S he was going after either the belligerent meathead on the right or the head-bopping plant on the left. And when the meathead realized his one-man mosh pit was going nowhere and stumbled away in a chemical haze — leaving some bruised ribs and annoyed faces near the front of the stage — Shawna Potter settled for the plant. As the lyricist and lead singer for hard-core punk band War On Women, this is Potter’s daily quandary: knowing when to swing her feminist hammer at the uninitiated and when to preach to her choir.
On this night, at a small Richmond rock club in late October, she was choosing her choir.
There was a good reason she hand-picked Brad Perry to be her target for the song “Broken Record,” a brutal — and brutally effective — recitation on street harassment. An old friend and a longtime board member of the anti-street-harassment organization Hollaback!, he was uniquely equipped to handle the stream of invective Potter was about to hurl at him.
As for the mosh-pit meathead who conveniently disappeared just as “Broken Record” was coming up on the set list, he was going to get it — had he stuck around — because he deserved it.
To feel the full fury of a War On Women show, with Potter grabbing her crotch in your face and unleashing a barrage of F-bombs that singe your eyebrows, is to understand that the militant strain of feminism is alive and well. At a time when the movement, by most accounts, is becoming less political and less overtly activist, Potter and her bandmates, two women and two men, may be among the fiercest feminists on the planet.
You don’t name your band War On Women, for starters, if you’re going to dance around women’s issues. You don’t infiltrate a male-dominated culture — hard-core metal music — that still harbors pockets of intolerance if you don’t have the stomach for confrontation. You don’t fill your first full-length album, the band’s eponymous 2015 release, with songs about rape, abortion and the wage gap, among other subjects, if you aren’t looking to change the world.
And you don’t scream out, “This is a public cervix announcement!” as Potter does at the end of “Effemimania” — from War On Women’s first record, the 2012 EP “Improvised Weapons” — unless you are capable of swinging your hammer with one hand and conducting the choir with the other.
“The choir needs to sing — the choir needs a place to go,” said Potter, 33. “They need that time to . . . share this experience. It’s validating. So I’m happy to do that. But, just by the nature of the style of music we play, we also have the opportunity to convert. If we were just doing folksy, ‘Lilith Fair’-type stuff, we’d be playing to the same people over and over, and everybody would be like, ‘Okay, we get it.’
“Some people are only going to hear about feminism because they like punk groups. They may come across us and go, ‘Hey, this isn’t so bad.’ For me, this is how we can effect change.”
At first, the crowd at the Camel in downtown Richmond didn’t seem to know what to make of the Baltimore-based War On Women, who played third on a four-band bill, headlined by D.C. hard-core stalwarts Government Issue. The pack closest to the stage, overwhelmingly male, stayed a good 10 feet back, curious but noncommittal. When Potter lit into the set’s second song, “Say It” — with the gut-punch chorus, “Say it! Say it! I was raped!” — eyes suddenly grew wide. One dude was startled to the point of looking up from his phone.
“That’s the song where I’m like, ‘Are you still with us?’ I’m making it pretty obvious there,” Potter said earlier. “I see a lot of ‘whoa.’ I see wheels turning.”
By the time “Broken Record” came around, Potter had already invited the crowd to fill in around the stage, which it dutifully did. As the band — guitarists Brooks Harlan and Nancy Hornburg, bass player Sue Werner and drummer Evan Tanner — locked into the A-flat minor groove, Potter took one last look toward the bar area, where the meathead had fled, then moved to the front of the stage, tossing back her hair seductively and starting in on Perry.
Even though he knew it was coming — this being the third time he has received the “Broken Record” treatment, by his recollection — and even though he understood the point, Perry could feel himself shriveling under Potter’s script-flipping verbal assault.
The come-ons started innocently enough — “Hey, baby. You look good! You going home right now? I just want to talk to you” — and Perry smiled knowingly, meeting Potter’s gaze head-on and bopping his head to the beat.
But as the guitar-driven throb grew darker and more intense, and Potter’s words turned confrontational — “Where you going? I just want to talk to you. Bitch!” — Perry dropped his eyes and planted his chin in his chest. Others in the crowd of 75 or so, including perhaps half a dozen women, glanced at him with a mixture of shock and pity, as it dawned on them what was going on.
By the end, as Potter snarled and screamed, “You’re fat, anyway. You’re ugly, and I can get any girl I want!” Perry looked downright shaken.
Sometimes, even the choir needs to see the hammer.
The idea for War On Women — both the concept and the name itself — came from the mind of a man.
