One day the catcalls and the shouts–the sexual harassment–became too much.
“I couldn’t walk from my apartment to the bank, which was three blocks, without being harassed every day by the dudes who worked at the oil change place,” says Shawna Potter.
“And they ranged in age and race,” she points out, “and I think that’s important for people to know. And this is in Catonsville, not Baltimore City. It is not a city thing, it is not a race thing. It’s an everywhere thing.”
She went in to confront the workers, only to be met with patronizing remarks.
“I was going up to them and saying: ‘Who said that? Say it to my face.’ And they’re like, ‘Oh, it wasn’t me. Oh, I’ll get the manager.’”
They were trying to belittle her own experience of what had just happened. But there had been other incidents for Potter before: more catcalling, sexist jokes from bosses, groping. For victims of such incidents, the male entitlement and the feeling of being unsafe linger in the ether, Potter says. Even for women who have never been assaulted, there’s the ever-present feeling they could be.
“And I just couldn’t shake it. And I just wanted to be a person. I didn’t want to be reminded every single f—–g time I left the house that I was a woman. I just wanted to leave the house and go to the bank because it was Friday and I have to cash my check, live my life.”
On her way back to a job at a vintage guitar shop, Potter decided she would write a letter to the corporate president of the oil change company. She walked into work upset and explained the situation to her boss. He told her, “I don’t pay you to write letters… Go to work.”
“He did not care,” says Potter, “there was no, ‘OK, I see you’re upset. Take five minutes, do this thing and then let’s go back to work.’ There was no acknowledgment that this might actually be a difficult thing to deal with regularly.”
In 2011, Potter started the Baltimore chapter of Hollaback!, an activist group committed to ending street harassment. They also host events where victims can share their stories, and train bars and clubs to operate as safer spaces.
At the time, Potter says it was important for her to know other people were going through the same thing.
“That was part of taking care of myself, just sharing experiences and knowing I wasn’t alone,” she says.
Having that support proved to be vital.
“It was helping me to help other people, and kind of create this support network,” she says. “It’s like I knew where I went to do a Hollaback! event, it was like a support group–and not in the sense that we were all necessarily sharing our stories and crying over it, but we could just be like, ‘We’re not crazy, right?’ ‘This does suck, right?’ And we’d all say, ‘Yeah, this does suck. You’re cool, you shouldn’t be harassed.’ ‘Me too.’ Just a real solidarity, truly.”
Around the same time, Potter and her long time bandmate, Brooks Harlan, decided they wanted to start a new group. They were in a math rock band, Avec, that was more metaphorical and poetic in its lyrics. This was to be different, something harder, and it would address feminism and the war on women–hence the name.
“And off the bat, like the first two songs we wrote, they were both about street harassment, just different ways of approaching the subject, but it was huge on my mind. Because I was just f—–g sick of it, dude,” she says with a laugh.
War On Women’s music is so much more, though–a thrashing combination of guitars, bass and drums that grabs you by the collar as Potter shouts her thoughts and razor-sharp commentary on subjects ranging from abortion to access to birth control to sexism to sexual assault.
Rave reviews about the band’s 2015 debut full-length rolled in, and the band landed a spot on the Vans Warped Tour, which travels across the country and boasts some of the biggest names in punk music. Vice’s music site Noisey designated War On Women as the “Only Band That Matters During This Election” in 2016.
Potter doesn’t see her music as radical, saying women in bands, researchers, scholars and activists have been touching on the ideas in her lyrics for decades. But their existence still means something important.
“This is the feeling I get from other people, that they are excited to have a mixed-gender band say it so overtly,” she says. “A critic would say ‘unapologetically feminist.’ I’m just saying what I want to say, what should be said, and I’m not sugarcoating it, I’m not like, ‘Oh, I’m making it poetic.’ I’m saying the words ‘I had an abortion’ 30 times in the same song, over and over and over and I’m screaming it in your face, literally.”
The words being sung or screamed hit home. Members of the group’s female fanbase will approach Potter after the show to tell her things like “This song changed my life” or “This song got me through the healing process after I was raped” or “This song made me major in women and gender studies.”
“Those are things that people have said to me and I’m so humbled, really honored to hear people’s stories,” says Potter.
And because of the song ‘Say It,’ a call-out of victim blaming that has the repeated refrain of “Say it! Say it! I was raped,” women feel comfortable confiding in Potter about being the victims of sexual assault or rape.
“It’s a big responsibility, so I try to take great care with them and be as good a listener as I can and know that maybe they can’t tell anyone else, but they feel like they can tell me. And I really want them to feel safe doing that. So I take the time to listen after the shows, even if I don’t get to help load out or something, help my band out at the end of the night. I need to be there talking with people, because they’ve just been silenced, and they need to get it out. And if that’s through me, fine, I’m happy to help in any way.”
In the midst of the #MeToo movement, the band’s second album, “Capture the Flag,” is due out this April. For Potter, the stories told as part of #MeToo were not surprising–she had heard so many like them before, and women had known about all of the harassment and abuse for a long time.
There was a hesitance to join with the common backlash cycle that almost always follows popular internet phenomena. But #MeToo has been sustained, and more and more women have come forward to share their stories, resulting in the firing or disgracing of Hollywood stars, business executives, politicians and other men of power.
“The next steps start to be, OK, what do we do about it,” says Potter. “And I think we’re starting to figure that out with all these call-outs in Hollywood, big-name call-outs, we’re seeing like, OK, well one thing we need to do is stop accepting that behavior.”
With so many men finally coming to understand how prevalent and serious harassment and assault are, Hollaback!–which, with Potter about to leave on tour, is looking for new leadership–started a group for men to learn how they can help, to “go from ally to accomplice.”
Potter does offer a bit of a curriculum and guidance, but otherwise it is up to the men to do the work themselves and learn.
“That seems like the next step, after raising awareness through storytelling,” she says. “You believe us now? OK, well f—–g do something about it.”
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