Interview: War On Women
I think I wanted to avoid writing anything that was too topical, that would be dated by the time the record came out. So while I did end up writing a bit about Trump, the song "Predator in Chief" can be about any man in a powerful position that uses it to abuse others.
Taking their name from a phrase first coined by feminist writer Andrea Dworkin to describe certain Republican policies, US feminist hardcore band War On Women were formed in 2010 by Shawna Potter and Brooks Harlan, they released Improvised Weapons in 2012 and their debut album in 2015 on Bridge Nine Records. Their new album, Capture The Flag, has just been released to positive response with Pitchfork.com commenting ‘War On Women state the facts. They are self-righteous. They point fingers. Activism is prominently at the heart of their screeds against the systematic plagues of patriarchy, racism, and capitalism. The enemy is everywhere. War On Women prioritize taking it down (1)’.
I was fortunate enough to witness War On Women live in the summer of 2016 and wrote at the time…’Shawna Potter’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…To be honest I don’t think I’ve seen a better front person.’ That opinion still stands!
With a new album out and an extremely tumultuous last 18 months in the USA and Europe it seemed a good move to catch up with Shawna (via email) and find out how things have been going for the band.
(((o))): It was summer 2016 when we last spoke, a lot has happened in under two years! Let’s start with band changes! You, Brooks (Harlan) and Sue (Werner) are still there and have been joined by Jennifer Vito on guitar and Ben Jones on drums (2)-what sort of new resources have Jennifer and Ben brought to the WoW sound? Have they bought new styles and influences into the mix? Has the WoW sound changed from the first album at all?
We’re really happy to have Jennifer and Ben in the band, they’re great players and great people, so it’s made the transition easy for sure. Capture the Flag was already being written and recorded before they officially joined, so while this record is the next step/progression for the band, I’m also excited to see what our next album sounds like with them more involved.
(((o))): Three years on from your eponymous debut album you have released Capture The Flag, I would understand the title to imply a cultural struggle over who defines the USA and it’s trajectory-is that fair?
Definitely. Who gets to call themselves a patriot? Who has a right to this land? What does it mean to be American? I think these are things we need to think about and agree on if we’re ever going to avoid another regime like our current one.
(((o))): On previous releases you have dealt with important issues from a feminist perspective; rape, toxic masculinity, the gender pay gap, the disappearance and deaths of women in Mexico, objectification, sexual harassment. What sort of subject matter have you engaged with on Capture The Flag?
I never want to make the same record twice, and that includes subject matter, so I find that limitation can inspire some creativity – how do you talk about reproductive rights after writing ‘Roe V World’? I did it by taking a different angle, what happens if you do end up giving birth? The GOP only cares about your kid when you are the incubator, just another excuse to not give women full autonomy as human beings. Always putting someone else first.
(((o))): Did the Republican victory in the Presidential elections change your lyrical perspective at all? I think I mean did the structures of oppression come more clearly into view as systems reproducing themselves through the lives of individuals?
It did affect me, but in the sense that I felt overwhelmed and exhausted. I’ve been working on these issues and singing about them non-stop for years, and yet here we were. And frankly looking at 45’s face was making me feel sick. So while I took in as much as I could about current events, I think I wanted to avoid writing anything that was too topical, that would be dated by the time the record came out. So while I did end up writing a bit about Trump, the song “Predator in Chief” can be about any man in a powerful position that uses it to abuse others.
(((o))): Great cover by the way, I liked the intersectionality… is that Angela Davis depicted?
No, I don’t believe so. But I’m very grateful to our friend Ryan Patterson (Coliseum/Fotocrime/Shirtkiller) for doing the design. After getting the first pass I definitely said “Less white ladies!” It’s important that the album cover reflects a nod to history, who has been fighting and who is now fighting to actually make this country great.
(((o))): I read that you have an educational resource/work book based around Capture The Flag’s lyrics, can you tell us a bit more about that? Was it a response to how the first album was used (3)?
Yes, there were a few tags on social media that mentioned teachers and professors using our lyrics in class. I thought, why not encourage that more by making it easy on them? So I worked with a few friends to come up with a pdf booklet that includes our lyrics, back stories, quotes, resources, and prompting questions for each song. Anyone can download it at the Bridge Nine Bandcamp page,https://bridge9.bandcamp.com/album/capture-the-flag.
(((o))): I read an article where you commented that you knew you were going into a sexist culture when you did the Vans Warped Tour last year-and that was exactly why you did it, to let some light in (4)! How did it go? Were you pleasantly surprised, did the other bands get on board?
Yes, there were plenty of supportive bands that “got it,” and I’m sure the ones that didn’t just avoided us. There were no arguments backstage or anything. A volunteer we brought out with us to run the Safer Scenes program, Kira-Lynn Ferderber, taught a bystander intervention class off hours for any bands and staff that wanted to show up. Major shout out to all the bands that attended. Overall, the entire experience was good and I’m glad we did it. I make it a point to say every festival can do better, and frankly as audience members we have a lot of power too. If anyone out there cares about making the festival experience a welcoming and non-rapey one, then take a bystander intervention class!
(((o))): How did generally young, straight, white male crowds respond-were they able to grasp what was going on as you presented a feminist perspective, challenging sexism and taking apart their sense of entitlement!? Having seen you live I imagine they must have been terrified!
