War On Women: "You don’t have to have a vagina to be a feminist"

Baltimore hardcore quintet War On Women are due to tour the UK, bringing hardcore fury, feminist politics and a live show that doesn’t skimp on the fun. We caught up with vocalist Shawna Potter, to talk music, sexual harassment and the importance of giving away condoms on tour.

British people hear Baltimore and just think of ‘The Wire’. How is it, in terms of the music scene? Shawna: “It’s a small city, but it feels like a big city. There are so many opportunities to see live music and art – and that includes theatre and classic art, outsider art. There’s a ton of clubs and DIY spaces and bands and people doing really cool, creative things. The last couple of years, there’s been a big explosion of cool punk music happening, and a lot of women in bands, which has been really, really encouraging.”

It’s remarkable how few women there still are in hardcore bands. “I think women in bands now are being given a little bit more of the credit they deserve. Maybe they were always there, it’s just no-one knew about them, or talked about them, or gave them any attention. So, that’s the thing about Baltimore: I feel like the local press here is very encouraging of female bands.”

With War on Women being so outspoken about women’s issues, do you find people have very extreme reactions to you in a live setting? “Yes, we have gotten some very visceral reactions. A lot of people have thanked us for talking about certain things – especially the really tough stuff, like sexual assault. People have definitely started crying when they talk to me, saying they can’t really talk about that very much, but it happened to them. And it’s actually to the point where we’ve started carrying informational cards with the National Sexual Assault hotline number on it, just in case. We want it to feel good, but if someone needs to talk to someone else for a bit longer, ‘Here’s a number of a professional’, because I’m not going to claim that we are.”

You hand out tampons and condoms at your shows. There’s something very riot grrrl about that… “I’m down with that. It’s just the right thing to do. If you really want to have explicitly safe spaces that are welcoming to women and LGBTQ folks, you have to do something. You can’t just say ‘Oh yeah, I’m all about it’ and not do anything. It’s those little gestures that let people know.”

Have you had to deal with much negativity from male audience members? “Luckily, I don’t think many men have responded negatively once they’ve seen us live. We want people to have fun and I’m not up there straight-up preaching to people, because I feel like I don’t necessarily need that when I go see a show. I come at it from a live entertainment angle. ‘I’ve paid some money, I want to be entertained’. I’m happy to do that. I love doing that.”

**What are the strangest reactions people have had to War On Women? **“I have had people say to me, more than once, ‘Woah, that was so feminist, my dick went inside my body!’ It’s very funny to hear, but it’s also very odd. Like, that doesn’t have to happen! You don’t have to have a vagina to be a feminist. You don’t need to have a fake vagina in order to be here.”

Do the men in the band – drummer Evan Tanner and guitarist Brooks Harlan – ever get approached by men who have questions about feminism? “They often get asked, ‘So what’s it like being in a band with women?’ as if we’re fucking aliens or something. We’re definitely ‘other’-ised when people are talking to Brooks and Evan, but they try to squash that pretty quickly. I do think also that some men in the audience will say something to Evan and Brooks that they’d never say to my face. Guys will go up to them and say: ‘I really like your band, I really like the music, but I don’t like that lady yelling at me…’ Like, that’s your problem. Whatever dude.“

Some of your songs are very chilling in terms of covering universal issues that women deal with. ‘Broken Record’, for example, lists things that complete strangers say to women in the street. That song is kind of proof that cat-callers are, all over the world, very uncreative! “(Laughs) It’s all just judging your body. Are you fuckable or not fuckable? ‘Hey, I’m a stranger, I’m yelling at you!’ The lines in that song are all things that have been said to me, or my friends. Sometimes I change it up a little live, if something has just happened and it’s still bugging me.”

**Do you find that people struggle to compare War On Women to other bands, because they’re only looking at other bands with female vocalists? **“Yes! And they’re not going to find anyone that sounds like our band. In a way, it’s really good because I think I would be embarrassed if we sounded like another band. But it’s also really frustrating because women are so limited in terms of what is acceptable for them. For example, it’s okay if you’re in a metal band as long as you do an impression of a man singing, or sound like an opera singer. Or it’s okay if you’re in a punk band as long as you sound exactly like Kathleen Hanna [from Bikini Kill, The Julie Ruin]. And I think there’s so much more in between that. It’s a very conscious decision for me to sing and yell and scream in my more natural voice. To make it as natural as possible; to yell more than scream, so you can tell that I am a woman. I want to sound like me. I want to sound like I’m in my 30s. I don’t want to sound like a man, or a bratty teenager, just to make it easier for someone else to digest.”

**Do you think working with (anti-street harassment organisation) Hollaback! has left you better equipped to deal with hecklers in the crowd? **“Yes, definitely. I took off my training wheels working with Hollaback!. It definitely gave me confidence and maturity and language to use when talking about a lot of this stuff. I threw myself into public speaking and panels and workshops and thinking on my feet. I’m more than happy to call people on their bullshit – especially on stage, where I’m obviously the one with the power. I have the microphone and if you think you’re going to take that away from me, you’re definitely not.”

War On Women’s self-titled debut is out now through Bridge Nine. Their UK tour kicks off in Cambridge on August 9. For more information, visit their official Facebook page.