In the late 19th century, from the moment that American women were granted the freedom to leave their houses unescorted, they encountered a pest known as “the masher.” Generally, a smarmy mustachioed fop, this unfamiliar man winked at or brushed up against a shop girl on the streetcar, loomed over and stalked a working woman walking down the street, called out “hey turtle-dove” to teenage girls. The most galling mashers groped, hugged, and kissed any girl or woman they declared irresistible.
“The masher’s chief peculiarity is a profound faith in his dominion over the other sex.”
Today—almost 150 years later—we’re realizing that the masher, who is now called a “sexual harasser,” never went away. Thanks to women and men like the ones “TIME Magazine” dubbed “The Silence Breakers,” we know the most prominent mashers can be found watching TV in the White House and glad-handling potential voters at state fairs. They’re in Hollywood casting calls, on print and radio editorial staffs, sitting at the anchor chair on TV news programs, and commanding tech company board meetings. We know they also badger women with very little power to speak out, those who work at restaurants and retail spaces, on cleaning staffs, and in the fields.
Thanks to the #MeToo Movement, women and men are slowly becoming empowered to expose decades of abuses they’ve suffered from powerful men—and to demand those abusers lose their jobs. Every day, more and more politicians, celebrities, journalists, and influencers are being outed as perpetrators of sexual harassment and sexual assault. The American media is finally taking victims’ claims seriously in a way that wasn’t imaginable just a year ago. For some harassers, the consequences have been swift; others remain unscathed.
But the #MeToo moment is not the first time the American media cheered on women standing up to sexual harassers. More than 100 years ago, around the turn of the 20th century, U.S. newspapers and magazines championed women who retaliated against mashers, even when these women responded to gropes and catcalls with violence. From the 1890s to 1920s, anything a woman had handy—a parasol or an umbrella, a riding crop, a hand fan, a metal lunch box, or a long, slender steel hatpin—could become a righteous weapon against the so-called “masher menace.”
“On the spectrum of sexual offenses, mashing occupied the least violent end, in contrast to the more physically assaultive acts of attempted rape, rape, and rape murder,” Stanford history professor Estelle Freedman writes in her 2013 book Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation. “Although the masher posed a more benign threat, the drive to redefine street harassment as a crime paralleled other efforts to draw boundaries around the sexual privileges enjoyed by white men. For a short period, women assertively protested unwanted sexual attentions and insisted that any sexual offense warranted police action.”
In the early 20th century, “both white and black women in Northern cities fought back, went to court, and [had men] arrested,” Freedman continues. “The revolt against the masher signaled an important transition in American women’s public lives. … Parallel to the quest for full citizenship as voters, the call for safety to travel alone meant greater access to both labor and leisure. Women recognized that street harassment impeded their mobility and marked them as intruders on historically male space.”
Historian Karen Abbott, the author of Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers and Playboys in the Battle for America’s Soul, says that mashers derived pleasure from wielding power over women by hinting at sexual violence that might or might not manifest.
“A masher knew the woman was uncomfortable, and he drew perverse pleasure in having the power to do that,” Abbott tells me over the phone. “Beneath the surface, the threat is there, letting women know that if they wanted more freedoms to venture out into society, then they would have to deal with this sort of attention. Mashing was a way to put women back in ‘their places’ and police their activity, decisions, and whereabouts.”
“In the South, black women had long endured sexual insults from white men as they traveled, but they had little recourse for complaint.”
While the term “sexual harassment” didn’t enter the American lexicon until the 1970s, at the turn of the 20th century, American women made the first big stride to liberate themselves from the types of verbal taunting and threats that hold them back to this day. “Underlying all [women’s rights] campaigns was the recognition that white men’s freedom to be sexually violent or coercive lay at the heart of their political power,” Freedman explains in the introduction to Redefining Rape.
To understand the anti-masher movement, you have to look back at early 19th-century America: Back then, social customs dictated that a woman rarely leave the house unaccompanied by a “protector”—usually her husband, father, or brother—particularly after dark. Good and proper women, considered the moral centers of their families, were expected to stay home to tend to the children and household chores. When women did go outside, they wore bonnets and other hats tied around their necks with bonnet strings or ribbons, a style that largely obscured their faces. When a girl came of marrying age, suitors would arrange a formal visit to her house, which her parents chaperoned. Men and women did not generally interact socially outside of courtship rituals, and that restriction included eye contact and casual conversation. The strict social limitations put on women and girls also left them powerless against any sort of abuse their family or husbands subjected them to, whether it was verbal or physical. In the South, enslaved women suffered beatings and rapes throughout their lives.
