Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Doing Women's History at the Sarah Lawrence Women's History Conference

So, I wrote last week about how Women's History Month is useful because it provides with an opportunity to talk about women's history, and it gives us a time frame that we can organize around. Women's History Month gives us a chance to put together events to heighten our own, and others' awareness of women's history and how it's constructed.

This past Saturday, I attended a good example of this: The Sarah Lawrence Women's History Conference.

The theme of this year's conference happened to be sex, gender, and feminism within music (I'm still a bit shocked at just how perfect it was for me, personally). Not only did I get to attend, but I had also had the honor and privilege of presenting; I was a member of the Riot Grrrl History panel (Check out the full schedule). I spoke for twenty minutes about bodily images and experience in Corin Tucker's songwriting, and I was really thrilled at the questions I received afterward from the participants. Our entire panel was really interesting, and went very well, and I think everyone enjoyed it; or, I know that I certainly did.

But I don't want to talk so much about my panel and the knowledge that I am relatively comfortable with. No, today I want to focus on the questions that were on my mind after the conference. Because that's the point of this sort of event: yes, you share what you've learned and what you've worked on, and you chat with other people who are doing similar projects, and you nibble on delicious finger foods, and you feel all fancy for a single day out of your grubby grad school existence. But I think you're supposed to leave with more questions than answers.

After participating in my panel and attending the fantastic Womyn Song panel, and after spending a day in the company of feminist musicians and serious critical thinkers, I found myself thinking a lot about issues within Riot Grrrl and other '90s music made by women. I found myself thinking about issues I've already considered, but that I think I might have forgotten about in my excitement over the recent revival of feminist punk and art going on in my hometown. Here are a few of them.

1. Riot Grrrl and inclusivity. One of the greatest things about this conference was how inclusive it was. Theory and practice, history and present day issues, pop, folk, hip hop, Latin, and rock music, and especially issues of race and class in all these genres -- the conference covered all of this and more. But I, myself, picked a panel on Liz Phair, Lilith Fair, and the woman-born-woman policy at the Michigan Womyn's Festival. Both this panel, and the one I presented at, were attended largely by fair-skinned young women. This made me think about my attention to race within punk. I used to be much more concerned with the Latino presence in rock, and punk especially, but I haven't written about this in a long time. Lately, I've been focused on my own herstory with Riot Grrrl, but I haven't written about my experience as a fair-skinned Latina who listens to rock music and participates in other aspects of 'gringo' culture.

2. Rock and Imperialism. Listening to the delightful Julia Downes talk about her experience with Riot Grrrl in the UK reminded me that the movement did, in fact, cross many borders, and have an impact in many countries in Europe, and in several Latin American nations as well. I've done some reading on how Latin American governments felt the rock explosion of the 1960s was a colonialist threat to their cultures, and I'm working on a project about these issues as they pertain to Emo culture in Mexico City. So why haven't I questioned Riot Grrrl in this way? Why aren't we having conversations about punk, feminism, and the so-called 'Third World' -- both the 'Third World' outside of the US, and the 'Third World' that exists right here within our borders, within my city?

3. Only one way to deal with it. While hanging out by the For the Birds table later in the afternoon, I had a chat with tabler Jessy about some of these issues around Riot Grrrl and the difficulties it encountered in handling racism and classism. I think there's some opposition to the revival of Riot Grrrl on the grounds that it was a failure in this way, and we talked about bringing back this particular feminist punk movement as a way to question and maybe even solve these problems, rather than gloss over them. Writing a movement off because it wasn't perfect doesn't accomplish very much. But facing it head on, and finding other people who are willing to ask these questions and deal with these issues can be productive.

And after you find people to have these conversations with, you confront the futher difficulty of learning how to talk and express your opinions respectfully. You learn, or hopefully anyway, how to participate in meaningful dialogue that enriches everyone involved.

These are only some of the issues I hope to be more cognizant of in the coming weeks here at Rock and the Single Girl. I hope that I won't be alone in all of this, and I hope that readers out there will share your thoughts and concerns!


slanderous said...
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slanderous said...

As the plenary speaker who spoke about riot grrrl and its racism, I wish I could have been a part of the conversation about "what it all means" for a riot grrrl revival! I feel as if I often hear from younger women this sense that some of us oldies abandoned the fight -- and yes, many of us decided that punk was not our outlet for political or creative work anymore (because it broke our hearts, frankly), but we continue to do similar work in other arenas (a lot of us are academics or artists or activists or some combination). I know I sound like an old when I say this, but it was much, much harder to be a woman of color in the scene at the time, and I hate to think that our anger and disappointment might be read as "giving up," when many of us went on to make other multisubcultural spaces.

In any case, I'm glad that there's energy out there for reviving a punk feminism. I do think that any effort at a return to riot grrrl does need to tackle these questions of racism, classism, et cetera, head on, in ways that do not corral women of color to the position of reacting constantly to white women (which sucked a lot), which is how women of color are remembered in riot grrrl (as reacting, but not producing).

jamie said...

As someone who has chronic issues with getting her ass out of bed before 9, I wish I could have heard you speak! I shouldn't have spent so much time at the reception the night before.

Thank you so much for your comment, and thanks for supporting a revival of punk feminism! I haven't met many other riot grrrls of color, and I haven't really heard what "oldies" like yourself have to say about your experience with the movement. This makes me think about whose voices have been obscured in the History of Riot Grrrl narrative; you read about how the movement had race and class issues, and it's sort of made to seem like it didn't have any actual participants that weren't college age, middle class, young white women.

But even these few words on your experience makes me really excited to both listen and speak up about race and class issues with other punk feminist artists. Thank you for sharing!