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Music

The album that inspired Kathleen Hanna’s feminist journey

Kathleen Hanna has made a prominent name for herself not only as a musician but as an important feminist icon through her ongoing campaign for gender equality. She had been inspired to be a feminist from a young age by her mother who was a strong believer in the cause. When Hanna was just nine years old, her mother took her to a feminist rally in Washington D.C. where she was transfixed by a speech made by political activist and feminist icon Gloria Steinem. 

In an interview with BUST magazine in 2000, Hanna recalled: “My mom was a housewife and wasn’t somebody that people would think of as a feminist, and when Ms. magazine came out we were incredibly inspired by it. I used to cut pictures out of it and make posters that said ‘Girls can do anything’, and stuff like that, and my mom was inspired to work at a basement of a church doing anti-domestic violence work. Then she took me to the Solidarity Day thing, and it was the first time I had ever been in a big crowd of women yelling, and it really made me want to do it forever.”

While a student at The Evergreen State College, Olympia in the late 1980s, Hanna would pay her student fees with a job as a stripper. Meanwhile, she was always finding time to combine her love for the arts with her feminist ideology. She set up photography exhibitions with fellow students to communicate the issues in society including sexism, domestic violence, and the AIDS outbreak which was a particularly prominent issue at the time. 

With a significant passion and aptitude for music, Hanna was regularly in and out of performances both solo and in collaboration often performing spoken word compositions that would become another outlet for her activism. By 1989, she had formed her first notable band, Bikini Kill. With her band, she began to reach a wider audience spreading the good word of feminism through the loud voice of punk-rock. From here, Hanna would go on to be among the most important names in the modern feminist movement.

When asked about her greatest musical influences, Kathleen Hanna cited Carole King as her role model and her 1971 masterpiece Tapestry as one of her favourite albums as it has stuck with her through thick and thin, ever-relevant and ever-powerful. She said of Tapestry: “I listened to that record non-stop, it was a record that was in my house when I was really small and I knew the whole thing back and forward by the time I was six years old, as that’s one of the many times we moved. I remember listening to the song ‘So Far Away’ in our station wagon as it pulled away from my neighbourhood and waving goodbye to my best friend. Throughout my life, I’ve had a different favourite song on that record for a different reason and it sort of stayed with me.”

She continued about Carole King: “I think her story is so interesting, too, of starting out as a songwriter and not feeling confident and then deciding to put out her own songs with her own voice. That was a really empowering story when I finally learnt it. I just thought she was this cool, powerful ‘70s woman with her curly hair and swirly skirts. I found her fascinating as a person as well, like a role model. She played piano, sang and wrote the songs, and everyone knew that it was really implicit at the time, that it was her album.”

Adding: “A lot of singers, male and female, were singing songs written by other people and Carole King had been writing songs for those people, then this album was like, ‘I’m writing it for myself’. I didn’t know she wrote ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow?’ until I heard her sing it and her version was so different than the popular version that I’d heard and I was like, ‘Wow!’ It was a great album in the vein of [Michael Jackson’s] Thriller – every song on that record could be a hit. And it was like she made it; I knew a woman made it from start to finish and I knew I could write songs. It was something that everybody had that was very popular that actually still holds water and it’s really good.”

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