterested in playing electric guitar, much like advanced algebra and video games. Maybe there simply aren’t girls out there with the chops and dedication to succeed. But ― much as with mathematics and video games ― a closer look at the picture suggests that the problem isn’t that women are rejecting rock. It’s that rock is rejecting women.
But how is the music world fencing women out? Picking on the visible gatekeepers is easy, and in many ways fair: Record labels, magazines and music festivals don’t tend to give women artists an equal platform. Last year, a HuffPost analysis of the gender breakdown of acts at 10 major festivals over the past five years found that the vast majority of performers were male. “[A]ll-male acts make up the overwhelming majority of festival lineups, ranging from 66 percent of all performers (Outside Lands and Governors Ball) to 93 percent (Electric Zoo),” HuffPost Women’s Editor Alanna Vagianos concluded. An LA Times piece on Coachella’s specific problems with women noted that, at the time it was written, only one female act had ever headlined the festival, out of over 40 headliners in its history.
Music media seems little better. In 2016, KQED Arts pointed out in December, exactly zero women made the cover of Rolling Stone ― no Beyoncé, no Rihanna, no Alessia Cara, no Hayley Williams. Women who do snag coverage by major outlets routinely see their musical chops downplayed in favor of their sex appeal, or wind up relegated to special women’s issues or listicles.
The problem, though, starts way before the point when the organizers of Coachella or Bonnaroo are scouting acts, and before magazines are picking out cover models. This isn’t an excuse for their paltry lineups of female artists; it’s just to say that there are other pressures guiding tastemakers toward men and guiding women to give up rock stardom.
Bands made up of all women are rare not because of a lack of talent, dedication or interest, but because women have been siphoned out of the pipeline at nearly every step of the way.
Getting The Band Together
For young boys, forming a crappy band is as elemental a part of growing up as playing baseball, or quitting the baseball team to spend more time smoking pot. If you’ve ever known a handful of teenage boys, you probably know at least one who’s been in a jam band inspired by Phish, or a dude rock band inspired by Dave Matthews, or an indie rock band inspired by Weezer. Guys in bands stand to benefit from male bonding, creative self-expression, and cultivating a rock god image to attract romantic interests. As Alex Pall of The Chainsmokers told Billboard in 2016, “Even before success, pussy was number one … I wanted to hook up with hotter girls.”
The flip side, however, is that this gendered adolescent experience rarely includes a space for girls to be anything but doting audiences and, at worst, “pussy.”
“To me that was just kind of a given, guys were always starting bands and playing guitar in their bedrooms,” Allison Wolfe, the former lead singer of riot grrrl band Bratmobile and, most recently, Sex Stains, told me. She grew up in Olympia, home of artsy, crunchy Evergreen State College in Washington State, in the midst of the burgeoning ‘90s DIY punk scene. “I went to a lot of punk shows and saw guys playing. Olympia and Eugene were cool, not super macho like a lot of other places, but it still made me feel like I couldn’t really be a part of it.”
Suzie Zeldin, of the indie band The Narrative, spent her teenage years attending hardcore shows across the country, in Long Island, New York, that were packed with both male and female fans ― but vanishingly few female artists. “It was pretty rare actually to see a girl onstage,” she recalled.
And this was in the late ‘80s to early aughts. Decades ago, when rock ’n’ roll was really taking off, the scene was almost entirely male. “You go back to the ‘60s, and you’re talking about the dark ages of women in music, because the light that you’re putting out, there’s nothing to reflect it back,” said June Millington, co-founder and lead guitarist of the pioneering 1970s band Fanny. “You had to have the courage to walk into that cave that was completely dark.”
Her bandmate, drummer Alice DeBuhr, was blunt: “We didn’t think of ourselves as the beginning of or part of a tradition of women musicians. Because there weren’t any.”
As with any boys’ club, some determined and talented women have always fought their way in. But bands aren’t just about individual moxie. Forming a band requires collaboration. As a teenage bassist in Australia, music writer Anwen Crawford, author of a New Yorker article titled “The World Needs Female Rock Critics,” wanted that classic, adolescent band experience. The only problem? “I could never find other girls to play with, in those crucial years when you’re forming bands,” she told me. “Your teacher is likely to be male, your peers are likely to be male. It’s quite isolating.”
