Updated: Oct 24, 2021
About a year ago I wrote a blog post about the DC Punk scene, which eventually turned into my “District of Punk” downtown walking tour. Consider this a follow up to that post, but this time I’m focusing on the women of the DC scene. Early girl-punks in the late 70s/early 80s made up as much as half of the punk community, though that started to change by the mid-80s for various reasons. Nonetheless, women made significant contributions to DC punk and harDCore scenes as musicians, organizers, and documenters of this unique part of DC history. Here’s just a few of the DC women who made their mark.
During her first year at University of Maryland, Sharon Cheslow got a job at the punk-music supporting record store Yesterday and Today in Rockville. There she met Ian and Alec MacKaye and they became tight-knit group that would serve as pillars of the teen punk community, attending shows, starting bands, and documenting the scene. Cheslow founded Chalk Circle with her friend Anne Bonafede, the first DC all-girl punk band. They faced derision when they started performing, sadly. For example, when Chalk Circle opened for R.E.M (a DC band that preceded the Athens-based R.E.M.) and Velvet Monkeys at d.c. space, a writer for a local zine called it “bimbo night” and said they were boring. Chalk Circle persisted for a couple of years, happy to be performing as opposed to being in the background as someone’s girlfriend or coat-holder. Sharon also authored several zines and establishing a small cassette label “WGNS” or We Got No Station, referencing the demise of the first radio stations to play punk in DC, WGTB, that had been shut down in 1979. She would join another band “Suture” in the late 80s/90s with Kathleen Hanna, one of the founding members of another female band, Bikini Kill. Cheslow, along with Cynthia Connolly and Leslie Clague, authored Banned in DC, a photo and anecdotal collection from the 80s punk scene. She now lives in California as an artist and makes experimental music.
Amy Pickering was one of the core members of the punk community that worked at Dischord Records, the record label founded by the members of the DC band Teen Idles that included Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson. In 1985, the DC scene was having something of an identity crisis. The earlier core members of the scene that were connected with Dischord put an emphasis on community and being inclusive. However, as the scene grew and attracted a larger audience it had become increasingly violent, negative and misogynistic, with a rising White Supremacist element. Pickering was working at the Neighborhood Planning Council in DC at the time, and between her observations of the downturn of the scene and also the events unfolding in South Africa (the lead up to the eventual end of apartheid), she felt the need to just DO something. So she started sending out unsigned ransom notes to those members of the punk scene connected to Dischord, inviting them to action to fight this negative element, while also bringing attention to injustice happening in the world. This was the beginning of “Revolution Summer.” Bands that formed during this time included Gray Matter, Beefeater, and Rites of Spring. Beefeater played during protests in front of the South African Embassy, and at a benefit show they played at 9:30 Club their lead singer Tomas Squip made a dedication to Pickering as the mother of the Revolution. For a while, Revolution Summer reinvigorated the original tenets of the early DC punk scene.
Pickering also founded the band “Fire Party,” another all-girl band that wanted to be recognized for their musical ability, rather than their gender. Amy dedicated one of Fire Party's first shows to Toni Young, a young black woman who had been part of the early DC scene. Formerly the bassist of the band Red-C, Toni had left punk in 1984 but kept in touch with community members. Sadly, she died of pneumonia shortly before the Fire Party show, but was remembered for her participation and support of the music. Black women were most definitely present in the DC scene, which had notable members of the black community (see Bad Brains). Nonetheless, Toni faced criticism from her family and friends for her interest in punk, which was still considered largely a white scene. Nonetheless, black women played in bands, attended shows, and supported music. For example, Fire Party had a black female drummer named Nicky Thomas. Not quite a positive influence but a figure nonetheless was Kendall Hall, or Lefty as she was better known. Lefty was black but ironically drawn to the skinheads that emulated an element of the British scene that was known for its racism and intolerance. She ended up becoming the leader of a skinhead gang that was notoriously aggressive, beating up gay men in Dupont Circle, starting fights in shows, and bringing an undeniably violent element to the scene, which led to a backlash led by Pickering and others.
