Photos by Erica Lauren
Around the time War on Women was taking the stage at Saint Vitus in Brooklyn, New York this October, Donald Trump was a thousand miles away, taking the stage at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri for the second Presidential debate against Hillary Clinton. As the ardently feminist punk band was pounding through songs about sexual assault and street harassment, Trump was fielding questions about a recently surfaced video in which he bragged about kissing women without their consent and grabbing them "by the pussy," which he dismissed as "locker room talk."
The band's frontwoman, Shawna Potter, who typically prowls the front row of her audience with an intimidatingly direct presence as she screams lyrics about rape and abortion, had an uncharacteristically vulnerable moment between songs as she described her feelings on the Republican nominee.
"The way he feels about everyone but himself is why I'm afraid to leave my house sometimes and be in public as a woman," she said to a silent crowd. "And I don't know what it's like to be trans, I don't know what it's like to be black, but I bet there are some common threads there, where sometimes you just fucking don't feel safe." She put her hand over her heart as tears welled up in her eyes and her voice began to waver. "And it scares the shit out of me."
While the Baltimore band has been kicking around since 2010, their songs about women's rights have garnered an urgency in this election year with the rise in popularity of Trump, a candidate who has not only been accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct, but has said that there needs to be "some form of punishment" for women who have abortions, and who seems woefully ignorant on Roe v. Wade. Truly, War on Women is the most relevant band in punk right now.
The band, which includes three women and two men as members, has seized the moment with a relentless touring schedule and has added new items to its merch table, which also offers condoms and tampons. They've been selling red hats meant to mock Trump's MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN slogan with their own: MAKE AMERICA FEMINIST FOR ONCE. They also sell yellow flags parodying the DON'T TREAD ON ME logo with the words DON'T GRAB MY PUSSY.
In the final stretch of the election from hell, we talked to Potter about Trump, Hillary, and voting.
Noisey: This seems like the best possible year to be in War on Women.
Shawna Potter: [Laughs] You know what I just thought of today? "Donny" sounds like "Ronnie," and there have been so many great punk songs during the Reagan era, so there's gotta be good ones coming out of this Donny era. They make it really easy for us to write these songs. But the thing is, all these songs we're playing live these days, these were all written over five years, so it's nothing new.
Sexual assault and harassment have been pervasive themes in your lyrics for a while, and right now we have this candidate who embodies all of it—a sexual harasser, awful on women's issues. Has that made it easier for you, having a focal point for your ire?
It's funny because for the entire history of this band, I've been able to say, "This song is about reproductive rights." "This song's for Ted Cruz." "This song's for Santorum." I could name any politician that happens to be popular on the right and there's always someone to dedicate a song to. But really, I think [Trump] has mental health issues, honestly. More than he has a weird belief system. I think he has mental health issues that have gone unchecked, and that is scary because he's not getting any treatment and he's unpredictable.
On women's issues, it's not just that he's awful, it's that he seems to have no understanding of what Roe v. Wade even means.
Yeah, I'm not scared of his belief system, because I don't think he knows what he believes. He doesn't know what he knows. He doesn't know what he doesn't know. He says whatever he feels in the moment. I would much prefer a candidate who is measured and thinks about issues, even if they think differently from me. At least they have reason. I feel like I'm on drugs. I feel like this isn't real life.
Did the Billy Bush/Access Hollywood video give you any new insights to him?
For me, what I noticed was: Why is this the tipping point for other Republicans to finally start distancing themselves from him? I think white men love to protect white women. So him saying something like this about a white-presenting woman—I actually don't know where she's from, that actress—that was upsetting to me. They don't want him "speaking lewdly" but they don't mind if he strips away her rights to control her body, legislatively. But it's the same thing—if you think you're entitled to my body, then you're gonna grab it with my consent or you're gonna legislate against it without my consent. I see it as the same thing.
He's polling terribly with women of both parties, but what do you make of the diehard women who are still voting for Trump, particularly the ones who wear shirts to his rallies that say things like "Trump can grab my pussy anytime"?
Internalized misogyny is a very serious thing. There's a great quote—I'll just butcher it—but Gloria Steinem was asked about Miley Cyrus when Miley Cyrus was really feeling herself and doing her own thing and becoming a grown-up in a way that made a lot of people uncomfortable. So someone asked Gloria Steinem how she felt about Miley Cyrus putting herself out there and she was basically like, "You can't blame her for playing the only game she knows." It's not about the individual. It's about the institutionalized sexism that we live with every day. It takes a jump-start, it takes a special situation to come out of that. And some people are lucky and they get out, and some people start learning in their 30s, and some people never learn. But unless Morpheus is offering you the right color pill, then why would you understand?
