War On Women: A co-ed feminist punk band for all

The Baltimore Sun

As the lead singer of the Baltimore feminist punk band War On Women, Shawna Potter occasionally encounters brash harassment from men in the crowds.

Some might internalize or bury the anger that results from such sexism, but the 31-year-old has no problem addressing an agitator head-on, as she did in Los Angeles in February. Make comments about Potter's body, and prepare to be embarrassed.

“When things like that happen, I'm still shocked,” Potter said last week from a love seat in Big Crunch, the Johnston Square instrument repair shop she manages. “I just got angry and I started yelling at him. On the stage, I have the freedom to do that, and I'm definitely not afraid to.”

For Potter — who also runs the Baltimore chapter of Hollaback!, an international community against street harassment — singling out an out-of-line concertgoer goes beyond personal gratification. It is her duty as a woman, she said, to call out the jerks. If the same scenario occurred on the street, Potter said, she would worry for her safety. The stage is different, though.

“It's my responsibility to call that guy out and be angry at him, and let him know that's not OK for every single time he has done that on the street and the woman couldn't do it,” Potter said. “Every time I can stand up to something like that, I absolutely should for the people who can't.”

Confrontation, viewed through a feminist lens, fuels War On Women, which opens for the Dismemberment Plan at the Ottobar on Saturday. The co-ed quintet — which also includes bassist Sue Werner, drummer Evan Tanner and guitarists Nancy Hornburg and Brooks Harlan — formed in 2010, with clear points-of-view and minor expectations.

“It was just really important to us to be a part of something that had meaning, and not just [be] a party band,” Potter said before clarifying the act is full of “jokesters” who enjoy a good time like anyone else. “Literally, our first goal was to write enough songs to play Charm City Art Space, and we did that.”

Other milestones came quickly. War On Women released a six-song EP called “Improvised Weapons” on Washington's Exotic Fever Records two years ago, and the group was handpicked by the influential punk band Propagandhi to tour Europe and America together. At each tour stop, War On Women doubled down on an unwavering attitude best captured in the song “Effemimania“: “This is a public cervix announcement! We are not opposites!” 

The most rewarding response she receives on tour, Potter said, is an earnest “thank you” from newly converted fans of all backgrounds — female, male and transgender. Often, they have never been exposed to an aggressive band like War On Women, a fact that heartens and disappoints Potter.

“That's not because we are that great — it's because they literally haven't had the chance to see men and women on the stage, talking about gender equity with some aggression,” she said. “So it's disappointing that they're so grateful, but it's also the nicest thing to hear, and it just means we're doing the right thing by existing.”

Potter, who moved to Baltimore more than a decade ago and currently lives in Hoes Heights, said being raised by a single mother put her “on a pathway toward being pro-gender equity,” but it was our 43rd president who deserves credit for turning her feminist outlook into a passionate life mission.

“I was shaped by George W. Bush. It was negative reinforcement,” Potter said. “I think if no one had challenged my reproductive rights then I probably would have been more apolitical. But he set me off.”

The full-length follow-up to “Improvised Weapons” is halfway done, Potter said. War On Women has recorded five songs with engineer J. Robbins at his Baltimore studio, the Magpie Cage, and the results have been a logical “next step” after the debut EP, she said. Two new songs, “Say It” and “Roe vs. World,” address the aftermath of rape and abortion.

“They're both about not the courage to speak out — because that is an unfair burden if that's not right for you — but if you do, you should be supported and believed,” Potter said.

Currently, the band is in talks with several labels to release the album later this year, she said. Regardless of the company that releases it, Potter said, War On Women will continue to operate without expectations, while still being open to opportunities that can further its equality-for-all perspective.

“Our hearts are in it. I think because there is a message to the lyrical content and the aggressive nature of the riffs matches the lyrical content, we're all invested in a way,” she said. “We all want to see how far we can take War On Women.”

If you go

War On Women performs Saturday at the Ottobar, 2549 N. Howard St., Charles Village. The Dismemberment Plan will headline the show. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20. Call 410-662-0069 or go to theottobar.com. 

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