four teen girls

Show Me Your Riffs: A love letter to Sleater-Kinney and reproductive rights

Ed. note: This post was originally published on the Community site.

In high school, my friend Jess made me a mix tape with Sleater-Kinney’s “Dig Me Out” on it, alongside some Tori Amos and some Smoking Popes. We played that thing into the ground, listening to it in my 1988 Saab as we zipped around back country roads during long, hot summer nights. It was 2000 and a time in our lives of rawness. Transitions every which way we turned; deep and unrequited crushes; the budding of even deeper female friendship; the untimely death of a beloved cousin. We held hands and loved each other, Jess and I. Later we grew apart, though I think somehow we knew that was coming. We knew we were entangled with each other in a moment that wasn’t meant to last but was meant to imprint on us forever. It was a time when everything felt like a lot. And Sleater-Kinney guitar riffs and pleading melodies somehow held it all.

Dig me out
Dig me in
Outta this mess baby outta my head

four teen girls

Baby riot grrrls c. 1998. Jess is on the right.

On a frigid night in October 2002, I pulled my hooded sweatshirt tight around me and headed to the Roxy to see SK as their One Beat tour hit Boston. I was in college at Boston University at the time, a nascent feminist. An un-cracked geode. I eschewed women’s studies courses because they seemed too obvious. But then I fell in love with Simone Weil. I broke up with a boyfriend that cautioned me one too many times against jaywalking. I was incensed that he would tell me what to do. The middle of three girls, raised by a Planned Parenthood loyalist mother and the most feminist man I knew, something was brewing deep within me. I walked intently through chilled Boston streets listening to “One Beat” on repeat as I crafted an escape plan to study abroad in Madrid the entire next year. The song was indignant and exciting. I still love it so fucking much. I was pushing myself toward the edge of my own independence. I recall my boyfriend at the time pleading, “Don’t go so far.” But that was not an option.

In one more hour
I will be gone
In one more hour
I’ll leave this room

I went from Boston to Madrid to Boston to India to New York and back to India, then Kenya, and onwards I kept going. Very soon into that ever-spiraling journey, the geode cracked. I discovered a gemstone palace of rock solid riot grrrl fierceness and an ever-burning passion for reproductive rights. Once you open your eyes, it’s hard not to. Friends and sisters and cousins and myself, we had been badgered, harassed, violated, and told we could not do things or decide things. The wave of retaliation was roiling and the seat of that power was what we’d had all along: our very own bodies.

You don’t own the situation, honey
You don’t own the stage
We’re here to join the conversation
And we’re here to raise the stakes
Now do you hear that sound

From Planned Parenthood client, I became a volunteer and then intern, and later an employee during the week and an abortion counselor in a Brooklyn clinic on the weekends. I held women’s hands while they got their abortion. I offered the only thing I felt I had amidst the swirling judgment, guilt, and fear that so many women weathered. I offered all the information I had, and myself as a support, validating that they were OK and that they deserved everything. I wanted nothing more than to fight, though not a militant type of fight. The fight that floats from the alchemy of Sleater-Kinney melodies-plus-lyrics: vulnerable, reaching, impassioned, sometimes pained, and always strong.

No more, No more, No more
And for all the ladies out there I wish
We could write more than the next marketing bid
Culture is what we make it, Yes it is
Now is the time, now is the time, now is the time
To invent, invent, invent, invent, invent, invent…

In 2011, I moved across the country to Seattle. Each trip down I-5 past Olympia still entails a scrambling, blurry photo of the Sleater Kinney Road exit, as if I don’t have enough of them. I often wear my homemade “Show Me Your Riffs” shirt to bed and think of my high school friend Jess. Last year I joined the Board of Directors for Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest, which covers reproductive services for most of Idaho.

Idaho is a state with disproportionately shitty reproductive access compared to neighboring Washington and Oregon. A 24-hour waiting period, a parental notification law, and a state-mandated informed consent class make getting an abortion like traversing a gauntlet. One thing women in Idaho do have access to, though, is Sleater-Kinney. It’s a rather poetic juxtaposition, which shouldn’t go unnoticed. I’m thinking about today while in Boise for their show — the second on their No Cities to Love tour.

Last week, I was on call for the CAIR Project, an abortion fund hotline that provides small grants to women across the Pacific Northwest who can’t afford their abortion. Last year we gave out $70,000 in small grants. I received nearly 70 calls in one week, many of them from Idaho. One women I talked to was four hours from the nearest clinic (there are only four clinics in all of Idaho). She was scraping together funds for a $400 procedure and also needed gas money for a friend willing to drive her four hours, each way, twice. That’s 16 hours of transit for an abortion. The reality of how deeply rotten the system was for her, in particular, and for every other woman in Idaho, hit me in the face.

“I’m so sorry that you have this burden,” I say. “It isn’t right and we wish it were different. We wish we could do something.” Steely but emotional, she says to me, “Well, it all comes down to my choices so it’s my fault.”

No. No it is god damn not her fault. It’s her burden, but it’s not her fault.

I’ve been crawling up so long on your stairway to Heaven
And now I no longer believe that I wanna get in
And will there always be concerts where women are raped
(Everywhere you go teenage is the rage)
Watch me make up my mind instead of my face
(Inside your pants, it’s on the front page)
The number one must have
(Everywhere you go it’s die or be born)
Is that we are safe

That week kind of ground me down. One 17-year-old had to get a judicial bypass in order to get her abortion. More than one woman I talked to had been raped, but in denial for months. One woman left a message that if her husband — who had just kicked her out — found out she was pregnant, he’d probably kill her. One woman wept in gratitude for an $87 grant, all we had left in our measly budget.

Funding abortions is probably the most riot grrrl thing I can think of to do. It is the most subversive and most emotional, important, and real thing I have done in many ways. And almost all of those women are going to Planned Parenthood clinics, wether in Idaho, or Washington, Alaska, or anywhere else in the US, where they offer them discounts, and payment plans, and more counseling and support than perhaps they have ever gotten elsewhere in their lives. There we trust women. There we riot for access and agency every single day. Amidst a clatter of broken systems, where racial, reproductive, economic injustices collude in the most evil ways, ensuring reproductive access is the most punk rock, hard core — and yet fundamental — thing we can do. It’s the melody amidst the cacophony. It’s the perfect Sleater-Kinney song.

Could you invent a world for me
I need to hear a symphony
If I’m to run the future
You’ve got to let the old world go, oh oh


Jess Mack is a Seattle-based riot grrrl. She is on the Board of Directors for Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and The CAIR Project, a northwest abortion fund.

Rabble rouser, reproductive rights advocate-r, fruit lover

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