“If I Didn’t Write These Things No One Else Would Either”
The Feminist Legacy of Grrrl Zines and the Origins of the Third Wave
please listen to me you mother fuckers, i, unlike hundreds of boy fanzine writers all across america, have a legitimate need and desperate desire to be heard. i am making a fanzine not to entertain or distract or exclude or because i don’t have anything better to do but because if i didn’t write these things no one else would either.
—Tobi Vail, Jigsaw #3 (1991)
BECAUSE we must take over the means of production in order to create our own meanings.
—Bikini Kill #2 (1992)
In 1988, Sarah Dyer began working as producer of the successful, nationally distributed punk zine No Idea
. She and her co-producer, who was male, started a record label and put on punk shows in addition to publishing and distributing the zine. They worked collaboratively at every level. Dyer quickly realized, however, that within the context of the punk scene, and the zine scene affiliated with it, her work was invisible. She explains, “We would get phone calls and they would ask to talk to Var because they just assumed that my name was on there just because I was the girlfriend, not because I was actually doing anything. And if people wanted to buy an ad, they would ask to talk to him. You know, we would do a show and the bands on the stage would thank him and they would
be thanking the guys who helped us clean.”1
In other words, Dyer was assumed to be an accessory rather than an actual co-creator.
As a result of this lack of public recognition, she decided to produce a zine that was entirely her own, emphatically “ALL MINE!” as the masthead for the second issue of Mad Planet
proclaimed.2 Mad Planet
offered Dyer’s thoughts on various bands and musical genres. It was framed in terms of her own interests. Her editorial letter in the first issue of the zine explained that she designed it as a zine “that actually covers everything I like.” She went on to say, “Basically, if you’re a girl-type, and you work on anything with a boy-type or types, everyone assumes that you’re just along for the ride.”3
Even with these explanations, however, reviewers gave credit to the men who were tangentially involved in the project—men she had labeled as “boy slaves” in her first masthead—rather than to Dyer herself. “I couldn’t believe that I’m doing this zine completely by myself and people kept focusing on my friend Bill because he’s doing interviews and Evan because he’s doing comics,” Dyer notes. She began to recognize that this was not a problem facing her alone, which led her to a radicalizing moment:
There were so many women involved in zines, and they were all treated this way, just sort of, you know, “girls don’t do that.” So I decided, I’m going to find the other girls doing zines, working on zines. I started looking very carefully at the ads in Maximum Rock and Roll
, like, “This is a girl,” and trying to kind of network with them. And I went to England in 1992, found a copy of Girlfrenzy
zine by Erica Smith, and she had reviewed girl zines, and in her review list, she had maybe three or four American zines that I had never heard of, and I was just like, I can’t believe I have to come all the way to England and buy a zine in a bookstore to find out about zines in America. So when I came back I did the first Action Girl Newsletter
Dyer discovered that it was not enough for her to break away individually, to make her own zine so that she could receive credit. She needed to intervene in the larger zine culture, to create a community of women, and thus the Action Girl Newsletter was born.
Dyer describes a familiar feminist story. She was part of a punk community that positioned itself as outside of and superior to the mainstream world, a community that claimed to challenge the power dynamics and oppression that characterized dominant societal practices. And yet, like suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton when she was excluded from the World
Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840, feminist activists Casey Hayden, Mary King, and Robin Morgan who were accorded less status in the civil rights movement and New Left organizing in the 1960s, or radical women of color Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga, who experienced racism within the women’s movement, Dyer discovered that the social justice movement with which she identified did not offer her full human recognition.5
While the punk community worked to undercut mainstream American practices, Dyer experienced the sexism from the broader culture replicated in the movement, which was a space that had promised to do things differently. Dyer’s invisibility as a woman creator within the punk scene made her gender visible to her. She responded as many radicalized women had before her: she took action. And in a move that she helped to make a trend among young feminists, Dyer’s action took the form of a zine.
Dyer tells a particular origin story for the Action Girl Newsletter
, a feminist origin story in which gender inequities become visible and a woman decides to make a change. Zines have a similar gendered origin story, which has mostly gone untold. Most studies of zines identify them as resistant media originating in male-dominated spaces. They are positioned as descendants of the pamphlets of the American Revolution and Dadaist and Samizdat publishing, emerging from the fanzines of the 1930s and the punk community of the 1970s.6
According to this narrative, the zine proliferation was triggered by the convergence of punk culture and technology. Punk culture provided the “zine” terminology, along with a non-elitist, do-it-yourself (DIY) structure and aesthetic, and these ideologies were channeled into the production of zines because of technological innovations such as desktop publishing and inexpensive, widely available photocopying.