Just playing with her male peers wasn’t a solution either, she pointed out: “The boys around me didn’t really take me seriously, or thought I was a novelty.”
For many years, and even, to some extent, today, women who did seriously pursue rock music were less likely to find a thriving community of female peers to play with. Female stars like P.J. Harvey or Suzie Quatro, Crawford noted, typically ended up as solo artists or the sole women in mostly male bands. After Goldie and the Gingerbreads disbanded in 1967, Ravan joined a mostly-male band and later built a solo career.
The creeping, pervasive assumption that little boys learn drums and grow up to be rock stars while little girls play Barbies and grow up to be groupies can isolate and stifle young girls who do pursue music, or it can simply delay their start. Many talented female musicians don’t begin their careers until early adulthood, at the age when young people are exploring who they really are outside of their rigidly defined peer groups. By then, many of their male peers have been mucking around with their instruments and amateur bands for a decade ― but that gap isn’t an insurmountable obstacle.
Augusta Koch, the guitarist and vocalist of the pop-punk band Cayetana, readily admits that she “didn’t know how to play guitar” when Cayetana was born five years ago. Koch and her bandmates were all out of college and dreaming of starting a band when they met at a party in Philadelphia. They decided to join forces and polished their skills together, through years of intense solo and band practice.
Mindy Abovitz, drummer and founder of Tom Tom Magazine, started her first band in college, not long after she’d surreptitiously begun to learn drums. “It would have made zero sense to be in a band with a guy at that time, because all my guy friends who were musicians had been in bands since they were 12,” she told me.
“I played music in school band, clarinet and bass clarinet, but it wasn’t until much later that I thought I could do something like be in a band,” recalled Bratmobile’s Wolfe. “But I think I was very lucky to grow up in Olympia.” In the midst of a music scene that prided itself on counter-culturalism and anti-professionalism, “anyone could do anything, and it would be considered music,” she said.
Wolfe went to Eugene to attend the University of Oregon, but many weekends she’d return to Olympia with her friend and future bandmate, Molly Neuman, to hang around the music scene. They met Kathleen Hanna, then a student at Evergreen. Wolfe began to notice that women around her were forming their own bands ― and not cute, smiley bands. One day, the summer before college, she peeked into Hanna’s art gallery, Reko Muse, and saw a band rehearsal in progress. “There was Kathleen, onstage,” recalled Wolfe, “and she was just yelling at the top of her lungs, with her veins popping out of her neck, and her face was all red ... It was really confrontational, and intense.” Hanna’s band, Bikini Kill, ended up becoming early supporters of Wolfe and Neuman’s nascent group.
Wolfe and Neuman wanted to be involved in the scene ― they were already referring to themselves as a band around Olympia ― but they didn’t actually begin writing and performing music until a friend asked them to play a show he was booking. Despite Bratmobile’s slapdash beginnings, their first show was a rousing success.
“I don’t think it would have happened outside the Olympia scene, because I don’t think we would have had the encouragement,” she admitted. “People would have laughed us off the stage. But instead we had Bikini Kill there cheering us on.”
Keeping The Band Together
Getting an all-girl band together is a magical achievement, but it’s only step one. Rock bands are notoriously fragile things. Internal power struggles, ego trips and artistic disagreements tear many of them apart. For women, though, the stress of fending off inappropriate behavior, condescension and disdain rooted in their gender often ends up compounding the ordinary struggles faced by every band.
Having overcome years of overt or implicit discouragement to choose a musical career, female musicians face exhausting assumptions: That they don’t understand their own gear or craft; that, if they came later to mastering the art form, they are perpetual amateurs; that they’re just hanging around the scene to get male attention. Cayetana’s drummer, Kelly Olsen, pointed out that “women getting into relationships with musicians... get looked at in a very different way than men that do. And I know that we have been judged by who we date, like, you’re just doing that to get close to this band. And it’s like, actually, no!I have my own self and my own power in my own scene.”
