During the late 1970s and early and mid-1980s there were a number of female punk and rock musicians that later influenced the riot grrrl ethos. These included Siouxsie Sioux, Poly Styrene, The Slits, Au Pairs, The Raincoats, Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde, The Runaways/Joan Jett, LiLiPUT, Lydia Lunch, Exene Cervenka, Kim Gordon, Ut, Neo Boys, Bush Tetras, Chalk Circle, Fifth Column, Frightwig, Scrawl and Anti-Scrunti Faction. The 1980s also featured a number of female folk singers from New York whose lyrics were realistic and socio-political, but also personally intimate. During the mid-1980s in Vancouver the influential Mecca Normal fronted by poet Jean Smith formed, followed by Sugar Baby Doll in San Francisco whose members would all wind up in hardcore female bands. In 1987, the magazine Sassy premiered and dealt with tough subjects that conventional magazines aimed at teenage girls did not. An article "Women, sex and rock and roll" published by Puncture in 1989 became the first manifesto of the movement. In 1991, a radio program hosted by Lois Maffeo entitled Your Dream Girl aimed at angry young women debuted on Olympia, Washington radio station KAOS.
During the early 1990s the Seattle/Olympia Washington area had a sophisticated Do it yourself infrastructure. Young women involved in underground music scenes took advantage of this to articulate their feminist thoughts and desires through creating punk-rock fanzines and forming garage bands. The political model of collage-based, photocopied handbills and booklets was already used by the punk movement as a way to activate underground music, leftist politics and alternative (to mainstream) sub-cultures. Many women found that while they identified with a larger, music-oriented subculture, they often had little to no voice in their local scenes, so they took it upon themselves to represent their own interests by making their own fanzines, music and art.
In 1991, in what many believe to be an unorganized collective response to the Christian Coalition's Right to Life attack on legal abortion and the Senate Judiciary Hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas—in which Anita Hill accused Thomas of sexual harassment and was mocked by the media—young feminist voices were heard through multiple protests, actions and events (L7's Rock for Choice) that would later become part of a larger organized consciousness. This consciousness coalesced in late 1991 under the movement known as "riot grrrl".
Uses and meanings of the term 'riot grrrl' developed slowly over time, but its etymological origins can be traced to the actual Mount Pleasant race riots in spring 1991. Writing in Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation's Capital, Mark Andersen reports that early Bratmobile member Jen Smith (later of Rastro! and The Quails), reacted to the violence by prophetically writing in a letter to Allison Wolfe: "This summer's going to be a girl riot." Other reports say she wrote, "We need to start a girl riot." Soon afterwards, Wolfe and Molly Neuman collaborated with Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail to create a new zine and called it Riot Grrrl, combining the "riot" with an oft-used phrase that first appeared in Vail's fanzine Jigsaw "Revolution Grrrl Style Now". Riot grrrls took a growling double or triple r, placing it in the word girl, as a way to take back the derogatory use of the term.
Although they're known for frequently denying exclusive credit for the movement, two bands in particular remain inextricably linked to its early formation.