Of course, some 19th-century American communities flouted the standard social conventions, including pockets of anarchists, progressives, free lovers, and the odd religious commune that invented its own sexual morés. At the same time, suffragists, female abolitionists, and temperance leaders were demanding access to the public sphere—which meant speaking in front of men—at great personal risk.
The peril was quite real. Before the Civil War, women who did walk the streets alone at night were assumed to be prostitutes, who were marginalized and exploited. In fact, the popular euphemism for a female sex worker at the time was “public woman,” which tells you how little power women had. White men felt free to touch, degrade verbally, and abuse physically any sex worker they encountered. Besides prostitutes, the only other women a man might run into roaming independently after dark were performers such as actors—like sex workers, female actors lived on the fringes of society and were demeaned for flouting social conventions, like wearing visible makeup, because supposedly “decent women” did not paint their faces.
In fact, the word “masher” has roots in the theater world. Female actors, with their glamorous stage personas, attracted crushed-out fanboys, who would try to meet them after their shows. These obsessive fans became known as “stage-door Johnnies,” and later, “mashers.” According to cultural historian Kerry Segrave, the author of 2014’s Beware the Masher: Sexual Harassment in American Public Places, 1880-1930, the term is thought to have originated in 1860s New York City—although it’s possible Irish immigrants brought it from the U.K. The Gaelic word “maise,” pronounced “masher,” derided a handsome man as a dandy—the vain, overdressed sort who’d been labeled, at various times and regions, “gallant,” “ruffian,” “roué,” “macaroni,” “buck,” “fop,” and “swell.” Around Broadway, anyone overcome with feelings of love was said to be “mashed,” as Segrave explains, to “a state of idiotic infatuation, softness, or pulpiness.” Sometimes a lovelorn man wrote his favorite actor a “mash note,” which might tell her she’s beautiful, confess his love, or suggest she meet him for a rendezvous. For a brief period, young mashers were also referred to as “dudes.”
While this sort of “masher” might sound adorably quaint to us, odds are, being mashed on wasn’t such a cute experience for the actors, who were confronted with boatloads of male entitlement and sometimes treated with the same low regard as sex workers were. Later, the term “masher” evolved to mean “womanizer” or “lady-killer,” particularly a foppish and attractive man who made a game of trying to seduce proper married women. But by the mid-1880s, “mashing” started to look less like “Don Juan”-style romantic seduction and more like unwanted badgering or straight-up assault from any average guy on the street.
As America grew more industrial and urban in the 1870s, women started taking jobs in cities, in department stores, offices, and factories. Single men began to take single women out on dates to restaurants, dance halls, and theaters, which were now patronized by regular folk and not just prostitutes and their Johns. Even housewives left their homes to shop. These women traveled on foot, horse cars, streetcars, omnibuses, boats, trains; some transit companies even offered separate “ladies” seating so unescorted white women could travel unbothered. Working women, who often identified as early feminists fighting for the right to vote, started going out in public, not just to work, but to visit the beach, go shopping, and socialize in parks. They also started using tinted face powders to maintain the illusion of a youthful complexion, and they were proud to show off their fashion sense, which was an important part of their path to liberation.
For example, in 1850s, the invention of the hatpin had released women from face-concealing hats held on by neck-constricting bonnet strings. The first hatpins, used to attach straw hats to women’s hair, were only 6 to 8 inches long, but in a few decades, the hatpin grew into an accessory that could also serve as a formidable weapon for fending off advances. Women in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and across Europe, had adopted hatpins to attach all sorts of headwear to their hair, so that by 1870, jewelers offered such pins in a wide range of styles for every income bracket. Some had simple balls for pinheads, while others were adorned with precious jewels or held secret compartments. Thanks to the popularity of American singer and actor Lillian Russell, around 1890, bold women started wearing huge wide-brimmed hats on big upswept hairdos, held together with hatpins as long as 10 inches.