The assumption, however, generally remains that women don’t belong onstage unless they’re accompanied and overseen by men. Lydia Night, the teenage frontwoman of The Regrettes, caught the rock fever early ― she’s been playing guitar since the age of six and has not only attended years of music classes but performed in several bands. Nonetheless, she’s noticed, sound technicians often assume she can’t handle her own equipment. The sexism is difficult to ignore thanks to one simple fact: The band has one male member, drummer Maxx Morando. “We’ve met so many amazing sound people,” she told me, “but we’ve met so many annoying sound people who just assume that ... oh, of course Maxx knows how to set up his drums, but she must not know how to set up her amp.”
Though many of the women I spoke to said that they felt respected and appreciated by their male peers in the industry, the spaces men make for themselves aren’t always welcoming. Women might be left out of bands and tours by men who want to keep the fratty vibe, or who don’t want their significant others to worry about infidelity. “Tour buses are definitely places where women get excluded,” Abovitz said, referencing a situation she’d recently advised another female musician about. “They don’t get hired. They just get left off.” Her acquaintance and the other woman in her band weren’t invited on a bus due to this reasoning; in the end, they had to drive themselves separately for the entire tour.
When it’s not the men directly involved in the industry, it’s the press. Music journalism, a field that was carved out and is still largely populated by white men, has historically been hostile at worst, and patronizing at best, to female artists. “The assumption [was] that interviewers and other people could treat us with condescension and that was the norm,” says Millington. “That condescension was pretty lethal, because it can come at you in so many different ways, even the subtle ways cut ― at least 50 percent, 60 percent or more of the time, the condescension had to be there even if [critics] said they liked us.”
Critics and journalists might cover a girl band with a tone of surprise that a group of women could even play competently, or fixate on the band members’ sex appeal and gendered characteristics.
Plus, female artists were played off each other, creating the impression that in the massive rock universe, there was only room for one woman star. “It was never about the music,” Raven remembered of her early reviews. “They always had to compare me with somebody.” Usually, the times being what they were, that somebody was Janis Joplin. In 1969, legendary rock critic Robert Christgau described her as “this group’s resident Janis Joplin” in a review of Ten Wheel Drive, a jazz-rock band she joined after Goldie and the Gingerbreads broke up. Joplin comes up yet again in his review of one of her solo albums, “Urban Desire,” in addition to the accusation that “she oversings.” (Christgau’s oeuvre is a trove of chauvinistic criticism, which is rarely subtle; he takes pains to graciously judge that Fanny’s “execution is competent enough.”)
In the early days of rock ’n’ roll, even audiences who presumably showed up to enjoy these shows were sexist by default. Millington and DeBuhr both vividly recalled one particular compliment from male listeners that seemed to dog Fanny throughout its run: “Not bad for chicks!”
No matter where they performed, “that was the best compliment we could get through the early ‘70s. Isn’t that incredible?” Millington told me. “And we almost always smiled and said ‘Thank you.’” Worse, Fanny often confronted the assumption that they couldn’t play their own songs. “I can’t remember how many times people asked us, ‘Who were the male musicians playing on the album?’” DeBuhr remembered. To a group of women who practiced and performed tirelessly and who took pride in their music, this question was particularly galling.
In the punk era, disdainful audiences could be more aggressive. Wolfe half-seriously insisted that her nearsightedness and poor hearing protected her ego from the vitriol of sexist crowds. “A lot of the time I was saved by the fact that I couldn’t see or hear what was going on in the audience,” she said. After Bratmobile’s second show, Kathleen Hanna met them offstage and asked if they were OK. Unbeknownst to them, some “scary metalhead dudes” in the crowd had been hollering death threats at the band throughout their set.
Harder to ignore: An incident at a show during Wolfe’s time in the late-’90s band Cold Cold Hearts, when a man grabbed her ass while she performed. “I actually started laughing, because it was just too shocking,” she said.
Some women involved with the music world saw a relatively egalitarian, non-threatening environment, at least in specific scenes. Punk historian Gillian McCain, co-author of the oral history Please Kill Me, pushed back on the idea that the early punk scene could be sexually exploitative. “The girls were enjoying their sexual freedom as much as the boys were,” she wrote in an email. “None of the women we interviewed saw themselves as victims.”
