Unless you were into very underground punk in the early ’80s, you probably don’t know Frightwig–but you should. They were perhaps the first all-female DIY punk band, and they blazed a trail from San Francisco across the U.S. in the name of feminist rock ‘n’ roll. Along the way, they influenced younger musicians like Courtney Love and Bikini Kill, planting an early seed for the riot grrrl movement that followed in the ’90s.
The chemistry of Frightwig has changed a bit with Eric Drew Feldman on keys, but singer and bass player Deanna Ashley Mitchell, who turns 56 Tuesday, remains an outspoken fighter for women’s rights. She’s leading Frightwig in an East Coast crusade that kicks off Monday, Sept. 8, at The Knitting Factory (with Jane Lee Hooker also performing) and culminates in the We Are Women Constitution Day Rally next weekend in Washington, D.C. We spoke to Deanna about women in music, women’s rights in America, and male strippers.
How have the roles of women in the music industry today evolved from when you started?
When we were touring a lot [in the 80s], it was a rare thing to have a female band. There were The Go-Gos and The Bangles. Of course Joan Jett was doing her thing. The Runaways were done. But it was pretty limited for female bands, especially ones who got in a van with their equipment, traveled across the country, sleeping at people’s houses, making t-shirts on people’s lawns. You know, the DIY method. That’s what we did. And we played with all these male bands that were gentlemen to us, and we were treated well, and we were respected…We were kind of protected by them, in that they were like big brothers to us.
It was a pleasure for me to watch women coming up in the ranks…Still, you don’t see [women] at all these [music] festivals. It will be like one [female] band or two female artists and then twenty male artists or groups. I enjoy watching women rise up and and have fun and get out there and just be free and freaky and create their art and their music.
Emilie Autumn made the point a couple years ago that one attitude toward women’s rights today is like the old cigarette ads that said, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” The implication is, you’ve come so far, you should be grateful for this progress instead of continuing to be assertive because things are still unequal. Does that resonate with you?
It does resonate with me, and I remember those cigarette ads. In that time, it was a more comfortable position, and you did feel like hey, baby, you’ve come a long way, and things were moving forward. In Frightwig, a lot we did was pushing the boundaries for women and doing things that were not acceptable. We got heckled [with], “Show us your tits,” so much, but we turned that energy around with our funk song “A Man’s Gotta Do What a Man’s Gotta Do”. We’d have guys get up onstage and strip for us. It turned into this kind of phenomenon with us, which was ridiculous. We didn’t really care about seeing anyone’s penis or anything. It was for the art. It added a bit of theatre.
But it’s an interesting time for women right now, and it’s an important time. I’m on the down side here in this cycle of life, and what I’m very happy to see is young women paying attention. I think young women are being threatened, and word’s out. I think these political so-called leaders, in the big picture, have really shot themselves in the foot because women are waking up, and women are not going to take this crap.
What women’s issues get you the most riled up?
When I was a young woman, the women’s movement was very active, and women’s rights were kind of in place. That went away, in a lot of ways, for me, because I felt safe. And I do not feel safe anymore for women. I think it’s just mostly these old white men across the country or these young upstarts who want to make a name for themselves that want to control our bodies. We don’t have equal rights, so we have no right to have equal pay. Ratifying the ERA is a huge deal, and yet it’s such a simple deal. All it does is give us equal rights. So I’m pretty pumped up about the ERA and then a woman’s right to make her choices for her body…I don’t like being controlled. I am happy I’m an American woman because I do have more freedoms, but I feel like those freedoms are in jeopardy.
Are we going to see any men stripping onstage Monday night?
We’ve been having a unicorn dancer, so we might have a unicorn onstage with us in Brooklyn. It all depends how we feel, but I will be traveling with my unicorn head.