“Women were experiencing more freedom in all realms of life,” historian Karen Abbott tells me. “For the first time, women were leaving their rural homes and venturing into the big city. Men were not courting them in their parlors, as in previous decades, but they were actually going on dates in public, out to potentially dangerous spots like ice-cream parlors, dance halls, and theaters. Of course, there was a lot of anxiety about this newfound freedom for women, as well as women’s attempts to get the vote. ”
Once women stepped into the public sphere on their own, white men began to punish them for it. In the 1870s, it was against social morés for unacquainted men and women to interact at all without a proper introduction from a mutual acquaintance. So back then, women could be “annoyed” or insulted by behaviors we’d consider mild today—a strange man smiling at her, tipping his hat, or saying “Hello there” or “How do you do?” If a woman accidentally made eye contact with a strange man, for example, he read it as it as a sexual invitation. By the same token, if a woman addressed a man she didn’t know in a kind or friendly manner, she might be accused of “encouraging” any harassment she received. While some of the masher’s offenses were basic social faux pas that might not trouble women today, we have to remember the risks Victorian women faced. In the same period, young women entering the workforce were subjected to “rape by gangs of young men,” according to court records, and those stories were rarely publicized in the press.
Newspaper accounts from the period about “mashers”—a term the media first applied to sexual harassers in the 1880s—describe behavior that’s sickeningly similar to today’s creeps. They called the women “honey,” “sweetie,” “cutie,” or “chicken” and commented on their good looks. Some mashers just stared too long and hard, ogling or making “goo-goo eyes.” Like silent-movie villains, they gave women self-satisfied smiles while twirling their mustaches. They winked, made wolf whistles, touched women on the arm, and petted women’s hair. Working women, who saw themselves as proper, respectable ladies, did not take kindly to being regarded in the same manner as prostitutes.
Other mashers deliberately stood too close to women on public transit in order to brush up against them. They whispered sweet nothings into strange women’s ears and followed them for blocks and blocks, sometimes all the way home. The worst type of masher got physical; for example, he might take a strange woman’s hand or put his arm around her shoulders or waist. Mashers also grabbed women, forced them against walls, and pulled them into carriages. They groped, hugged, and kissed without even the pretense of permission. By the early 20th century, women attending movies on their own had to fend of “matinee mashers.” As soon as cars became affordable, men known as “auto sheiks”—a name inspired by Rudolph Valentino’s title character in the 1921 silent film “The Sheik“—attempted to coerce women into their automobiles, too. If the rare woman who got in a sheik’s car refused his advances, she might be thrown out in a country field far from town.
“The masher’s chief peculiarity is a profound faith in his dominion over the other sex,” a “Brooklyn Eagle” editor mused in July 1884. “To these mashers all women are impure, vain, and are but waiting the opportunity to have their vanity flattered by the attention of the masher,” opined an 1891 Sacramento newspaper editorial. “The whole tribe [of mashers] should be exterminated, if it could be done lawfully.”
“A rebuff seldom does any good, and as a rule it takes a sound thrashing to bring a masher to his senses, and cause him to cease annoying women.”
American mashers, or “male flirts,” were predominantly white men, historian Estelle Freedman writes, but their victims could be women of any color. In the Jim Crow era that followed Reconstruction in 1877, black men who were accused of mashing on white women—including making eye contact or saying “hello”—were often violently lynched. Most of those accusations were false, invented as an excuse to rile up an angry white mob. Black men were very aware of the vicious racist caricatures that depicted them as brutal, sex-crazed beasts. Because America’s mainstream racist culture categorized white men as simply rude flirts and black men as rapists, flirting could cost a black man his life.
“On the West Coast, an Asian man who approached a white woman could inspire mob action as well,” Freedman explains in Redefining Rape. “In this way, the coding of nonviolent mashers as white reinforced earlier racial contrasts with black men’s presumably violent sexual assaults across race lines and the sodomitical acts ascribed to new immigrants.” These racist caricatures perpetuated by the mainstream press, Freedman points out, ignored the regular sexual violence directed at black women.
For white men, mashing behavior often went unpunished in the 19th century. That’s because most of their victims were too embarrassed to say anything. The women didn’t want to draw attention to themselves, and certainly didn’t want to do anything so uncouth as appearing in court, where they would have to discuss vulgar, humiliating matters in an all-male environment of police officers, judges, and juries. When she did get the masher arrested, he often gave a fake name, and sometimes even a fake occupation and address as well, so that his reputation went unmarred. At the time, Americans did not carry ID cards, while police fingerprinting was not introduced until 1906—and even then, it was not in widespread use. Many feminists suspected police officers went easier on mashing suspects than they did female prostitutes, Kerry Segrave writes in Beware the Masher.
