Beyond the Boys’ Club: Shawna Potter of War on Women

"Right now, we need to be fighting like hell for bodily autonomy, and everyone can do something."

War on Women by Julia Schwendner

Beyond the Boys’ Club is a monthly column from journalist and radio host Anne Erickson, focusing on women in the heavy music genres, as they offer their perspectives on the music industry and discuss their personal experiences. Erickson is also a music artist herself and recently released a new single, “Scars,” with Upon Wings. The latest edition features an interview with Shawna Potter of the hardcore punk band War on Women.

War on Women are a hardcore punk band out of Baltimore with a penchant for fiery riffs and powerful vocals that capture the audience’s attention with both sound and meaning. The band’s music is politically motivated, with War on Women writing about abortion rights, rape culture, street harassment, transphobia and other important social issues.

Shawna Potter is the lead vocalist of War on Women, whose latest album is 2020’s Wonderful Hell. She’s also an author, with her most recent book being Making Spaces Safer: A Guide to Giving Harassment the Boot Wherever You Work, Play, and Gather; and the host of the podcast “But Her Lyrics,” in which she discusses political action in music.

Ahead of War on Women’s upcoming Summer tour of the UK and Europe, Potter checked in with Heavy Consequence for the latest edition of “Beyond the Boys’ Club,” discussing the band’s music, what drives her to be involved in politics, her thoughts on, well, the war on women taking shape across America and more. Read the interview below.

Your music confronts important social issues, such as abortion, rape culture and transphobia. Do you feel this music is extra relevant now with what’s going on with Roe v. Wade?

It’s weird, because when you write political music and especially music that’s supportive of any marginalized community, it’s always relevant. It never stops being relevant. I would love nothing more than for sexism, racism, transphobia to go away and for me to have nothing to sing about. That’s the goal of this band: to run out of things to talk about! That’s the future that I’m looking forward to. I am starting to feel that kind of anger that when I was younger in my activism I saw in older activists. That feeling of, are we still doing this? I’m definitely starting to feel that, and it’s firing me up in a way that I haven’t felt for a while. I’m starting to find my anger again. I’m always grateful if someone finds some sort of comfort or solace or way to channel that anger through music.

Do you think women’s rights are taking a step back in this country.

Yes, but not just women’s rights. Just anyone that isn’t a white man with a certain bank account size. They don’t care about any of us. Our struggles are absolutely connected. It’s really very much that if they’re coming for me, they’re coming for you, and we have to fight it together.

Tell me about your book, Making Spaces Safer: A Guide to Giving Harassment the Boot Wherever You Work, Play, and Gather.

It’s based on years of doing safer space training with smaller to midsized venues and businesses. After doing that for a while, I decided to put everything that I teach and learn in one book so people could create safer spaces wherever they go. For me, it means a space where people can be free to express their authentic selves but also a place where the staff or people running the space are equipped to respond to harassments when it inevitably happens. So, when something does happen, everybody knows what to do.

You also have a podcast, But Her Lyrics, dedicated to political action in music.

It started as a way to promote our album that we released, Wonderful Hell, in October of 2020. We couldn’t play shows. I didn’t want to start a TikTok, so I thought something I’ve never done is document an album and talk about how the songs were written and give an in-depth look at the making of the album. That was the first season and first year. I broke down every single song off Wonderful Hell, and I thought, if I do another season, how do I want it to look? I decided to continue to cover War on Women’s songs from our catalog but also talk to people about social justice issues and talk to other lyricists about their political songs and the issues they raise.

What’s going on as far as new music with War on Women?

We’re definitely writing new songs. We have a couple demoed already. We’ve figured out what we want to do with them. We need to keep writing, because we don’t have an album’s worth quite yet.

What are your thoughts on the difference in the number of women in rock and punk music today verses when you started out?

When I started out, it was 1994. That’s when I started playing shows, although I had been playing guitar for a few years. I started playing shows in high school, and we made indie rock or punk rock, so we were often the only women in the room, because we were an all-women band except our drummer. It’s exponentially increased. There are so many women walking around, whether they’re working at a venue or onstage. The presence of women has gotten better as far as I can tell. But, it’s not enough. There’s still not enough women on stage. It absolutely takes seeing other people that look like you onstage to know that you can do that, too, so we still don’t have the numbers. I’m always advocating for that if there’s a tour package going out, there’s no reason why it should be all white men. There are too many bands out there for that to still be a thing.

What are some of the positive changes you’ve seen for women in music over time?

One is just the fact that people are talking about harassments more and bystander intervention more and what they can do. More people are realizing they have power to change things and make a difference, so that’s super helpful to make more people come to a show and feel welcome and safe. So, that’s good. But, I don’t think there are enough women played on the radio. I don’t think women artists are being paid the same as their male counterparts, not to mention any other marginalized genders. I also think with the ability for people to self-release their music, there definitely is a little bit of leveling the playing field having the opportunity to get your stuff in front of other people without gatekeepers. But, I also think people’s tastes and the biases of society are reflected in what’s popular. So, I’m sure talented women in music are still not being picked for playlists or accepted by fans as much as we should because we’re still kind of not used to hearing women’s voices, which is f**ked up.

Do you think there’s more pressure on women in music to look a certain way to be appealing?

Oh, yeah! I think that it’s helpful when groundbreaking artists have that I-don’t-give-a-f*** attitude. Lizzo and other artists are paving the way for others to show that everyone body has worth and deserves respect and is valuable and not disposable. I think that’s super important for people to go out on a limb and make it easier for others. We play punk music, but I still live in this society and am still impacted by sexism and our youth-obsessed culture and our thinness and beauty-obsessed culture. I have to work on my self-esteem, and that’s unfortunately a normal struggle for most people. But, I love how supportive my band is and how supportive the fans are when it comes to this stuff and body image. I know they like seeing people onstage that look like them and look real and attainable and are comfortable being themselves. I try to make sure whatever doubts I’m having that day, that I’m exuding that feeling of being comfortable in my own skin, so I can pass that along to the audience.

What advice do you have for women looking to get into music?

It’s so weird. It’s so different than when I started out, that I wonder if I would have anything relevant to say. I think the first thing is to let go of any self-doubt or feeling you have to be perfect before you even get stared. I had a lot of years of progressing in my guitar playing and singing, and I just got out there and played. I played as many shows as I could and kept getting better and better, and I think that’s really important to do. Therefore, if someone is judging you on your third show and saying that you suck, who gives a shit. You’re trying to get better. So, not letting anyone interrupt your journey.

It’s been great talking with you, Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Right now, we need to be fighting like hell for bodily autonomy and everyone can do something. Not everyone has to do everything, but everyone can do something. If so far you’ve taken a backseat, now is the time. It’s do or die time for a lot of people, and especially any men reading this. Unfortunately, they’re going to be listened to more and be taken more seriously, so we need their voices. We need them to advocate for the rest of us and not in a white knight, white savior way, but in a way where you realize the stakes are high for the rest of us and that this should impact you, too. You should care and be outraged right now. You can fight for us without drowning us out.


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