New book: Celebrate Neurodiversity!

Sign up for updates and more!

Kathleen Hanna Read by Joan Jett

Whether fronting a punk band or helping to start the Riot Grrrl movement, Kathleen Hanna likes to be on the front lines of fighting for women’s rights. Rebels, get out your combat boots and hear how Kathleen fueled her own artistic and political rebellion.

Get to Know Joan Jett

Get to know rockstar legend, Joan Jett. At just 16, Joan founded one of the first all-girl rock bands, the Runaways, and forever changed how the world thought about girls and rock n roll. Her music has been heard all over the world, and in 2015, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Haley Dapkus with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written by Mary Bergstrom and edited by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Joan Jett. Joy Smith and Jes Wolfe were our executive producers. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

Outside the converted garage in Olympia, Washington, a trickle of teenagers and 20 somethings milled around waiting for the show to begin. The night was filled with stars and you could smell the tide from the Olympic peninsula and the fresh scent of evergreen trees. It was peaceful and quiet. But it wouldn’t be that way for long.

Inside, Kathleen Hanna’s foot tapped against the floor of the makeshift stage. She pushed her dark hair back from her eyes. She had performed her poetry here many times but now, with a band behind her, she was having second thoughts. Kathleen hadn’t set out to be a singer! This was nuts.

 Sweaty palms around the microphone, the audience pressed in on her, just a foot away. The amp squeaked. Kathleen looked back at her friends as they settled behind their instruments. Like her, they loved punk music. They loved how it sounded and what it stood for. And like her, they were new to playing music in front of an audience.

Some of her friends smiled up at her from the crowd, but there were strangers too, and some of them looked angry.  Usually, punk was performed by men for an all male audience. They wanted punk to be only for guys! But now there were women on stage.

A few of those angry men moved towards them, yelling. But Kathleen knew something they didn’t – she could yell louder. She squared her shoulders and steadied her feet on the floor. She could hear her drummer behind her tapping the drumsticks together. “One, two,” she yelled into the mic, her mouth unleashing the power within her. “One, two, three four…”

I’m Joan Jett. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls. A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us. 

On this episode, the pioneer of the punk feminist movement, Kathleen Hanna.

Kathleen was born in 1968 in Portland, Oregon. But before she could take root in the Pacific Northwest, her family started moving around a lot. 

Life wasn’t easy for young Kathleen. Moving all the time was difficult, and things were tense at home no matter where they lived. Her father was not kind to Kathleen or her mother. He mocked them, and bullied them. He made them feel small and afraid. 

But Kathleen and her mom were tough. Every chance she got, Kathleen’s mom would tell her that anything was possible. She could make her dreams happen.

One day, Kathleen’s mom brought home a magazine called Ms. Magazine. The glossy pages were different from anything Kathleen had ever seen before. They talked about feminist issues, like women’s power and health, instead of fashion and housekeeping like so many women’s magazines did at the time. In its pages, women from all over the world were fighting to be treated equally. 

Kathleen felt so good reading these stories. With her scissors, she cut out her favorite snippets and pasted them to a poster board. She wanted to be able to look at it and remind herself that girls could do anything! 

When Kathleen was nine years old, her mom took her to a protest. Kathleen had never seen so many women yelling all at once. And these women were angry. Like her own mother, they wanted to be safe in their homes and treated with respect. Kathleen watched as their fists pounded the air, and listened as their words raised up to the sky. 

Marching in the street that day, Kathleen thought about her father — how he made fun of her, and drank too much. How his behavior filled her with so much raw anger.

Kathleen felt the power of all these women around her, rising up and demanding respect. Their yells became hers, as she charged forward with the crowd. Even when her voice became hoarse, she didn’t stop. She wanted to yell forever. 

Kathleen went on to college in Olympia, Washington, and planned to become a photographer. She loved using art to express her feelings and politics, just like she did with Ms. Magazine on her bedroom floor. 

She joined groups to talk about feminist issues, and organized rallies and protests to support women and push for change. She created an art project about sexism, violence, and inequality. She wanted to educate her classmates  – but her school took it down! Kathleen was angry – and not about to be kept quiet.

 If the school wasn’t going to support her, Kathleen would find her own way. 