“She ran a hatpin into the masher’s arm with such violence that the occupants of the coach were thrown into confusion by the screams of the elderly stickee.”
A few cities eventually passed anti-mashing or anti-flirting laws that made it a misdemeanor to “annoy” a strange woman, punishable with a fine. Mostly, mashers would be charged with disorderly conduct or disturbing the peace, and would pay a fine, which could be as low a $5 (a week’s worth of wages for many) to hundreds of dollars. Occasionally, mashers who could not pay their court fees or bail were sentenced to anywhere from 10 days to 6 months in prison, or sent to a workhouse or chain gang.
In Beware the Masher, Segrave has carefully compiled all the newspaper write-ups about the mashing phenomenon, and taken together, it’s an ugly picture. “Curbstone Johnnies” loitered in groups on street corners along main thoroughfares in nearly every major city in the U.S.—including New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Richmond, Minneapolis, Chicago, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco—making the sidewalks an uncomfortable, and often hostile, place for any women under the age of 50 to walk. The elevated or “L” streetcars in Manhattan, the fastest way to commute, were riddled with mashers. Men accosted woman on the street, but even when they got to work, they still endured rude comments, sexual innuendo, and unwanted touches from their bosses, as author Lynn Peril details in her excellent piece, “My Boss Is a Rather Flirty Man,” on HiLo Brow.
Mashers also stalked department stores, whose managers had taken to hiring attractive young women to sell their products. These “shop girls” became the objects of obsession for mashers, who lingered outside stores, waiting for their targets to get off work. Some mashers even hung outside churches on Sundays, biding time until the loveliest worshippers emerged.
“Nothing in North American society since the end of World War II is comparable to the huge amount of loitering behavior that took place in the 1880s through the 1920s,” Segrave writes. Often, “it was specifically for the purpose of ogling and mashing females.”
And then there were the schools. At the turn of the 20th century, a forward-thinking movement had opened high schools and colleges to teenage girls, who had previously been discouraged from pursuing education. Yet, even these noble institutions were tainted by the packs of mashers, men in their 20s and 30s, who lurked outside their doors, including at Wadleigh High School for Girls in Harlem, hoping to seduce wide-eyed students. It’s not too different than, say, a 30-something district attorney prowling an Alabama mall in the 1970s, looking for young teenagers to date.
As prevalent as the mashing phenomenon was, most Victorian-era Americans found it vulgar and distasteful, offending their collective sense of propriety, as well as notions of property. A woman was still seen as “belonging” to her father or husband, so a masher not only insulted a woman’s honor, he was also affronting the respectable men in her life. A decent man would mind his manners and hold out for a proper introduction before courting a lady.
“If women care to wear carrots and roosters on their head, that is a matter of their own concern, but when it comes to wearing swords, they must be stopped.”
At first, the press expressed less concern for the women being harassed than contempt for the way mashers threatened the Victorian model of masculinity. In the earliest editorials on mashing, male journalists were most aggrieved by the flirt’s flamboyant fashion sense and careful attention to his appearance—a feminine behavior that was assumed to make him more attractive to women. In August 1880, a man writing for a St. Paul newspaper complained about a traveling salesman, “one of those disagreeable and disgusting fellows … who when in town who visits his barber two or three times a day, changes his clothes every time the sun passes under a cloud, and indulges in many other nonsensical practices only known to the fool masher.”
Other male writers derided mashers for wearing cheap clothes meant to look expensive. “He is made up of a cheap suit of clothes, a ten-cent cane, a flashy necktie, a variegated hat, [a fake gold] watch chain minus a watch, a 99 cent diamond pin, an idiotic grin, an empty skull and a barren purse,” a Missouri reporter explained in 1882.
But it was also written that the wealthiest men were more likely to mash and get away with it. A reporter covering an up-and-coming New York City district in 1893 named “the elderly masher” as “the worst character in the new Tenderloin. He is rich and adept in the art of staring a woman out of countenance, and he isn’t to be abashed by any amount of snubbing.”
“The Brooklyn Eagle” noted in October 1884 that the masher’s “alleged wide popularity with women is altogether inexplicable to the majority of men.” He was a “pusillanimous fool who flirts in the cars, in the restaurants, the theater, and on the streets. … they are men of all ages and conditions. A fat masher is no more of a novelty than a thin one, and mashers of forty years of age are quite as numerous as those of twenty.”