I've seen you deriding Trump and Republicans a lot, but I haven't seen you really get on board with the "I'm with Her" movement. I don't ask you to speak for the whole band, but on a personal level, are you not enthused about the promise of a Hillary presidency?
I cannot speak for the band, so I like that you said that. We don't all totally agree, and that's fine in a democracy. Our end-goals are the same, but how we get there, we all have a different idea of what we think would work best. For me, I'm a diehard third party. I completely know that that's a very privileged position to be in. I'm taking advantage of my privilege because I live in a blue state. I know I can vote green party down the line and know Hillary will still win Maryland and we won't have Donald Trump.
Would you vote differently if you lived in Ohio or Florida or some battleground state?
I guess I can't predict, but maybe. If I lived in Texas, I might vote for Hillary. But what I'm finding is that it seems really difficult to engage in these anti-Trump conversations. I feel like everyone should be anti-Trump. I can't understand why someone would be pro-Trump, but I feel like that's a given, so I don't understand why there are so many progressive people who have to follow up with: "Yeah but Hillary this, yeah but Hillary that." Some of these folks are the same ones that are in love with Obama, and I'm like, that dude is killing people all the time with drones, y'all. Yeah, he's cool and he's funny and his family rules, but he's still the President and making horrible, hard decisions I'd never want to make myself and killing people, which is not something I'm cool with. So Hillary is the same for me—she's a politician, and you can't be a politician without doing some shady shit at some point. But at least she knows what the fuck is going on and she's a sane person. And she does represent people who have never been represented in that position, and that's a big deal to see yourself up there.
Her shadiness and flaws aside, are you at least excited about the prospect of seeing the first female President in your lifetime?
Of course. Because I've been able to see some of those feelings after Obama was elected, to see young black kids be excited and think, "Oh, I can be President too." I'm such a huge believer in: You can't be what you can't see. So people have to be represented. You have to put black people on TV. You have to put trans people in movies. You have to appoint people who look like the American people, and we're not just all old white dudes. So it's so vital that we get rid of a million white men in a row. So yes, of course I want to see a woman President and I want little girls to be inspired to be President, but I can still be anti-war and anti-corruption. Life is really nuanced. I think a lot of the political conversation that goes on—at least in my Facebook feed—there's no nuance. Life is more complicated than that.
Did punk get too complacent during the Obama years?
Over the last eight years, thanks to the internet bringing more people together and people finding more people who believe what they do, people have woken up a little more to a lot of things like intersectionality and Black Lives Matter and Trans Day of Remembrance. There are people out there that are like, 16, that know more about feminism than I do, because they can find all the information, whereas when I was younger, you had to seek it out. People are more educated in those power dynamics, but they haven't made any hard decisions like this. Maybe they're voting for the first time. How do you apply all those things you've learned to real life? How do you deal with it for real? You can have ideology, but you have to work with what exists. So you can protest and set things on fire, and that's cool, but if you're gonna vote, you have to vote for someone. So who are you gonna vote for and why?
So Obama let folks relax for a bit, because we knew he could handle whatever was going to happen. Like, "Oh, he killed Osama Bin Laden himself with his bare hands! He's a badass!" I think people forgot that there's still been even more division between the left and right. [War on Women] was born after the first Obama election, so there are things that were bothering us, and that's a Republican Senate and House. So Obama's cool and everything, but there's plenty of other dudes trying to restrict access to things we need.
What can men in punk do to better help women and gender-queer people?
I understand a lot of men's hesitation to put themselves out there, because they often just don't want to do it wrong, which I think is… nice. I understand that. You don't want to make anything worse. But you still have to try. You have to do something. Yes, people might be suspicious because you're being too nice. Or people might think you're doing it just to sleep with these feminist women, which, I'm sorry, is a thing that we have dealt with. But you still have to do the work of being an ally.
Do you ever worry that merch like that will come off as opportunistic?
I've definitely had concerns like that. I definitely don't want anyone to take what we're doing the wrong way. But I also think if a band is going to survive, unfortunately, they have to sell merch. So if we have to do that, we are one of the bands that should have these particular slogans. The last thing I want is some male-dominated band to be doing this and making money off it, or some corporation making money off of it in the mall.
How will your message change on November 9 if Trump is defeated?
Well, we will have just gotten home from this tour. I already sent in my absentee ballot. I don't know why but I'm predicting me crying. We are already planning to take the rest of the year off. We've been touring a lot, playing these songs a lot. We want to take a little break, see about writing a new record, let our brains recharge.
You're going to make War on Women Great Again?
The Republicans have been doing a good job of that for a while now.
Dan Ozzi is on Twitter - @danozzi