Ha! I don’t know about terrified… well, every now and again someone would tell me they were simultaneously afraid and turned on, which I actually really love. I am happy to confuse, if nothing else, and I know I am (or can be) a sexual subject on stage, never an object. But I think any men that really didn’t care or get it would just watch something else, there is no reason in the circus that is Warped Tour to keep standing there if you’re not into something. So for that reason, we might have avoided some run of the mill heckling. But there were plenty of men and boys who told us they were surprised to realize that they liked our band, and even “got it” after seeing us play live. I don’t think even I’d be interested in watching a band of feminist killjoys if the music sucked, so we’ve got that going for us.
(((o))): Did you get much feedback from women and LGBTQI+ people-they must have been really encouraged!?
Yes! All the young trans- and non-binary people, some out and some not out and/or still discovering themselves, they made a point to come say ‘Hi’ to us and talk with us and that was always really wonderful. For some, not only might Warped have been their first show ever, but then to have an overtly trans-supportive band they can watch and feel comfortable in the crowd with? That’s a beautiful thing that I feel lucky we could share with them.
(((o))): On the Warped Tour you took a couple of people along to educate in preventing sexual harassment and in bystander intervention (3), did they have positive interactions?
I only know what they told me, since I couldn’t table all day or I’d lose my voice. They told me of mostly positive interactions, just teaching people basic bystander skills they could use that day at the festival if something came up, or back home the next time they were in a public space. There were some negative experiences, as in someone would come over and question the importance of what they were doing, but the positives far outweighed the negatives.
(((o))): OK, time to talk about the elephant in the room (lame political symbol joke)! The Republicans won the 2016 election which means the USA has Trump as President. Over here we had our version with Brexit. The Leave result seemed to emboldened some racists and xenophobes, what sort of cultural effect did the Trump win have in the USA? Has there been any experiential shift?
Same, the bigots are emboldened for sure. But everyone else is a little more awake now, too, realized that they have to fight for what they believe in, it’s not just a given anymore. So I have a ton of people approaching me for safer space workshops, who want to learn bystander intervention skills. It’s a great way to take control of your own little corner of the world, when everything else seems too overwhelming to handle.
(((o))): Apart from college educated women, the majority in all categories of white voters seemed to have voted Trump including 62% of non college educated white women (5)! What did you feel that revealed about white American identity and white female self esteem that they voted for a man who had been caught boasting about sexual assault?
Internalized sexism is a hell of a drug. I mean, people really think they can get ahead as an individual if they rally around the ones oppressing the group they belong to. You see it with sexism, racism, etc. People will tie their worth to the nearest white male, hoping some of that privilege and confidence and ease of moving through the world will rub off on them, and maybe it does for a time, but at what cost? And what happens when things inevitably go south? They will choose their own, these white men, they won’t have the back of any women or men of color when it comes down to it.
(((o))): In January, a year after Trump was inaugurated, there were still big protests in the USA for women’s rights and against misogyny and racism (6), has Trump’s presidency united feminists and created a lot of male allies-an ‘If not me who, if not now when’ moment?
Yes, it has. We must keep moving toward a non-violent society, but we’re on our way. Victims are being believed more and more, abusers are being taken down, and while keeping all that up the next step is actual accountability and rehabilitation for the ones who have caused harm. All while we avoid creating “untouchable, all-powerful men” by diversifying every meeting, company, board room, movie, etc etc.
(((o))): And has it led to alliances of resistance with other groupings of people?
It seems like people get it, that marginalized groups of people, if we fought together, would greatly outnumber the supposed “majority.” I feel it in the workshops I run, people know that they must stick up for each other, because who else will do it?
(((o))): You had Kathleen Hanna join you on vocals for the track ‘YDTMHTL’, did that have a sense of joining the dots, linking up with another artist whose music has also been about female empowerment and challenging gender stereotypes?
For me, I just felt lucky enough to work with someone I have admired since Junior High. Really, it was surreal. I must confess, I was being selfish and thinking more about the joy of recording with her than what it might mean for others to hear us link up!
(((o))): What current bands should we be checking out?
Krimewatch, Downtrodder, Gouge Away, HIRS, Sick Shit.
(((o))): What plans do WoW have for the rest of 2018? Any trips to Europe?
Definitely some touring, and if we can’t come to Europe this year then we’ll see you next year!
Big thanks to Shawna for time, thoughts and words.
Photo courtesy of Bridge Nine Records.
(1)Pelly, J. (2018), War On Women, ‘Capture The Flag’ https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/war-on-women-capture-the-flag/
(2)’War On Women’, http://www.bridge9.com/waronwomen
(3)Westcott, L. (2018), ‘Punk Icon Kathleen Hanne Has Something To Say About Being The ‘Right Kind’ of Feminist’
(4)Potter, S. (2017), ‘Let’s Not Mistake The Dickies’ Onstage Warped Tour Rant For Anything but Misyogeny’ https://noisey.vice.com/en_us/article/mbaa4q/war-on-women-on-the-dickies-warped-tour-rant
(5)Henley, J. (2016)’White and wealthy voters gave victory to Donald Trump, exit polls show’ https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/nov/09/white-voters-victory-donald-trump-exit-polls
(6)Buncombe, A. (2018) ‘Women’s march: Thousands protest against Donald Trump’s ‘racism’ and ‘misogyny’’ https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/womens-march-donald-trump-racism-sexism-washington-dc-protest-latest-a8170171.html