In 2008, Harlan and Potter, both Texas natives who by then were veterans of the Baltimore hard-core scene, were sharing guitar duties in a math-rock outfit called Avec that was on the verge of disintegration. One night, Harlan ventured out to see Potter’s side project, Rah! Rah! Replica — a tribute band for legendary ’90s riot grrrl pioneers Bikini Kill.
Freed from her guitar, Potter, assuming the role of Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna, was a whirling, screaming, dancing revelation onstage, embodying Hanna’s feminist ethos and wailing her lyrics about rampant chauvinism and sexual freedom.
“We should do this, but for real — with original songs,” he later told Potter. He already had a name in mind: War On Women.
“It wasn’t the media catchphrase that it later became,” he explains now. “But that’s what I wanted the band to be about. My musical heroes were always people who had something to say, who stood up for the right thing: Fugazi, the D.C. hard-core scene, political stuff. . . . There was a hole that I saw for that in Baltimore.”
Harlan, now 39, was raised by a single mother in El Paso, the only male in a household that also included his sister and grandmother — “So I knew how to relate to women’s issues,” he says — but had never taken an active interest in feminist issues until then. “To me, if you believe in equality and fairness,” he says, “you kind of have to be a feminist.”
Potter, an only child who was also raised by a single mother in suburban Houston, had been inspired to become a rock star as a teenager after seeing a Courtney Love video on MTV and was drawn to feminism in her early 20s after hearing then-President George W. Bush take aim at abortion rights. But like Harlan, she had never been active in feminist issues.
“I’m sure I’ve always been a feminist,” she says. “I just needed something to kickstart me.”
There are mental hurdles one must clear when forming a band called War On Women. One of them became immediately clear as Harlan and Potter began recruiting musicians to fill out the band. There were some you-gotta-be-crazy looks, and some flat-out no’s.
“The name was off-putting to me at first, to be honest,” says Hornburg, 33. “I wasn’t sure how people were going to take it. But as we went on, I came to appreciate what it means.”
Of the other mental hurdles, the majority were set up directly in front of Potter. As the lead singer of an in-your-face feminist band, how attractive did she want to make herself onstage? (“I can put on makeup,” she says now, “and not feel like I let feminism down.”) Would she be sacrificing rock-club cred by performing without a guitar slung around her shoulder? (“I had to tell myself,” she says, “nobody asked that about Mick Jagger and Robert Plant.”) As the lyricist, would the feminist theme be too limiting? (“Not at all,” she says. “The songs just poured out.”)
And as the public face of a band called War On Women, was she prepared to put herself forward as some sort of spokeswoman for a movement she had only recently joined?
“I try to be more humble” than that, Potter says. “I know how important it was for me to see other women onstage when I was growing up, and I want young women to see that. But if there’s anyone looking to me as a feminist voice — I’m also on a journey to become a better feminist, so I don’t know that I can be a voice other than my own.”
Other hurdles quickly presented themselves. The hard-core scene was — and remains — overwhelmingly male, from the show bookers, to the club owners, to the bands and their fans. The band’s female members would occasionally encounter hostility or blatant sexism while onstage or after a show — a heckler yelling “Nice a--!” or a well-meaning fan gushing that they play punk “like a guy.”
“That’s always made me feel weird,” says Werner, 38. “It’s like Shawna says: Does that mean I was playing the bass with my penis?”
And then there was the Internet, where the abuse was far worse than what the band’s female members heard from the stage. Some of the band’s early videos on YouTube began drawing ugly, misogynistic comments.
Potter usually avoided the vile discussion. But during long van rides on tour, Tanner would sometimes read them out loud in a funny voice. “I want to pork the vocalist,” read one. “I can’t quite figure out if they’re crazy feminists, or just trying to be ironic,” read another. Most were unprintable, but in the drummer’s silly voice they were removed of their poison.
It gave Potter an idea. And so was born the War On Women song “YouTube Comments,” a frantic, 78-second blast filled with Potter reciting, verbatim and with cartoonish inflection, the ugliest comments left under the band’s videos.
Potter knew better than to feed the trolls. But no one said she couldn’t steal their food.
The two-block walk from Potter’s apartment to her bank, in the Baltimore neighborhood of Hampden, took her past an auto repair shop, where a pack of leering mechanics peppered her with catcalls. Ignoring them didn’t work. Nor did confronting them.
“I remember thinking, ‘I live here. I work here. I’m just trying to go to the bank. Leave me the f--- alone!’” she recalls.
