Suffragette City: The Chicago Women's Liberation Rock Band by Ben Kim(1994)

(Editor's Note: This is a somewhat abridged version of an article that appeared in Chicago's alternative paper, New City in April of 1994)

Changing the lyrics, controlling the equipment, making low the mighty—these are obvious [although difficult] tasks of a feminist, humanitarian music. Divesting rock of its sexism, however, leads to a startling development apparently, one can’t simply make nice, clean revolutionary rock without the rock itself—the musical form—changing. Maybe the quality of that energy which so characterizes relic is modified when it is used for dancing and celebration rather than as an insistent, repetitive power trip to keep the audience awed, obedient, and flat on its back
—Naomi Weisstein and Virginia Blaisdell from “Feminist Rock: No More Balls and Chains” (1972)

“Wanna start your own rock band, its easier than you think,” claims an article in this month’s Sassy. In “Kicking Out the Jams: A How-To Guide,” Mary Ann Marshall breaks it down neatly, from step one: “Learn to play an instrument,” to step 11: “Shop your demo to labels.” The band illustrated is comprised like Sassy’s targeted readership, of adolescent girls.

Notwithstanding prevailing sexism on the radio/video airwaves, in clubland, on the charts, and in the industry in general, things have come a long way: the Sassy article isn’t some fantasy, it’s a nuts-and-bolts guide to what hundreds of women can do, will do, are doing. The riot-grrl phenomenon, which welled up just a few years ago in a bright-hot fusion of postfeminist politics and postpunk rock, selected the guitar as a tool every girl should have to build a secret world apart. As never before, it’s a time for women to rock. But 24 years ago, a group of Chicagoans said it was time. And they were early. That is, they were first.

The Chicago Women’s Liberation Rock Band was the self- described “agit-rock” arm of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union. Founded in 1969, the union was an umbrella organization, rooted in principles that came to be identified as socialist feminism, focusing on projects in education, service, and direct-action, by and for women (This predilection for action distinguished the union from its more theoretically oriented counterparts across the country, which emphasized consciousness-raising.)

These projects included the Liberation School which predated most women’s studies curricula), Graphics Collective, Legal Clinic, Prison Project, Direct Action for Rights of Employment (DARE), Speakers Bureau, Action Coalition for Decent Childcare (ACDC), Rape Crisis Center, and the renowned Abortion Counseling Service, Jane.

Naomi Weisstein organized the band in March of 1970. Though later in the decade punk rock would affirm that indeed “anyone can play”, feminism spread that plain truth to women early on. “Our early women’s movement said that any woman could do anything” Weisstein writes. (Due to ill health, Weisstein could not conduct a personal interview. Her comments are drawn, with consent, from a recent essay and correspondence, cited at the end of this piece.) “As long as a woman wanted to learn an instrument or wanted to sing, I included her as a member, believing that with positive expectations and a good deal of enthusiasm she could quickly learn what she didn’t know.”

Many lent their efforts during the initial months, and the band debuted in Grant Park that summer with 12 singers and 4 guitarists: by all accounts it was a musical disaster, proving the open membership policy untenable. Soon after, the band’s core lineup solidified: Susan Abod (bass, vocals), Sherry Jenkins (guitar, vocals), Patricia Miller (guitar, vocals), Linda Mitchell (manager), Fania Mantalvo (drums), Suzanne Prescott (drums). and Weisstein (keyboards).

“We were trying to tackle the form,” recalls Abod.“With the exception of Sherry, we were all coming from classical or folk backgrounds so it was a real challenge for us. We were just trying to get our technical skills together and get a strong backbeat.” If the band’s musical quality was initially shaky, the enthusiasm of the audience more than compensated. “I remember one of our first gigs, in January of 1971, at Alice’s Revisited (a popular coffeehouse on Wrightwood),” recalls Pat Solo, formerly Patricia Miller. “We were just terrible. And we got a standing ovation. Clearly it wasn’t just for the music.”

Abod remembers the gig, too. “The place was packed to the gills with women. After I sang my first song they roared. Musically, we were schlocking our way through. But there was so much love and support for what were trying to do. They just thought we were the greatest!”

Like the union itself, the band was about action, but steeped in ideology, born of it. The band theorized its purpose, debated its role, and even documented the course of its thoughts. In a “Work Group Analysis,” written late in 1972, the band saw itself expanding the union’s scope in a vital way. “(In the union) there was no awareness of how a culture shapes what people want and how they should want it. Aspects of culture such as music, poetry and art were frivolous (The union should) recognize the seriousness of our commitment to the Women’s Movement. We are more than an entertaining way to break the tensions that. come from ‘serious’ political work”.

Every band, to some extent, concentrates on extra-musical details, everything that might possibly define what it stands for— today’s indie rockers, for example, focus enormous attention on graphic design.

As an explicitly political entity, this band treated its every move as explicitly political—as a nominally leaderless collective, the band hashed out every decision at length. “We were riding this wave of tremendous change,” Abod notes.” And when you do that, stuff comes up. What are we going to say, how, and why. Who can and can’t do what and who says so. What does it mean for our power structure. It was political self-analysis at its gutsiest.”