Pickering observed this growing aggressiveness in the scene via the habitual violent slam dancing that became common at shows. Shows had always had a physical aspect to them. As DC native Henry Garfield (later Rollins) would say, “It’s just letting go, just going off” to deal with feelings of anger or frustration. Unfortunately this aspect of the scene would contribute to the decision of many women to remove themselves from the center of activity, literally. Men made it less comfortable for women in other ways. Monica Richards recounted a time when she and her band Madhouse were playing a show at the Wilson Center (formerly at 15th and Irving Street NW) and some skinheads were taunting her from the audience, throwing lit cigarettes at her and telling her to take her shirt off. She then queued the band to start playing a song she had written about rape to make a point about sexual harassment. The point was unfortunately lost, and the taunts became even worse. Her bandmate Danny Ingram would confront the skinheads and drive them off, but that show drove her to break from the harDCore scene (this happened before Revolution Summer). When recounting this instance during a conversation I had with Leslie Clague, one of the authors of “Banned in DC”, she noted that regardless of the harassment the girls didn’t consider themselves victims. They typically toughed it out, defended themselves, and just kept on.
Cynthia Connolly and Leslie Clague were two of the greatest documentarians of the scene. I had the privilege of speaking with both of them in preparation for the tours and this blog post. Cynthia was an early adherent, having moved to DC from California. She became introduced to the scene while reporting on it for the LA fanzine, Flipside. She would later become the booker for d.c. space, giving her a certain place of power that allowed her to promote local punk bands along with other genres of local original music and also organize benefit shows for local community causes. She described that neighborhood (downtown, now called Gallery Place, named after the Metro Station name) back in the 80s as having a certain smell of rotting wood as many of the old buildings were literally decaying. That area was very run down at the time, nearly deserted at night, which is why so many experimental music venues like d.c. space and 9:30 Club popped up. There were also a lot of art studios. Very close to Ian MacKaye, she was also a supporter of Minor Threat and Dischord Records, to which she is still connected. She, Sharon Cheslow, and Leslie Clague first published “Banned in DC,” a collection of photographs, flyers, zine covers, and anecdotes from the scene in 1988. Leslie Clague took many of those photographs, fighting to get good shots at shows in which male photographers assumed primacy. Banned in DC has since been republished over six times over the last thirty years. Cynthia would go on primarily as a photographer not only about the music scene but as a fine art photographer and still resides in the DC area as an artist and curator and now works as Special Project Curator for Arlington County, Virginia. Leslie Clague also continued as a photographer and artist, moving to Seattle and now residing in Pittsburgh.
As the 80s gave way to the 90s, the scene became more open to women, who continued asserting themselves more into the Punk and music world. Bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile became strong female voices. While Bikini Kill originated in Washington State, they found a home in the DC scene. Bikini Kill’s lead singer Kathleen Hanna and drummer Tobi Vail would found Riot Grrrl, a zine and movement that promoted female rockers. They also organized meetings for women in the scene to discuss challenges, issues, music, etc. There was more emphasis on making space for women as well, with flyers being passed out at shows discouraging slam dancing, and benefit shows being put on for women’s shelters. Bikini Kill was a link between the Washington State and Washington, DC punk scenes, with Hanna apparently inspiring Kurt Cobain to name Nirvana’s first commercially successful song “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Riot Grrl had become a full-on movement, with a range of supporters. The 90s would see a rise in strong rock front women, with Kathleen Hanna, Courney Love, Liz Phair, Shirley Manson of Garbage, and others taking their places as Queens of Rock.
One of the things that I found remarkable about women in the DC Punk scene was the role they took in documenting it, as much as being participants. Cynthia Connolly, Amy Pickering, Sharon Cheslow, Leslie Clague and others were behind the scenes zines, reviewing bands, and taking photos. They also maintained their presence, despite the harassment and what we may call today as their marginalization. Yes, during the height of the scene they were the minority, but if you ask them they wouldn't say they were victims. Nonetheless, it's my opinion that they laid the groundwork for the grrrl bands that came later in the 90s and beyond. Carrying on with the legacy of documenting the punk scene, but specifically focusing on the women, was Antonia Tricario, who wrote “Frame of Mind.” So hooray for the girl-punks, hooray for the chicks who rock, hooray for those who persisted in a male-dominated music form.
The next District of Punk walking tour is happening on October 28th, a week from today! Tour kicks off in front of the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metro station’s exit on 7th and F Street, at 6pm. We end in front of the MLK Jr. Memorial Library, where there is an option to view their new exhibit on the People’s Archive, including a whole section on the DC Punk Archive! You can sign up for the tour here.
You can also buy copies of "Banned in DC" at Politics and Prose or directly from Cynthia Connolly's website here.
In addition, there will be an exhibit called "In My Eyes" of work by one of the documenters of the DC punk scene, Jim Saah, at the Lost Origins Gallery in Mount Pleasant. The exhibit kicks off on October 23rd with an opening reception, and will run until December 31st. Information can be found here.