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Grrrls Like Us: Intro to Riot Grrrl & Heavens to Betsy

Heaven’s To Betsy: Nothing can Stop Me Now: (Video-1991)

In the late 80's-early, 90's most punk and grunge scenes were extremely male-dominated and sexist. In the early 1990s, a counter-feminist DIY music movement in Olympia, Washington, was starting up by girls and women writing zines and starting their own female punk bands.

Bands like Heavens to Betsy, Bikini Kill, 7 Year Bitch, and Bratmobile courageously found/made their own space in the punk rock scene. The new music platform allowed girls+women to feel comfortable while also speaking(or singing) about important issues inside the punk community regarding sexism, sexual assault, eating disorders, and many more.

Via Riot Grrrl Archives

I was first introduced to riot grrrl at the age of 4 when I first heard my father play L7's 1992 record, "Bricks are Heavy." It immediately became my favorite band, and I gave them the nickname "The Four Angry Chicks," most likely because of their rowdy shows and on-stage stunts. While L7 isn't explicitly riot grrrl, they are often lumped into the movement due to their sound. It would be years later before I would see them in concert at Slims in San Francisco. In the time in between, I took a fondness for Bikini Kill, The Regrettes, Skinny Girl Diet, Fea, and Heavens to Betsy, among others.

I had the honor of interviewing Tracy Sawyer, the former drummer, co-vocalist, and occasional bassist of Heavens to Betsy. Heavens to Betsy was one of the first riot grrrl bands. The band played in the International Pop Underground Convention, which is now considered one of the big take-off points for the riot grrrl movement. I have been listening to Heavens to Betsy for a couple of years, so this was an exciting interview to conduct. Violet Reed, December 2020

Via Hannah Sternshein

How did the name Heavens to Betsy come about in the first place?

Tracy Sawyer (TS): During the summer of 1990, before my senior year in high school, Corin and I took a train trip across the country. She was a year older than me and was going to be starting college in Olympia. During that trip, we started talking seriously about playing music together. We ended up staying in Georgia for a few weeks and bought part of a drumset and just started to play right away.

Neither of us had played music before, but we pretty much decided then and there that we were a band and would be called Heavens to Betsy. I can't remember the reason we landed on that name.

What motivated you to make music, and what other bands were you inspired by?

TS: Corin and I always loved music and would often spend nights together listening to music. We had been friends since middle school. One of the things that brought us together was our love for music. In high school, I listened to a wide selection of music such as Fugazi, Operation Ivy, The Cramps, Alice Cooper, and still, except for Poison Ivy in The Cramps, all-male bands. Corin moved to Olympia and saw Bikini Kill, and that is kind of when it all changed. I remember her calling me, so excited and inspired to get our band started for real.

You and your then bandmate Corin Tucker were pretty young when you started Heavens to Betsy. What was that like?

TS: We were young, but it was a very young scene. When I started making trips to Olympia, I was still in high school. Molly and Allison from Bratmobile were going to college in Eugene. They would take trips up to Olympia often so I could catch rides with them. I was fortunate to have a very trusting and permissive mom, so I enjoyed a lot of freedom, like heading to Olympia to see shows on the weekend. Many of the people I met at shows were either still in high school or only recently out. So, I never felt particularly young in comparison. I remembered our first tour in 1992, and driving across the country was the first time it hit me how young we were (I think we were all between the ages of 19-21). We played a couple of shows where I could only hang out in a roped-off section because I was under 21. Thank you to Tracy Sawyer (pictured above) for the photo.

Via New York University Fales Library + Riot Grrrl Archives

Do you think your music was well received in the riot grrrl/ punk community in Olympia, or did you get some backlash?

TS: For the most part, we were pretty well received in our community. Our first show was the Summer of 1991 at the IPU (International Punk Underground) festival in Olympia. I had just graduated high school, had hardly played music at all, much less in front of a crowd. They opened the festival with a Women's night, and we were either the first or second band to play. We only played 2 songs, but everyone was cheering and so supportive, which motivated us to continue. We definitely felt some backlash later on, especially outside of our little bubble. This was mostly due to our feminist lyrics and the fact that some thought we should be better musicians if we were going to be up on stage.

Bratmobile Photo Via Pat Graham

What impact do you feel Heavens to Betsy had on other riot grrrl bands or the riot grrrl scene in general?

TS: I think we inspired girls who may have never had the confidence to play music before to just get out and do it. We started off very rough and unconventional as a 2 piece band and frequently switched our instruments around. We were just learning as we went along but felt we always had something to say, and the music was the best way to do it.

I think many girls saw that and were inspired to do the same.

To finish it all off, what advice would you give to other girls or women that want to start a band or have their voices heard in their community?

TS: Don't be afraid and don't let anyone tell you things need to be done a certain way. We are way beyond the idea that a band has to consist of guitar, bass, drums, vocals. Don't get hung up on needing to sound "good" to play. I am always telling my own kids the same advice. They often get behind the drums or any other instrument and get frustrated if they don't immediately sound like the music they listen to.

Via Fales Library NYU + The Regrettes in 2019 via Morgan Hotston/Aesthetic Magazine

Final Comments: Criticism & Resurgence

From the late 90's- 2010s riot grrrl started to receive heavy criticism and not only from men but also from other women inside the scene. While the riot grrrl scene had managed to reduce the sexism in many punk scenes, they had created a few problems within their own movement. Most of the riot grrrl scene was white. Some of the women were T.E.R.Fs(Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists). A term used to support statements such as trans women aren't women, should not have rights, and/or excluded trans women in women's spaces. Many of the original riot grrrls like Kathleen Hannah have come out to say that this is not what the original intent of the riot grrrl movement was in the first place and that she supports trans rights.

The original riot grrrl movement ended for several reasons. Many of the riot grrrl bands were disbanding, including Bikini Kill. Riot grrrl isn't gone; it's far from it.

Riot grrrl is currently having a considerable resurgence due to social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram. Users are attempting to keep a more accepting space for diverse women.

There are also more new riot grrrl/ riot grrrl bands emerging today, such as The Regrettes, Slutever, Mommy Long Legs, and Skinny Girl Diet. These bands are essential to keep the grrrl music movement alive and evolving.


Via Riot Grrrl Archives

Other article and Information about Riot Grrrl:

Riot Grrrl United Feminism and Punk (2019): by Evelyn McDonnell and Elisabeth Vincentelli

A Brief Visual History of Riot Grrrl Zines (2010) By Flavorwire Staff

Essential Riot Grrl playlist: Rolling Stone Magazine

More info on TERF:

Trans Ggrrrl Riot Part One-Was riot grrl transphobic? by Dr. Ruth Piece (2018)


Violet Reed is 15 and enjoys skating, surfing, music, and collaging. She is a key member of the 2020 withitgirl team. Violet contributes to writing, collages, and creating unique content for the withitgirl Tik Tok platform.

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