One defining characteristic of mashers was their refusal to take no for an answer. “The mashers haunt the street corners on every pleasant day, and the various places of amusement in the evening,” a St. Paul reporter documented in January 1889. “They are ever on the alert for a pretty face, and when they see one their attacks begin. … The masher generally knows enough to act decently at first, and not to seriously offend by making a public demonstration of his alleged affections. A rebuff seldom does any good, and as a rule it takes a sound thrashing to bring a masher to his senses, and cause him to cease annoying women.”
That same year, a letter to the editor of “The New York Sun” explained that no woman could walk the streets without unwanted male attention—which sounds quite a bit like the message of today’s #MeToo and #YesAllWomen hashtags.
“Hordes of women hunters parade the streets day and night, and no young or middle-age woman, unless absolutely repulsive, is free from their attentions. The side streets as much as the prime thoroughfares are infested with these animals, and wives and daughters are persistently followed and reach their homes on the verge of hysteria,” she asserted. And these mashers were rarely charged with a crime, as “the majority of women look with horror on such a thing as appearing in a police station or a courtroom.”
Segrave says an 1893 edition of “The San Francisco Call” made a similar complaint about the lack of legal repercussions for mashers languishing on Market Street. “The great trouble, grumbled the reporter, was that the women insulted by the mashers preferred to submit to the insult rather than the notoriety of the police court,” Segrave writes, “and in nine cases out of 10, unless the police officer happened to overhear an insult, no conviction could be registered.”
Mashers, like pickpockets, employed several standard ruses to ensnare their victims, Segrave explains. A masher might walk up to a woman and greet her as if they were old friends. He might bring a letter to a post office, drop it, and then ask a woman if she dropped something. A more aggressive masher might knock a woman to the ground with a forceful hug, slowing her ability to chase him down the street. One particularly alarming report described a “love powder” a masher gave to a woman to “knock her out.”
“A masher knew the woman was uncomfortable, and he drew perverse pleasure in having the power to do that. Mashing was a way to put women back in ‘their places’ and police their activity, decisions, and whereabouts.”
At the same time, many 1880s writers and editors held that, of course, mashing was the women’s fault. Some writers insisted that the woman in question must have wanted the attention and egged on the flirtation in some way. They asserted that if a decent, proper woman kept her eyes to herself and ignored the masher, he would simply go away and leave her alone. Others even suggested that mashing was largely an imagined phenomenon, made up by women hungry for male attention and eager to brag about it.
An 1883 editorial in a Philadelphia newspaper and syndicated across the country asserted those silly women needed to stop being so darn liberated and return to more demure ways. The writer claimed a masher “will not often speak to a woman who offers him no encouragement. … It is manifest that the girls are to blame for his presence on the streets. Let them lay aside their dashing boldness of manner, which they often foolishly imagine denotes independence, but which is as dangerous as it is unseemly … Many girls are lacking in that modesty which would entitle them to consideration.”
But wait, there’s more: This writer, and others, thought parents should keep their daughters on lockdown until marriage. “In no other country are unmarried women allowed so much freedom as in our own. In view of the disastrous results of this custom, it would seem to be part of wisdom to adopt the Old World fashion of chaperones.”
An 1892 “Los Angeles Herald” editorial entitled “Not Always the Men,” said a woman who “looks neither to the right nor to the left” would be safe. This writer believed that young women needed to contain themselves and stop having so much fun with their girlfriends.
“It is only those who trip along in a semi-inviting manner and look as if they had lost somebody, that are accosted by the bipeds who stand at the street corners,” the writer opined. “Troops of young girls are seen on the streets at all hours of the day and late night, laughing, talking loudly, and even acting in a boisterous manner, inviting the attention of just such men.”
In an 1899 letter to the “Washington Post” editor, Thomas W. Gilmer claimed mashing didn’t happen if the woman didn’t participate. “It takes two to make a flirtation. In almost every case the woman who is addressed by a stranger can silence him with a look or a word without calling a policeman or raising an alarm and therefore attract unpleasant attention.”
Historian Estelle Freedman agrees that around 1900, the shifting social norms around courting had made the rules about men approaching women murky. Some young working women, who were then used to being out and about, did want to have the freedom to exchange glances with and say “hello” to a handsome stranger, in the hopes that he’d politely ask her out on a date.
