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Adventures in Feministory: Vi Subversa

Vi Subversa onstageVi Subversa took late '70s British punk idealism and held it up to its own values. She challenged the seas of angry, violent young men that crowded British clubs and opened punk up for personal expression. With her band the Poison Girls, she forged a path of punk rock that examined the politics of everyday life. And, who else can say they released their first single when they were a 44-year-old mother of two?

Being punk in the late '70s could be dangerous, especially if you stood out. A group of anarchist punks including Crass, the Poison Girls, and Conflict set themselves apart with their explicit non-violent and radical values. Crass and the Poison Girls occupied squats outside London near each other, toured together and released records together.

The stakes of living and playing were only raised by the ever-constant specter of the National Front looming at gigs. Crass and the Poison Girls took the chance of not banning National Fronters from shows in hopes of converting some kids. Sometimes this worked, other times it ended up in the bands being chased offstage. The threat of being physically assaulted onstage didn't dissuade Vi Subversa and her Poison Girls, however, and they played for a fruitful 13 years, from 1976 to 1989.

I think we can all take note from Subversa's exuberance and joy in the early Girls' recordings; they didn't play the hardscrabble noise of Crass, their music was poppy and joyous. But even their boundless energy couldn't sustain their ideals; the disappointment of playing to nearly-all-male audiences and seeing so little change in the punk community wore them out over the years. The kind of change in punk Vi Subversa demanded didn't start to happen until the mid '90s, with the explosion of riot grrrl. Long before any others, Subversa challenged the machisimo, the violence, the ageism, and most importantly, the privilege in the punk institution. 

I'll leave you with "Jump, Mama, Jump," one of the Girls' first songs. Subversa explores her own experiences as a mom, kicking off the song by shouting for any punk mothers to "come out of hiding." The Girls immediately kick into high gear, racing through the track with the frenetic energy of their brothers and sisters in Crass, but it's the opening 15 seconds that embody exactly what excites me about punk: Like-minded people are out there, but sometimes you have to shout to find them.

Previously: Adventures in Feministory: Elaine May, Adventures in Feministory: Ella Baker

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