This explanation is insufficient on a number of counts when it comes to grrrl zines. Although zines are often described as though they and their predecessors have always been male-dominated media, what hasn’t been discussed is the fact that these publications also have predecessors in the informal publications, documents, and artifacts produced by women during the first and second waves of feminism.7
One reason for this omission is that zines are resistant media, and women are, even today, rarely identified with resistance. As Dyer’s story shows, our encrusted gender ideology often makes women’s efforts at cultural change invisible. Even if, like Dyer, women are clearly speaking out, then they may still be erased from the story altogether, identified as someone’s girlfriend rather than as legitimate agents. Dyer’s story makes this process of erasure visible.
Her story also shows that she longed for female predecessors, for a female community. She sought out other zines by girls and women and then created the Action Girl Newletter
as a resource that could help solidify and expand that community of women. Her story is not unusual; many of the grrrl zinesters I interviewed explained that they began making zines either as a response to sexism or because they were inspired by another grrrl zine. Nomy Lamm didn’t know much about feminism, but when she read the feminist body acceptance book Shadow on a Tightrope
, it inspired her to create the zine I’m So Fucking Beautiful
Similarly, Neely Bat Chestnut created the first issue of her zine Mend My Dress
after reading The Courage to Heal
, a book for women on recovering from sexual assault.9
Cindy Crabb was inspired by the grrrl zine Snarla
, while for Lauren Jade Martin it was a pamphlet from Sarah Dyer on “Doing Your Own Zine.” Bitch
were created as explicitly feminist interventions into pop culture, and The East Village Inky
came about when Ayun Halliday recognized that being a mother cut her off from many of her former creative pursuits. Although some of these women were part of the punk zine community, all began creating zines because of some specifically gender-related catalyst, and that gender specificity is exactly what is missing from the general origin story that’s told about zines.
Origin stories are important because they tell us where to look and what patterns to watch for. The “wrong” stories can give us a distorted or diminished understanding of the past and, by extension, the present moment. In the case of grrrl zines, if we think of them as originating from the male-dominated spaces of zines and punk culture, then grrrl zines appear as aberrations at best; as one author suggests, they seem “a side note to women’s history.”10
They’re not quite the same as the zines produced by men, but this difference isn’t taken seriously. This commonly told origin story marks grrrl zines as a rupture and the girls and women who produce them as either trying—often unsuccessfully—to be like the boys or rebelling against the male punk community.
This story of rupture provides a limited context for understanding grrrl zines, and in that view they are aberrant, unconnected, a fun but odd blip. The story is significant because it shapes our interpretations of grrrl zines. Further, because grrrl zines are places where third wave feminism is developed, this incomplete story also has consequences for our understanding of the third wave. Third wave feminism, like grrrl zines, is often positioned as a rupture, as a kind of feminism drastically different from the first and second waves—indeed, in some cases, with no evident
connection to previous generations of feminism at all. This narrative has been appealing even within a feminist context; many self-identified young feminists have relished the persona of being a rebel against feminism. In the early years of the 1990s, in particular, a number of young feminists—most famously Katie Roiphe in The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus
and Rebecca Walker in To Be Real
—declared their disconnect from second wave feminism. Roiphe argues, “Feminism has come more and more to represent sexual thoughts and images censored, behavior checked, fantasies regulated. In my late adolescent idiom, feminism was not about rebellion, but rules; it was not about setting loose, as it once was, it was about reining in.”11
Similarly, Walker explains, “For many of us it seems that to be a feminist in the way we have seen or understood feminism is to conform to an identity and way of living that doesn’t allow for individuality, complexity, or less than perfect personal histories,” and she identifies feminism as “another impossible contrivance of perfect womanhood, another scripted role to perform in the name of biology and virtue.”12
In this collection she declares the third wave to be a break from the past, denying the connections with previous generations of feminism and, like Roiphe, figuring feminism as a tool of oppression not unlike patriarchal norms for womanhood.