Meetings and rehearsals placed heavy demands—a minimum of 15 hours a week, excluding performances—on the members, all who had full-time engagements as professionals or students. In this band, working out your part meant more than learning notes.

The band’s extraordinary self-consciousness combined with its dutiful self--chronicling, yields a rare, deep look into in idea in time. If its merely taking the stage was revolutionary, the band’s imperative to rock was radical in ways not readily apprehensible, as explained in a “Culture Paper” submitted to the union in early 1973:

We like rock and so do millions of others. There is creativity and music and a sense of joy in all of us. What rock told us, though, was that in order to be able to create this kind of music, you had to be magic, and you had to be male. And everybody accepted that. We accepted that, until the words got through to us, and we realized that we were despised. Why were we digging the celebrations of our degradation? Partly hype, partly real content. The hype was that this music was the new insurgency, that it was dangerous to the powers that were. And the content had to do with the music...We should tell it simply: we chose rock because we dug it so much. And so did many other people: every 14-year-old listens to rock music. Here was a cultural vehicle of great popularity, power and appeal. Maybe we could use it.

So they used rock to build q revolutionary, socialist feminist, humanist culture, first by writing politically charged lyrics, like the wonderfully angry “Secretary” (See Lyrics). But the band felt that lyrics weren’t enough.

We have to change the total experience of the rock performance,” the band writes in its Culture Paper. “We have to involve our audiences as equals, include rather than insult them, respect rather than degrade them, play for them rather than at them, acknowledge that our audience is our life, our understanding, our spirit... We keep the house lights on them. We rap a lot with them.. .We do theater for them and with them...We pass out lyrics, teach them songs, and have them sing along.”

The band’s assault on male rock hegemony, simultaneously straightforward and tricky, used both music and humor. The latter came out primarily during the raps and theater. Abod recalls one particular crowd-phasing routine. “We did the Kinks ‘ You Really Got Me’ but with a whole new set of lyrics that started with ‘Man,’ instead of ‘Girl,’ and we pranced holding our ‘cocks’ like Mick Jagger. Or whatever rock star we found really annoying, and it would just look ridiculous. And the audience was totally into the guerrilla theater of it—they’d shriek and grab at our legs like groupies. It was so much fun, laughing at a culture that had kept us down.”

"We have been able to create an alternative to the total macho rock culture," the band wrote in its Work Group Analysis. In moving apart, they created a dialectic with that culture, casing Guyville and vandalizing its main street, mapping the regions of disgust and awe in a Mick Jagger, world not of their own making that would inescapably define their exile from it—all this around the time Liz Phair was gearing up for kindergarten.

All through 1971 and ‘72, the band racked up more gigs, traveling to Colorado Springs, Indianapolis, Ithaca, Lewisburg, Pittsburgh, Toronto and elsewhere, and playing locally at universities (U of C, UIC) Wobbly Hall on Lincoln, and the People’s Church on Lawrence. “Women are welcome to come with us on out-of-town gigs as space and money permits,” they wrote to union members. “Be willing to work a little and drink some”.

They got better as they played. And though clearly making history all along, the band was eventually able to freeze its moment in vinyl for posterity. In the spring of ‘72 they journeyed to Massachusetts, where, along with their counterparts in the New Haven Women’s Liberation Rack Band, they recorded on album for Rounder Records. “Mountain Moving Day” was released that fall, with each band contributing one side.

“We were perfectionists, so we weren’t satisfied with the product,” admits Abod. “We worked really hard on our stuff, and it still wasn’t where we wanted it so be.” Nevertheless, on “Mountain Moving Music” the band displays more than a fair amount of musicianship and spirit. The Chicago group contributes the mid-tempo rocker “Secretary:” the bluesy “Ain’t Gonna Marry,” a rag called “Papa” which transforms the traditional “Keep On Truckin'’ Mama” into an attack on —“Rolling Stones, Blood Sweat and Tears/I’ve. taken that shit for too many years”, and the stirring title ballad. Though “Mountain Moving Music” doesn’t rock hard by conventional standards, its strong convictions lend it considerable weight. In a sense, it’s the mother of riot grrl. foxcore, any rock by women who ask no quarter.

The band broke up in mid-1973, after Weisstein moved to the East Coast. The union continued until 1977. The others wrote to the union, upon dissolution, that “expanding a feminist vision through titanic will continue by the formation of new bands,” This, then, is the legacy of these women who played hard and thought rigorously—the very idea, so very empowering, of women rocking, echoed today in the riot grrl call for."all girls to be in bands."

"A lot of women came up to me after our shows and said,'I want to do that,'” remembers Abod. "and we tried to make them understood that they could. Any of them could. And I think a lot of them did."

“Our music is embedded in a context, Women’s Liberation and a vision of our possibilities as women,” the band wrote in its Work Group Analysis. The riot grrls dramatically reclaim that context just as Sassy—"This starting-a- band business is quite a committment...but if its something you’re meant to do, you’ll breeze right through it"-blithely accepts that birthright. And both versions--the battle still raging, the victory won—feel like progress. The vision of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Rock Band is a girl’s picture of herself rocking today. Rocking like it can change the world—like it’s the most natural thing in the world.


Woman symbol