So, she started a zine (short for magazine) called Bikini Kill and started distributing it to other women in the movement. In it, she wrote about feminist ideas and filled the pages with black and white photographs. She turned an old garage into an art gallery and hosted concerts there to raise money for art that benefited women.

In this quickly growing community, Kathleen made some new friends and formed the first punk band of her own. They called it Bikini Kill, just like her zine. 

The band began writing their own songs. On their first album, Kathleen was proudly loud and in charge. She was fed up with seeing women treated badly. It was time for women to be respected and empowered. She wanted to show that everyone had something important to say and everyone had the right to be heard. Kathleen made the music she wanted to hear: feminist and fiery and alive. 

On stage, Kathleen put her anger on display. She swore, shrieked, and jumped. She did all the things girls weren’t supposed to do. And she wanted her audience to do them with her. She encouraged their female fans to move forward and take over the mosh pit right in front of the stage.

Finally, women were being taken seriously at a punk concert! They formed a protective layer between the band and the rest of the audience. Women protecting women. 

In 1991, in Washington DC, Kathleen’s band Bikini Kill started a movement with other female punk bands in the area. They needed a way to spread their feminist ideas across the country. They called their movement Riot Grrrl. That’s “Grrrl” with 3 R’s, as if it’s a growl.

The movement encouraged women to speak up, take control of their bodies, and demand equal rights. They made Zines to carry the message, spelling out how to start new chapters and rally for support. It was so exciting! People were even calling it a new type of feminism. 

It was magnetic and inspiring. That’s why I decided I had to be part of it too. My friend Ian sent me a cassette tape of Bikini Kill, and I fell in love. As a punk rocker myself, I had heard a lot about Kathleen Hanna and her band. In fact, I loved what Bikini Kill was doing so much that I offered to help produce their album. Kathleen was thrilled. In the studio, I shared my tricks to help make her voice even bigger and better.

Although making the album was fun, more and more, Kathleen felt like she was breaking. The Riot Grrrl Movement was starting to fall apart. Their message was getting muddled, and it didn’t feel exciting like it used to. The drama and pressure of being a spokesperson were taking their toll on Kathleen.

She decided to try making music on her own. And for a while she really enjoyed it. But then one day, after a solo concert, she discovered a new zine. Reading the pages, Kathleen felt inspired for the first time in a long time. She tracked down the author and they became good friends! Together, they decided to start a new band, and they called it Le Tigre. 

Le Tigre made music about gratitude. Up on the stage, dressed in bright pastel outfits, they did coordinated dance moves and delighted in the energy of the crowd. Le Tigre was feminist and fun! Fans happily joined in. 

Kathleen was having a great time with her new band, but something was deeply wrong. Her body wasn’t working like it used to. She announced that she was quitting music. She told her fans that she had nothing left to say, but actually Kathleen was too scared to admit the truth. 

Her body ached and she was exhausted. Even opening a heavy door was a hurdle. 

It took years for Kathleen to get answers. Finally, she was diagnosed with late-stage Lyme disease, a serious illness she had contracted from a tick bite. Untreated for so long, the disease had become very strong. Luckily there was medicine to help manage her symptoms. But Kathleen would need time to recover. 

She had fought so hard to become the musician and the woman she wanted to be. She had pushed herself to grow and change and rally the crowds. But it was clear now that the incredible person she had become, needed rest. 

With time and tender care, Kathleen got better. She eased back into music, and began performing again. She reunited with Bikini Kill, and today they perform on stages all over North America, playing iconic hits like their song “Rebel Girl.” 

Throughout her life, Kathleen worked to break down barriers and rewrite the rules. The Riot Grrrl movement opened up punk rock to everybody and introduced feminism to a whole new generation of women. 

And Kathleen was front and center, microphone in hand, ready to rock. 

CREDITS 

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls.

This episode was narrated by ME, Joan Jett. It was produced and directed by Haley Dapkus, with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. The story was written by Mary Bergstrom and edited by Abby Sher. Fact checking by Joe Rhatigan. The executive producers were Joy Smith and Jes Wolfe. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi.

A special thanks to the whole Rebel Girls team, who make this podcast possible! Until next time, staaaay rebel!