Third wave discourse is often complicated and contested rather than one monolithic perspective. While Walker, Roiphe, and other young feminists declared their separation from the second wave, other self-identified third wave feminists proclaimed their allegiance, arguing “to us the second and third waves of feminism are neither incompatible nor opposed” and “we see many strands of continuity between the second and third waves.”13
The sense of a debate in progress—of a contest for the definition of the third wave—is an undercurrent in many of the third wave feminist anthologies that appeared throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. “Them’s fighting words,” quipped one author in response to Roiphe, arguing that she had experienced feminism not as an oppressive force but as “a way for me to be an individual and break free of society’s many rules about a woman’s proper place” and that she, therefore, was not interested in a third wave that wanted a clean break from the second wave.14
While there are certainly relevant differences between third wave feminism and earlier generations, I argue that an undue emphasis on—or exaggeration of—those differences masks the far more prevalent similarities between all incarnations of feminism. This is not to suggest that feminism is a monolithic, unified movement; far from it. Feminist thought
and activism have been and are multifarious, changing, unagreed upon, diverse. The dissent within feminist discourse hasn’t been merely generational but has emerged from fractures of race, class, sexuality, and gender identity, and the dissent is often generative. Indeed, one of the great strengths of feminism has been its ability to alter, to expand, in order to respond to internal critiques and changing cultural experiences.15
Focusing solely on the differences, however, perpetuates a distorted understanding of earlier feminist moments, particularly the second wave, and prevents young feminists and others from recognizing feminism as a larger historical change movement. For despite the variations—the notable differences, for instance, in the understanding of women’s rights espoused by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and that espoused by Sarah Dyer—I contend that it is meaningful to keep the umbrella term “feminism.” It designates movements and discourses that have at their core a belief in the full person-hood of women and an agenda of eradicating all forms of oppression that keep people from achieving their full humanity.
The same sorts of distortions and misrecognitions that have influenced the third wave have occurred in the origin story of grrrl zines, as well; indeed, they seem to be interlocking distortions, perpetuating an incomplete and inaccurate version of how grrrl zines relate to feminism. A recognition of connection between incarnations of feminism is important in the name of historical accuracy; moreover, it will allow young feminists to learn from and build on the past, recognizing work that has come before so that they aren’t always having to act as pioneers, trailblazers.
To that end, if we recognize the particularly feminist origins and content of grrrl zines, then the story of grrrl zines as an aberration no longer holds. Here I provide an outline of this feminist trajectory, offering an alternate origin story that recognizes a U.S. feminist continuum, starting with the informal publications of the suffragists and women’s clubs of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I also present a specific originating moment for third wave feminism: the early 1990s in which the feminist political and musical movement known as Riot Grrrl and the Action Girl Newsletter emerged. When framed in terms of a feminist history of participatory media, Riot Grrrl and Action Girl help reveal what is distinctive about third wave feminism, as well as the ways in which this feminist generation is linked to previous ones. The lines of connection between earlier feminist moments and this one become visible, and this provides not only a more accurate picture of first wave and second wave feminism but also a context for understanding grrrl zines and the third wave.
The third wave has been examined from many angles—as a movement that is sexy, rebellious, self-absorbed, and savvy—but it needs to be positioned within a larger feminist narrative. Rather than being aberrations, in my origin story grrrl zines are actually part of a significant trend in women’s history. As explained in this chapter, women throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have created informal publications—from scrapbooks to women’s health brochures to mimeographed feminist pamphlets—and a textual and formal analysis of these publications suggests that they are the direct historical predecessors of grrrl zines. These publications were creative and resistant, and they provided a platform for women speaking from disempowered positions. The women who made scrapbooks, health guides, or mimeographed pamphlets, like zine creators, were denied access to the standard mechanisms for publication, because what they had to say didn’t fit the dominant scripts.16
Positioning grrrl zines within this feminist history makes women’s continued resistance visible and enables us to begin creating a more accurate picture, not only of zines but of third wave feminism. I contend that the third wave, like the grrrl zines that helped initiate it, is part of feminist history and not a unique break from the past. An exploration of grrrl zines shows that the rhetoric and iconography of the third wave are distinct from earlier feminist generations, but many of the underlying impulses propelling this feminism are similar among all the waves ...