by tim forster
Feminist polemicists War on Women are a hardcore punk sonic assault on sexism. The band were formed in 2010 by Shawna Potter and Brooks Harlan in Baltimore and have had two releases: Improvised Weapons in 2012 and their eponymous album released in 2015 on Bridge Nine Records.
Singer Shawna’s experience in drama means the lyrics are delivered within an unusually full spectrum of communication as she commands your attention with her stage presence. This is no more apparent than in ‘Broken Record’ when she subjects a male member of the crowd to the escalating aggression of street harassment normally experienced by women. Live she reminded me of a terrifying flamenco dancer I saw a few years ago in Seville; the same flashing eyes and controlled power. To be honest I don’t think I’ve seen a better front person.
how did war on women start, shawna?
Brooks Harlan and I had been in a band before this one. We’ve been writing music together for a long time and at some point that old band, which was called Avec, kinda fizzled out. We knew we wanted to do something heavier and we wanted to talk about the political climate, which it seemed like no one was at the time. We had the midterm elections of 2010 coming up and we were thinking about songs and I was getting pissed [off]. We started talking to people asking ‘Hey do you want to join this band, by the way we are incredibly outwardly feminist, are you OK with that? Do you want to play this kind of music?’ It was very intentional that this is what the band is, this is what we’re doing, and that gives me these interesting parameters to what I write about. Can I talk about XYZ subjects from a feminist perspective? Or can I educate anyone on how this is a feminist issue when maybe it doesn’t seem like it is on the surface? It’s neat from a writing standpoint because I think when people give themselves some sort of parameters or restrictions you can actually really flourish.
i read that the phrase ‘war on women’ was first used by feminist author Andrea Dworkin and has become shorthand for Republican policies that disadvantage women. does the name ever cause confusion?
We’ve definitely got some looks in the airport for carrying our guitars with ‘War on Women’ on the side, I remember a woman in the airport looking at the guitar case and then looking at Brooks and saying ‘What does that mean?’ like you had better explain yourself! Which he did and then she was like ‘I don’t like that’. So I don’t know if she just didn’t like it from a man or if she was anti-feminist herself, you never know. The name seemed to fit with the style of music and we wanted people to think what does that mean, what is this? I’m OK with the fact that people have to check in with the name and make sure that we’re against the war on women and not for it, but I also think that people’s confusion comes from the fact that sometimes all-male bands decide to have fucked up names like Whores or Black Pussy or things like that. I don’t know if they’re are doing it to be funny or ironic but they are discounting people’s lives, they’re clueless and they think it’s OK. So of course someone is going to doubt War on Women and assume it’s just a bunch of dudes that are actually sexist. I get that and so hopefully we can do away with that idea!
you’re involved in ‘hollaback baltimore’? tell us more
I actually founded the Baltimore Chapter but there are Chapters all over the world on almost every continent, many different languages, many different countries. It’s based out of New York but local people in their own towns can start their own Chapter, where they can organise and educate people around the issue of street harassment. It shows that street harassment and sexual harassment in general are not peculiar to one area or to one type of person or one language, it’s a worldwide problem. In general women are second class citizens and LGBTQ folks even worse. It is everywhere and the people that live in their own communities know best how to tackle it. I like that there is no white saviour coming in to tell everyone what to do. The people who actually live there are working on the issue, which I think is really beautiful. I founded the Chapter around the same time that I started War on Women with Brooks. I was just feeling really inspired to do something in my late twenties, when I was realising that the world is bigger than me and that I need to do something about it! So I ran that for four years and I recently handed it off to someone else to run the day to day but I’m still involved in a general shaping of where they go and running training sessions. I train venues which could be a bar, a music venue, a store, a coffee shop, whatever, in how to become safer spaces, directly telling them how to deal with street harassment when it happens on site, patron to patron. When a customer comes in and has just experienced street harassment, how to help them through the moment, basically acknowledging that street harassment happens and that our response should be victim-centered. At least half of their clients deal with street harassment all the time so how do you help promote the wellbeing of your customers and let them know they can come into your place anytime and feel OK and really in the end feel OK enough to keep spending money in your place, that they know they can complain to you. Everyone that I train gets the same information and the more trainings I do the bigger the network of people in Baltimore that know these simple steps to create safer spaces.
do you think harassment and objectification of women is a problem to the same extent in the punk scene as the mainstream? or is it an easier, safer place to be a woman?
Sexism and harassment are absolutely everywhere. If you’re going to a punk, hardcore gig or space, where you’re surrounded by people who look like you, then it should be safer. In a way, walking down this street in public I expect street harassment more than when I’m in The Owl Sanctuary [in Norwich] and I drop my guard a little bit more walking into that space, ‘cos I’m home and I’m hopeful and it’s tiring to carry around that expectation of ‘attack’ and you want to let it go some time. So walking into this space I’m going to let that go, I’m going to relax, it doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen and when it does its profoundly disappointing but I’ve found some hope in that as the lead singer of a feminist band I can stand up for myself in those situations. So I live up to my own standard of how powerful I think I should be, especially if it’s our show and we’re playing I don’t let anything slide and that’s a really great feeling.
“The more shows we play the easier it is for me to feel empowered on the street. I deserve to take up space, I deserve respect, I deserve dignity. I don’t deserve to have you talk to me that way!”
who is your song ‘diana la cazador’ about?
Diana the Hunter. There is an amazing statue of her in Mexico City. Not many people know about this but in Juarez, Mexico for decades now there have been mass disappearances of Mexican women. Either never found or found in a mass grave. The political system there is very corrupt and it can be a scary place for your average hard working person. The cops do nothing – if anything they perpetuate it – and so I read a story about a woman who wrote into a local newspaper calling herself Diana the Hunter and claiming credit for the murder of a male bus driver, saying: ‘The bus drivers are in on it, the cops are in on it. The bus driver knows, he’s the one taking them back and forth and so he’s complicit in some way. Even if it isn’t the specific bus driver who died’. She was saying this is really fucked up and you can’t keep doing this to the women of Juarez without expecting retaliation. I thought that was a really powerful story of revenge in an environment where there is no justice. So that song is about the woman calling herself Diana the Hunter who claimed to have killed this bus driver. I still don’t know if they know if she did or not. But I definitely know that still women are dying and disappearing in Juarez today. People should look that story up and see if there are ways they can get involved.
who are you currently listening to?
We are playing with Clowns tonight and a few days ago we happened to play in Vienna together, that was really fun, I actually like them. And Beyoncé. I’ve been mostly revisiting the self titled album, watching the videos on my iPod! And I’ve also been revisiting a lot of my early Sonic Youth records because I’ve just finished Kim Gordon’s book and she was talking about specific songs and I was going ‘I got to listen to the song’ while I was reading about it!