Why Women Find a Home in Punk
by Kristine Villanueva
I can remember my first punk show. It was at Smacktone, a small studio space in the middle of nowhere, New Jersey. I count it as my first because it not only featured local punk bands, but was a product of the punk ethos — completely DIY. The previous shows I went to lacked inclusivity that’s often attributed to the punk community. For the first time, I was a spectator in an actual scene, one where people seemed free to do their own thing.
I was enamored by a mostly-female band that dominated the stage. It was obvious by dancing feet and nodding heads that the crowd felt the same. I craved seeing more strong, unapologetic women on stage but came to find that women often had to navigate through a number of barriers in order to reach the spotlight.
“In terms of actual barriers to my career, I definitely had to fight to a lot of sexism to get to where I am now,” said Freya Wilcox, frontwoman of the blues-punk trio Freya Wilcox and the Howl.
Hailing from the Sunshine Coast in Australia, Wilcox has been playing guitar since she was nine years old (and “annoying” people with constant singing way before then). Wilcox made her way to the grungy stages of New York City when she was 19. There, she met her bandmates Craig Shay and CJ Dunaieff.
Since then, Wilcox has faced numerous challenges as a female musician, from criticism on her screaming to guys in the studio altering her guitar and vocals to sound softer and way less rock n’ roll. One sound engineer at a show even interrupted her during her set.
“I swear to god this would never fucking happen to a dude,” Wilcox said. “He comes up to me in the middle of a song, while I’m singing and playing, and tells me I have to turn around and turn my amp down and I was like bro, what the fuck are you doing?”
After all she’s endured, Wilcox says she’s grown as both a musician and performer.
“I’m not really afraid of that treatment anymore,” she said. “I demand that respect rather than feeling like I have to earn it.”
Women in punk have long been active in the scene since its inception. Alice Bag of the Bags, who was at the forefront of LA’s then emerging 70’s punk scene, was one of many who observed the growing lack of diversity.
“I didn’t see sexism in the punk scene until years later, when it became male dominated,” Bag explained in an interview with Huck Magazine. “I had come to expect the audiences at punk shows to be populated by extravagantly plumed creatures of all shapes, sizes, colors and genders whose very appearance cried out originality. Suddenly, there was an eerie sameness.”
Similar to the Slits during the 70’s punk era in London, the Riot Grrrl movement in the 90’s aimed to end the endemic sexism rooted in the punk scene. Bands like Sleater-Kinney and Bikini Kill continue to inspire females punks of present day. Despite the gender disparity, there’s a reason why women have fought hard for their place punk — they call it their home.
Marissa Paternoster of Screaming Females described her excitement the first time she went to a punk show in New Brunswick, New Jersey, while she attended the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University.
“I felt so overwhelmed because I’ve been looking for that space for so long I think I had a panic attack and had to leave,” she said.
Paternoster’s interest in punk rock started with Nirvana. Then her dad taught her some guitar basics and she learned how to jam with classmates during music club in high school. There she met King Mike who later became the bassist for Screaming Females.
Paternoster said that the music scene in New Brunswick was so tight-knit, it felt, “a lot like music club” and isolated enough that hardly anyone in the scene paid attention to what was happening in the mainstream.
“We just wanted to have fun at the shows that we threw and there were a lot of really powerful amazing women playing in bands and not even giving it a second thought,” Paternoster said.
It wasn’t until she started playing bigger shows and touring did she notice that she was one of a handful of women that made their way to the stage.
“Sometimes, I’d be feeling a little lonely for the company of other women,” she said. “But other than that it’s just like, I always just saw myself as like, a punk — until people were like, ‘hey, you’re a woman too!’ And I was like “‘oh yes, so?”’
Paternoster accomplished a great deal since then, from touring around the world to being named one of Spin Magazine’s top 100 guitarists of all time. She also feels that punk has given her a sense of community and belonging.
“My life as a working musician has been very wonderful,” she said. “I still navigate the world as a gay woman who is not particularly feminine, so with that being said, since those two things are inextricably linked, I’ve definitely endured, you know, kids calling me a fag and a lot of self doubt and self hatred and being closeted until I was 20 years old.
“Punk gave me a world where there wasn’t that kind of bigotry and hatred, even though it exists within every community,” she continued. “Ideally, in this punk world that I created in my teenage mind to this enclave of like-minded people, in a way I really have found all the weirdos who love music and art and dedicate their lives to it and are gender fluid and so for all of its deposits, I’d say punk has improved my life by leaps and bounds, from what it was before I was a part of it.”
Kristine Villanueva is a New Jersey based writer and journalism graduate from Rutgers University — Newark. She’s covered the greater New Jersey and New York area on arts, culture, and social change. She previously worked as a communications associate at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and is an incoming student at the CUNY Graduate School for Social Journalism. You can follow her on Twitter and instagram at @kristine_ish.