Naomi Weisstein: The First Riot Grrrl
Naomi Weisstein. ©Virginia Blaisdell.
Most rock and roll music fans are at least peripherally aware of the 1990s woman-fronted Riot Grrrl music scene that arose in the 1990s in the Pacific Northwestern United States. While researching that movement for another project, I began looking into how feminism evolved in rock music. I discovered an artist (and scientist!) that I would hold up as an early example of true capital F Feminism in rock music.
Naomi Weisstein was a young neuroscientist studying at the University of Chicago in the 1960s. In 1966, Weisstein, along with other like-minded feminist activists, formed the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, “an organization that galvanized second-wave feminism in the city.” In 1970, partially inspired by and in response to the overtly misogynistic lyrics of the Rolling Stones’ Under My Thumb, Weisstein formed the Chicago Women's Liberation Rock Band.
Naomi declared that “My rock band would have women playing instruments, and women singing about how smart, strong, funny, and hip we were, and how we would have sex only on our own terms, thank you. And we would get so good that soon we would saturate the air waves, inundating teenage girls—inundating all women—with a new kind of pop musical culture—hilarious, joyful, playful, and taking no **** from no one.” Weisstein’s visionary group of women musicians would stay together for three years, performing at coffee houses, youth camps, universities, and one time, hilariously, at the 1971 Second Annual Third World Drag Queen Ball in Chicago. (Yes, really.) The band released one album, “Papa, Don’t Lay that **** on Me” which was remastered and re-released on CD in 2005.
Naomi Weisstein passed away in 2015 of ovarian cancer, having led a life devoted to disruption and change, in both rock music and in the world of science. It is well worth remembering Weisstein and the idealism and optimism with which she approached her work toward social justice and equality.
Naomi Weisstein, second from left. [Chicago Women’s Liberation Rock Band cover photo (1972) “Papa, Don’t Lay that **** on Me,” 2005 Rounder Records reissue.]