But there’s no denying that some women in the music industry have been victimized, and that the experience can directly affect their careers. Pop star and songwriter Kesha, the most infamous recent example, follows in a long line of women whose voices were snuffed out thanks to male exploitation. Due to her ironclad contract and current legal battle with her former producer, Dr. Luke, whom she has accused of sexual and other abuse, Kesha is reported to be sitting on at least 22 new songs she’s not allowed to bring out.
In 2015, the original bassist of The Runaways, Jackie Fuchs, accused the band’s late manager, Kim Fowley, of raping her soon after she joined the band in 1975. She quit in 1977. In a HuffPost Highline feature, Jason Cherkis documented multiple alleged victims of Fowley’s sexual violence, primarily Fuchs and Kari Krome, a precocious songwriter Fowley began grooming at just 13 years old. By the time Cherkis spoke to Krome, some 40 years later, she had been out of the music business since her teen years, instead writing boxes full of unpublished lyrics. “[S]he couldn’t shake the idea that Fowley never believed in her talent, that he only wanted to sleep with her,” he wrote. “She ended up abandoning her dreams of becoming a successful songwriter.”
Though it’s impossible to say how many women’s careers have been stunted or destroyed by sexual predation, even those who remain and succeed continue to face gendered criticism and abuse. With few other options, women musicians often embrace determinedly nonchalant attitudes toward their harassers and critics. “It’s hard to play a show when someone screams ‘you can’t play guitar’ or ‘you’re hot,’ but at the same time,” said Koch, “we try to not let it ruin us.”
During the riot grrrl movement of the ‘90s, women on the scene tried to find safety in solidarity. After the butt-grabbing incident at her Cold Cold Hearts show, Wolfe remembered, “The amazing thing is I didn’t have to do anything. It was a girl power show; all the women bounced him out in two seconds.” By urging “girls to the front” and forefronting feminism, riot grrrl created a safer space for women in rock ― at least temporarily. In other times, in other cases, playing through the pain simply led to burnout. “I left Fanny in ‘73, because I was just tired,” Millington told me.
When women aren’t kept out of rock genres through sheer discouragement, exclusion or harassment, the malleable nature of the genre can also be used against them. Women artists may be edited out of the rock annals simply through gendered perceptions ― what men play is rock and what women play is pop. Nowhere is this more evidently the case than with black women, who, like black men, often find themselves reflexively categorized as R&B simply because of their race. As Rolling Stone’s Brittany Spanos wrote in 2016, the white appropriation of rock has been so total that it “box[es] black performers into R&B and soul categories no matter how genre-bending they are.”
“Though largely forgotten in our whitewashed annals of history,” LaTonya Pennington wrote in The Establishment, “black women helped create the genre of rock, which has its roots in blues, country, jazz, gospel and R&B.” Just as many pioneers of rock were black men ― Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard and Bo Diddley ― many of the early female pioneers, like “Godmother of Rock ’n’ Roll” Sister Rosetta Tharpe, were black. White women were also often complicit in undercutting black women performers. The first recording of “Piece of My Heart” was performed by Erma Franklin ― known as an R&B singer ― yet it was white singer Janis Joplin ― known as a rocker ― whose rendition rose to fame.
The contributions of black women have been routinely swept under the rug and written out of rock history. But Pennington, Spanos and other critics have seen black women reclaiming their place in the rock genre in recent years, from undeniably rock acts such as The Alabama Shakes (fronted by vocalist and guitarist Brittany Howard) to indie darling Santigold to, yes, Beyoncé.
In “Lemonade,” the pop icon dabbled in country and rock ’n’ roll to great effect. “Beyoncé... provided one of the year’s most memorable rock moments with ‘[Don’t] Hurt Yourself,’” Crawford argued. “Here we have a song by a black woman artist (Beyoncé), who has not typically been ‘seen’ as a rock musician, which appropriates white rock masculinity in order to emphasize that the origins of rock music (in the blues) lie with black women, whose music was, in turn, appropriated by white men.” The all-important visuals work fluidly with the song to reinforce this message, she added. “The film clip ... which begins and ends with a young black woman sitting behind a drum kit, makes literally visible this lineage of largely disregarded and historically invisible black female musicianship.”
