Kathleen Hanna is an American musician, writer and feminist activist. She was central to the creation of the seminal riot grrl movement and is often credited with helping to mould the principles of third-wave feminism.
She was born in Portland, Oregon in 1968. Her family moved several times during her childhood but, following her parents’ divorce, Kathleen returned to Portland where she attended high school. In the late 1980s, she moved to Olympia in Washington to study Photography at Evergreen State College and supported herself there by working as a stripper. She was known as the “Cheeseball Stripper” and wasn’t exactly conventional. “My really big move was Papa Don’t Preach by Madonna,” she says. “I would stick my stomach out like I was pregnant. And then I would do Mama Said Knock You Out by LL Cool J and I would fake-box.”
Whilst at Evergreen, Kathleen organised a photography exhibition focusing on feminist issues but the college authorities removed her photographs before anyone had an opportunity to see them. This censoring of her work prompted what she describes as her “First foray into activism”; together with a group of female friends she set up an independent feminist art gallery called Reko Muse and a punk rock band called Amy Carter which would play live gigs at the venue’s exhibitions.
For a while Kathleen also gave spoken word performances challenging sexism and violence against women but, on the advice of writer, Kathy Acker, she decided to concentrate solely on music. She soon started a new band called Viva Knieval and embarked on a US tour.
On her return she formed a new group, the legendary Bikini Kill, with punk zine writer, Tobi Vail, and two other friends. The band quickly became a stalwart of the Olympia music scene during the early 1990s. In addition to extensive gigs throughout the USA, the band also toured in Australia, Europe and Japan and released a number of albums and singles.
Acutely politically aware, their music centred on feminist issues; sexuality, patriarchy, sexual and domestic violence and female empowerment. Kathleen’s lyrics were particularly focused on equality for women and on the importance of women dressing, behaving and expressing themselves in any way they wished, rejecting societal expectations and norms. Several Bikini Kill songs, such as The Anti-Pleasure Dissertation and Rebel Girl, became punk feminist anthems.
At live gigs, Kathleen would insist on women moving to the front of the stage, thus avoiding harassment and abuse from male attendees. This created a safe space for women at gigs and encouraged their participation. Of course, Kathleen’s championing of ‘Girls to the front’ caused a backlash of abuse and threats from males in the audience but her live performances were never anything less than defiant and empowering.
In 1991 Bikini Kill spent a summer in Washington DC and there Kathleen began collaborating with several other women on the punk zine Riot grrrl. It promoted greater female involvement and feminist activity in the male-centric punk scene. It inspired and encouraged women of the genre to take up space and express themselves in ways that they previously had not felt able to do.
Extending rapidly beyond its musical roots, Riot grrrl became a consciousness-raising and organised movement involving visual art, activist meetings, writing, political action and even a World Wide Web base. It told women and girls that they could and should have a voice. Many commentators have made the link between the Riot grrrl movement and the rise of Third Wave Feminism, stressing the importance and influence of Kathleen on both.
When Bikini Kill disbanded amicably in 1998, Kathleen then began work on a solo project called Julie Ruin, releasing an album under that pseudonym which was in part inspired by feminist theorist Julia Kristeva.
In 2000 Kathleen moved to New York and, together with writer, Johanna Fateman, and filmmaker Sadie Benning, created a band called Le Tigre. Kathleen was forced to leave the band in 2005 having developed serious health issues. In 2010, she announced she was reworking her former project, renaming it The Julie Ruin and creating a full band. The group played its first live gig in December that year.
Between 2010 and 2013 film director Sini Anderson worked on a documentary of Kathleen’s life entitled The Punk Singer. In the film Kathleen revealed that she had suffered from the chronic and debilitating effects of Lyme disease for six years. Her condition deteriorated in 2014, forcing her to step back from her work and embark on an extensive course of treatment.
Thankfully, in 2015, she reported that her condition was hugely improved and that she is Lyme free. She has since begun performing and recording again and her most recent album, Hit Reset, was released earlier this year.
She remains vociferous in her fight for female equality and empowerment and in her opposition to violence against women. She is frequently described as a feminist icon and has more than earned that title.