The abuse prompted Potter in 2011 to look up the Baltimore chapter of Hollaback — and when she realized there wasn’t one, she founded it herself, running the chapter for four years before stepping down last spring because she no longer had the time.
Hollaback gave Potter tools to combat the catcallers — snapping pictures with a smartphone — as well as to enter the world of traditional activism. She still serves Hollaback in an advisory role, occasionally conducting training sessions for bartenders and servers in how to create safer spaces for women and transgendered people.
“I feel a responsibility, as the mouthpiece for an overtly feminist band — and being an able-bodied, fairly young, white, cisgendered woman — to speak up when I can,” she says, using the term for people whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth. “Because there are so many people who can’t.”
These days, Potter’s chief form of activism is War On Women’s live shows, where she works the stage with a Southern preacher’s fervor and a professional wrestler’s exaggerated gestures.
“For me, the show is the thing,” she says. “At that point, it’s not theoretical anymore. That’s the opportunity to take it to the people, to interact with the crowd. It’s important to me to be aggressive but also let people have fun. You can talk as much as you want, but if your band is boring live, who cares what you’re talking about?”
Behind Potter, the band’s heavy-but-hooky riffs reflect the lyrics. The guitars are all tuned down to “drop C-sharp” — 1½ steps below normal tuning — making the sound even heavier and darker. “I want the music to match the intensity of [the lyrics]. So sometimes it’s jarring. Sometimes it’s almost too fast,” Harlan says. “I want you to feel like you’re being pummeled.”
Two indelible moments typically define War On Women’s live shows. The first comes at the end of “Say It,” when Potter screams out, “I was raped!” More than once, she has been approached after a show by a crying young woman, thanking her for giving voice to that experience. At their merchandise table at shows, along with the T-shirts and CDs, the band gives out free condoms, tampons — and postcards with a toll-free number for a sexual assault hotline.
“Here they are in the audience, watching us play, and they can literally scream out loud what happened to them and not be afraid of someone judging them,” she says. “Maybe they haven’t even had a chance to do that.”
Although Potter has never personally experienced a sexual assault, she said it has happened to people close to her. “These stories are not just pulled out of thin air,” she says. “And it’s not lost on me that it can happen to me any f------ second. Especially because I’m street-harassed, I’m reminded all the time I’m constantly in danger as a woman and not valued as a human being.”
The second indelible moment is “Broken Record.” Over the years, Potter has perfected the come-on routine, changing it up as circumstances have warranted — asking a redheaded man, for example, “Does the carpet match the drapes, baby?” More than once, she has gone after a heckler as her target, but mostly she sticks to friendly faces who — at least eventually — get the joke.
Once, Potter went after a stranger who wasn’t amused by the treatment, who confronted her afterward to ask, “What did I do to deserve that?” — oblivious that his question was precisely the point.
Perry, the “victim” of Potter’s assault at the Richmond show, didn’t have to ask such questions. Once her verbal onslaught was mercifully over, Potter smiled and offered her right hand in a thanks-for-playing-along gesture, and after the show she sought him out for a hug and a laugh.
“There’s an involuntary bodily reaction you have that reminds you why this matters,” Perry said later, on the sidewalk outside the club. “As a guy, you realize, holy s---, my girlfriend or my gay friend deal with that s--- every time they walk down the street.
“Even when you know it’s coming, it’s hard to stand there and take it.”
For Potter and her bandmates, War On Women is somewhere between a mission and a labor of love. Even with their profile on the rise, following a successful European tour and glowing press stateside, they still aren’t making any money from it. Their $350 guarantee for the Richmond show went to their van rental, gas and food. They slept at friends’ houses. Everybody has day jobs — Werner is a computer scientist at Johns Hopkins, while Tanner owns Tanner’s Pickles, and Harlan and Potter run Big Crunch Amp Repair shop — and most play in at least one other band.
But every night is another chance to convert somebody, and to validate somebody else — to swing the hammer and lead the choir. There are hard-core metal-heads out there in the audience, and there are hard-core feminists, and Potter’s job is to bring them together.
“It’s like we’re respecting both worlds,” she says. “We know they’re at odds.”
At the Richmond show, War On Women closed out their set with “YouTube Comments,” which means Potter bade farewell to the crowd with the uplifting closing line of a song she didn’t so much write as copy-and-paste from the hellish depths of the comments section.
“I would love to slit a woman’s throat,” she screamed, as the guitars broke off and the final cymbal rang out, “and gorge myself on the blood that pours out of the wound.”
Illustrations by Olimpia Zagnoli.