Passing The Torch
With all the obstacles and forms of discouragement women in rock have faced over the decades, rock is no longer the coolest nor freshest genre. Does it even matter how inclusive it is to women anymore? Crawford, though she qualifies that it’s important for women to have equal opportunity in any genre, suggests women look elsewhere. The masculinization of the scene has been so entrenched, and the genre itself seems so archaic, that she “wouldn’t necessarily advise [a young woman today] to pick up a guitar. I think of rock music like the realist novel ― it’s fun, people are still doing it, but why?” And though “other genres have their own problems,” she pointed out, there’s a less lengthy and calcified history of exclusion to undo. Women have been making huge amounts of exciting, boundary-pushing music in electronic music, in pop and beyond ― rock just hasn’t been as welcoming.
Conversely, McCain downplayed the severity of the obstacles faced by women in punk rock ― though the punk scene was predominantly male. “Unfortunately that’s the case in a lot of vocations,” she wrote in an email. “I think there were barriers to both men and women making it in punk music! [...] In some ways the women may have held an advantage as far as getting more media attention.” McCain cited breakout female stars of the era, from Patti Smith to Tina Weymouth, who remain popular today. As Ravan realized in the 1960s, being a woman in a man’s world could be a great marketing tool.
Still, staking a visible claim to rock music isn’t just an ego trip for marginalized artists: It clears the path to stardom for those that follow. Not only does it make it easier for audiences and critics to conceptualize, for example, black and female artists as rockers, but it helps future musicians to avoid the derision, harassment and sense of alienation that has afflicted many.
Even today, women deal with gendered belittlement and abuse on tour. But audiences have seen enough female rock musicians to mitigate the level of scorn faced by individual artists. Where Fanny and Goldie and the Gingerbreads often felt like their gender was so unusual that it was simply treated as a gimmick ― the only reason people bothered to book them as opposed to the many male bands ― women who are currently early in their music careers see a more diverse scene. Night told me that The Regrettes perform alongside “a lot of women ... super badass women.”
Zeldin has also toured with a number of bands with one or more woman. “There are a lot of bands that have at least some female presence. It’s nice to see that happening more and more,” she said.
Part of the more welcoming environment for women and gender non-binary individuals in rock has to do with changing norms, like a better understanding of the harm caused by sexual assault. Recalling her time in Fanny in the ‘70s, DeBuhr describes a scene that was not only permissive of male urges, but that lacked a language to talk about it critically. Though sometimes she felt deeply uncomfortable with the sexualized atmosphere, she told me, “At the time, I don’t think we called it sexual harassment ... It was creepy, I didn’t like it.” Creepy behavior might still be fairly common in the music industry, but women musicians do have the vocabulary to talk about it. Take music publicist Heathcliff Berru, once a power player in the field. He fell precipitously from grace after a raft of female musicians and industry professionals ― most notably Amber Coffman of Dirty Projectors ― publicly accused him of various forms of sexual misconduct.
Even the idea that women can be rebels and artists as well as homemakers, mothers and playthings needed to emerge over the past few decades. Not only were the first all-girl bands were presented as gimmicks, they were often presented as sexualized ones. Fowley notoriously positioned The Runaways as a clique of sexy jailbait rather than serious musicians ― and that’s a temporary brand at best.
During high school, in 1960s Iowa, DeBuhr played in a girl band called Women. (“We were a gimmick,” explained. “That was the attraction, it was all girls.”) While at an Iowan club, teenage DeBuhr saw a female drummer in a jazz trio. The drummer was older, “maybe 40,” she recalled. “I said, ‘I will quit when I‘m 30. I won’t be an old lady playing the drums.” She did end up hanging up her drumsticks not long after Fanny broke up. Now, she says, she regrets it.
To a young DeBuhr, that solitary, middle-aged woman drummer may have seemed like an oddity at the time; the lack of visible female rock icons inevitably perpetuates the assumption that women don’t belong onstage, unless they’re go-go dancers or sultry vocalists. Even serious bands like Fanny and the Gingerbreads faced pressure to go onstage scantily clad ― which they resisted to varying degrees.
