Feminists Fight Back: Hardcore band War On Women mocks the haters on its self-titled new album

City Paper

Shawna Potter, vocalist for hardcore band War On Women, feels as though rape and death threats could be arriving in the mail for her and her bandmates.

She’s seen it happen to activists she knows through Hollaback!, an international organization working to end street harassment whose Baltimore chapter she co-runs. The possibility of getting items mailed to her house, getting rape and death threats in her inbox, or getting her contact information spread publicly online, she says, isn’t something “you can actually prepare mentally” for.

And what could a band do to incur such bile? Potter screaming for women’s rights into a microphone, backed by guitarists Brooks Harlan and Nancy Hornburg, bassist Sue Werner, and drummer Evan Tanner, is enough.

“It would be great if it didn’t, but I wouldn’t be surprised,” she says of the threats. “Right now, luckily, it’s just the normal comments like, ‘This song sucks,’ ‘I would fuck her,’ ‘I wouldn’t fuck her.’ You know, shit like that.”

But any miscreant who thinks of penning such a letter should know this: It won’t mean shit to War On Women. 

For one, the bandmates laugh off the idea that anyone would get upset about their music, because, you know, nobody has to listen or buy if they don’t want to. And when faced with those who get worked up over the idea of a feminist hardcore band, War On Women has persisted, even using the spiteful comments posted on some of the band’s music videos— “The song is decent, but those lyrics are laughable”—and turning them into a blistering rebuke, the aptly titled ‘YouTube Comments’ on their forthcoming self-titled full-length.

Never feed the trolls, they say, but the anonymous comments are representative of the many ways people try to tamp down the voices of those seeking equal rights. “Those people want to silence you. When women are harassed online in that sort of public space—just like offline—the point is to silence you and assert their own empowerment or right to be there. It’s their world, not yours,” says Potter. “So the opposite of that is to use those words that are meant to be silencing and to scream them into a microphone to say, ‘You can’t silence me. I’m gonna turn your words against you.’”

The other 10 songs on the album, and those found on 2012 EP “Improvised Weapons,” bring forth a rupturing, full-throated roar for abortion rights, trans equality, an end to the gender wage gap, quelling intra-feminist conflict, and a number of other issues. And while there are moments of humor in some instances, Potter’s lyrics, and the forceful power with which they are delivered, present focused, clear statements.

‘Say It’ challenges rape apologists and implores victims to “Say it! Say it! ‘I was raped.’” ‘Second Wave Goodbye’ blasts the exclusion of transgender people in the feminist movement and calls for a more unified future. ‘Roe V. World’ lobbies for greater abortion access, turning the phrase “Give us the pill!” into an arena rock chant; ‘Pro-Life?’ questions the right-wingers who attempt to restrict that access while cheering on wars that kill thousands. That’s just scratching the surface.

The thrashing guitars and thundering rhythms propel the songs into a frenzy, and they also work as a tonal complement to the many moments of what Potter calls “righteous anger.”  War On Women was established for the expressed purpose of writing feminist songs and getting people to listen and think. Around 2010, Potter and Harlan, then members of Avec, decided to form War On Women as a project free from lyrical ambiguity.

“At some point I was like, ‘We should just say these things. Flat out. And that should be the idea of the band, to be direct and in your face,’” says Harlan.

The original hope was just for everyone to get their shit together for one show at the Charm City Art Space. But, in addition to recording, War On Women has gone on to tour with Canadian lefty punks Propagandhi and grab opening slots at the Ottobar for acts as varied as Jello Biafra and The Dismemberment Plan. And while War On Women has had its share of chauvinist detractors, the members say they’ve received support in equal measure.

“We just know there are a lot of women out there, a lot of people out there,” says Harlan. “We know that the lyrics Shawna writes, people are feeling a connection to those lyrics because they have similar experiences or their friends do.”

The release of the band’s first LP comes at a unique time for feminism. There are positive developments, such as the world’s largest pop star, Beyoncé, declaring herself a feminist in front of an audience of millions and a larger, online-driven discussion calling attention to the many ways women are treated. But the reality is there still exists a seemingly endless list of transgressions and institutional powers that enforce inequality for the band to write songs about. 

There’s hope among some of the members of War On Women that the greater dialogue surrounding feminism will change minds and erase misconceptions.

“I hope it would clear up the idea that it’s not man-hating. Because a lot of people ask us, ‘Oh, you’re feminists? You must hate men,’” says Hornburg. “And you go, ‘No, no, no, no, let’s sit down for a second.’”

But there’s some reservation about the word becoming co-opted or diluted as more people begin to use and consider it (in some ways, this has already happened). Ideally, the songs would be agents for change themselves, and the makeup of War On Women”—three women and two men—proves the fight for equality has a “united front.”

“I’d like to think that maybe we can help push them a little more,” Potter says with a laugh. “That way, instead of [the audience] being like, ‘Yeah, sure. Yeah, women. Great.’ It’s like, that’s not enough. You’ve gotta call out your friends who are street-harassing people, you’ve gotta actively support politicians that are pro-rights. There’s a lot that goes into it more than just saying it.”

With the release show for “War On Women” at Metro Gallery on Friday, the band is making a similar push—this one for greater diversity in Baltimore. Along with the similarly minded and sounding Big Mouth, the show includes neo-soul singer Chelsea Monae and rapper Dai Burger opening and ends with a queer-friendly dance party. It’s not an admonishment of the scene so much as a way to get different groups of people who might not ordinarily interact into one room, to show them that, in many ways, they’re the same

Potter cited the way many people talked about how much they hate racism after events like Ferguson without really doing anything to meet people of color.

“It’s not like we want to call out our friends to stop putting white dudes on the bill. Because I get that too—three bands that sound the same that you love, and that’s who you want to see,” she says. “And that’s awesome too. But sometimes somebody has to change it up and turn people on to something else.” 

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