“In the past, a white woman making eye contact with a man on the street could signal a willingness to sell sex,” Freedman writes. However, by 1900, her eye contact “might mean a willingness to take a stroll or to be taken out for a meal. The trend toward ‘treating’ and ‘dating’ among urban youth helped blur the line between romantic flirtation and commercial prostitution.”
“Personally, I admire the woman who visits swift and thorough punishment where punishment is due. She leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind. She knows her rights and she claims them.”
Buttoned-up writers also blamed mashing on modern women’s fashion, like the eye-catching hairdos, oversized hand muffs, and dramatic hats, adorned with fake fruit, big silk flowers, ostrich feathers, or taxidermied birds and held on by long steel hatpins. Around the turn of the 20th century, brave, feminist New Women—inspired by Charles Dana Gibson’s illustrations of the fashionable “Gibson Girl“—began to wear low-cut S-shaped corsets, big bustles, and tight skirts that flared at the bottom and emphasized their curves. Their high-necked shirtwaists, completely modest by today’s standards, might have had “peekaboo” patches of eyelet lace on the chest, upper back or sleeves, which revealed skin and even cleavage—in a covered-with-gauze way. Clearly, the editors fumed, such clothes would drive men helplessly wild.
The editor of “The Washington Times” wrote in January 1905 that mashers had their curiosity excited about the eccentric nature of modern fashion and the large, commanding presence of a woman “who wears her hats just a trifle larger than necessary for beauty or comfort, her heels just a trifle higher than they need be, a little more fur, a bigger bunch of violets, and a huger muff than is actually in keeping with her face and figure. It is she who enters the street car with a swish and a dash, who hold her skirts just a trifle high, and also talks across the aisle at her chums in an unnecessarily vibrating key. … The masher eyes her and unconsciously he knows she likes his stare.”
In November 1905, a New York paper published a piece that compiled letters complaining that décolletage and tight skirts were the real cause of evil, and the story was syndicated across the country. One male letter writer described a young woman “whose costume was such that it made certain portions of her figure very much in evidence, and, old sinner that I am, I found myself making goo-goo eyes at her. How could I help it.”
Other voices in the media were more sympathetic to the mashers’ victims. Freedman explains that much of the public masher panic related to the anti-vice movement and patriarchal fears about innocent girls being lured into prostitution or so-called “white slavery.” Around the turn of the century, some states began to pass statutory rape laws raising the age of consent to a more mature age, such as 16, and making it a crime for older men to have sex with young teenage girls.
In the late 1880s, several newspapers celebrated women who slayed street flirts—with their wit. Sassy women shamed these vain dandies by comments that would make them feel small and worthless, prompting them to slink away. Women loudly mocked mashers as beggars, wheezing grandpas, or dogs. Some clever women even walked alongside their mashers long enough to lead the men directly to their husbands or their local police stations.
That same decade, society also allowed that a respectable, chivalrous man should intervene and defend a woman’s honor. Sometimes a woman being annoyed or badgered got support from bystanders, or her husband, who had just stepped away for one moment. In response to the insult, these men might beat a masher with their bare hands or whip him with a riding crop.
The courts—and press—usually celebrated and encouraged such a physical response. Occasionally, a woman would lure a known masher into a trap where he’d be assaulted by her partner or friends. Generally, the masher, with his eyes blackened or nose broken, would be charged with a crime, albeit a minor one, and fined, while those defending the woman would not. More rarely, a woman or her husband responded to a street flirt by pulling out a gun.
At the end of the decade, more and more newspaper editors championed freedom for women. They encouraged women to report and charge mashers—and sometimes demanded the police be more aggressive in dealing with the menace. An 1889 editorial in the “St. Paul Daily Globe” thanked the local police and urged “them to go forward in the good work until any lady can feel free to go upon any street in the city at any hour of the day or night, without fear of molestation or insult.”
By the 1890s, women were so fed up with sexual harassment, they refused to grin and bear it anymore. They began to lash out at mashers in earnest—without the assistance of men. Sometimes a woman gave into to indelicate impulses and slapped or punched a masher with her own hands. Mashers were shoved, tossed, or kicked by women, episodes that were comically illustrated in newspapers.