Perhaps the most important evolution has been the determined, serious incursion of women into the genre, a genre that at first seemed to have no place for them. Though Ravan and Millington cite a few forerunners as inspirations ― Etta James, Lillian Briggs ― they saw their own music as something different. They were playing rock ’n’ roll in bands, just like the boys.
Today, budding musicians have a pantheon of women rockstars to draw inspiration from and emulate. “When I was five, my dad took me to a Donnas concert ... and I just fell in love with it,” Night told me. “The turning point for me ― I think I was 10 ― my mom took me to see a movie about the drummer of Hole. I started listening to a lot of Hole, Bikini Kill, Babes in Toyland.”
A push for mostly all-women bands may be unlikely today because, in a more inclusive scene, female musicians see less of a need to huddle together. When Night initially fell in love with The Donnas, she longed to start an all-girl band; now, she says, she doesn’t even think about gender when forming a band. Zeldin, who has always worked with male musicians, felt the same. “I’d totally be down to do a girl band,” she told me. But she wouldn’t be motivated to do so “just because it would be all girls.”
The success of “girl rock” can come in waves. For groups like Fanny and Bratmobile, being all women was part of the point; at those times, it felt like both safety in solidarity and a way of making political statement. “If the whole point was giving voice to girls, then yeah, we wanted to play with other girls,” said Wolfe. After the overtly feminist, but flawed, riot grrrl scene faded, punk and indie rock seemed to contract around men again.
“I feel like riot grrrl ended in the mid-’90s, and by the late-‘90s there was a lot of backlash,” said Wolfe. “Suddenly there were a lot fewer girl bands in the punk scene, and it was like, what happened?” The backlash to riot grrrl, which she concedes had its own problems, still felt “like sexism. Or just dissing feminism.”
Though juggernaut all-women bands like Sleater-Kinney arose from and survived riot grrrl, they were more the exception than the rule. By the early aughts, critics were commenting on the almost startling sexism of the ascendant emo and punk scene. Andy Greenwald’s Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo noted the dearth of women on popular emo labels, as well as the overtly resentful and objectifying view emo artists took of women: “Now emo songwriters were one-sided victims of heartbreak, utterly wronged and ready to sing about it, with the women having no chance to respond.”
In an essay on emo misogyny from her 2015 book The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, titled “Where the Girls Aren’t,” music journalist and critic Jessica Hopper remembered growing up in the era of riot grrrl. “For me, even as a teenage autodidact who thought her every idea was worthy of expression and an audience,” she wrote, “it did not occur to me to start a band until I saw other women in one.” Watching female fans at emo shows where all-male artists sang about cardboard-cutout women who had hurt them, she thought, “I don’t want these front row girls to miss that. I don’t want girls leaving clubs denied of encouragement and potential.”
The clock couldn’t simply be turned back to the 1950s after the riot grrrl era ended, though. Bikini Kill records were still out there. We knew about the Bangles. Zeldin, who grew up frequenting the emo and hardcore scene, took the rarity of women onstage at those shows as a challenge. “I think that’s probably partially what drove me to do it, aside from having the inclination,” she told me. “It was more like ― I don’t see girls doing so let’s do it.”
Abovitz, who launched a whole publication to cover female drummers, believes fervently in the power of modeling. “There’s this sort of thing that every female drummer I know does: Go out and play a show not just for herself, but for every other female drummer,” she said. “You just want to do it, so that people will get over it already.”
The scene already looks less homogenous than it did 10 years ago, despite the daunting machismo of the aughts. Earlier generations of women musicians have sought to further their gains by promoting their own legacies, and even by educating new generations. Millington started the Institute for the Musical Arts (IMA) with her partner, Ann F. Hackler, in 1986. The institute runs rock camps for young girls, among other initiatives to support women in music. Camps like the IMA’s have begun to bear fruit ― like Night’s The Regrettes, formed by three girls and a boy who met in an LA School of Rock.
Though the genre has put up walls against women for decades, women have refused to stay out ― and the more they refuse, the more open the music industry becomes to all women.
“You gotta keep writing songs that speak out about this stuff, or keep being in bands, or whatever it is that you do,” said Wolfe. “Being there, inserting yourself in a space that isn’t common for women to be.”