“There were all sorts of cartoons poking fun at women trying out these self-defense tactics, and of course, tying them to the meme of the Angry Suffragist,” historian Karen Abbott tells me. “Men portrayed women’s desire to have the right to vote and to venture into public safely as inherently unladylike.”
In December 1898, Mrs. Charles C. Lane—also known as strongwoman Mademoiselle Suzinetta, a sideshow entertainer who juggled cannon balls and broke iron chains with her hands—punched a stalker so hard he hit the ground. He charged her with assault, and when she testified at the Yorkville Police Court, she said he’d been annoying her for two days so she hit him. The magistrate told her, “You are the woman this town has been looking for for a long time.” He dismissed the charges against her.
Feminine fashion accessories also became anti-masher weapons in the 1890s: A woman might jab a masher in the foot with the sharp end of a parasol, smash him over the head with her umbrella or ram its tip into it his abdomen. She might knock him down with her hard pocketbook or lunch box, or beat him with her horsewhip.
Fortunately, these belligerent women had the support of the suffrage movement, social reformers, and crusading journalists, particularly the editor of “The Evening Sun” in New York. By the turn of the century, such progressives finally took control of the media narrative, and made these women out to be heroes rather than pariahs.
“Women as a whole realized that they needed to stop depending on men,” Abbott says of shift around the turn of the 20th century. “They were finally in a place in society where they felt comfortable asserting and standing up for themselves. When challenged about it, women defended themselves in the press, saying the issue isn’t with us venturing out, or our clothing. When women got attacked, they insisted, the problem was ‘the vileness of the masher mind.’ They were correctly placing the blame on men, and refusing to blame the victim.”
In a 1906 essay in “Cosmopolitan” titled “The Girl Who Travels Alone,” women’s rights activist Eleanor Gates wrote, “Every girl has a legal right to travel about alone without having to endure annoyance. … Personally, I admire the woman who visits swift and thorough punishment where punishment is due. She leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind. She knows her rights and she claims them.”
Analyzing this essay, Freedman writes, “In an allusion to more violent crimes, Gates hinted that ‘annoying of women’ was ‘only one phase of the subject,’ which included other stories that ‘would not bear publication.'” Meaning the “hey baby” come-ons of mashers may not seem that bad, but the words were always pregnant with the threat of rape.
In 1900s, many authorities insisted the onus of bringing mashers to justice was on the victims—but women now would be believed. “Every woman who prosecutes such a man may be sure of the most courteous, considerate treatment in court and in the newspapers,” declared an editorial in “The Salt Lake Herald.” “She does nothing to warrant the approach, and when the unpleasant event comes to pass she should resent it in the most effective manner possible—in the nearest court that has jurisdiction.”
The shift in public consciousness from blaming the victims to championing women’s rights in some way parallels 2017’s narrative shift around how powerful men treat women that’s been brewing since the Women’s March in January.
“Women were standing up to mashers in such great numbers that they had a loud collective voice and new energy on their side,” Abbott says. “The liberated image of New Woman was popular, and she wasn’t an anomaly or an aberration. The women standing up to mashers were a tremendous new political force, and it became a losing proposition to attack them in the media.”
Businesses like department stores and posh hotels were also eager to clear their sidewalks of mashers because if women felt safe coming to their establishments, they would spend more money. Suffragists, meanwhile, believed that better street lights and policing, as well as more political power for women were the keys to creating safe cities for women. In the meantime, they would turn to self-defense.
As early as 1898, Segrave notes, entrepreneurs began selling gadgets for self-protection to women, such as air pistols that would shoot anything from small pellets or paper bits to facial powder and cayenne pepper—in effect, the first pepper sprayer.
When the women’s suffrage movement gained steam in the United States and the United Kingdom in the 1900s, self-defense became a hot topic as these female protestors often faced violence. American activists took a cue from British Suffragettes and started to study the Japanese martial art of jiu-jitsu: Women’s jiu-jitsu clubs formed in New York City in 1901, and five years later, Virgie Drox brought the martial art to Los Angeles. Other women took up boxing, practicing with punching bags. More women studied sports as fencing, hockey, rowing, and tennis, to improve their balance, coordination, and confidence.
“In the summer of 1910, suffragists in Washington, D.C., declared that the ‘masher’ must go,” Freedman writes Redefining Rape. “For decades, these ‘male flirts’ had been trying to force their attentions on women on city streets, sometimes merely calling out sexual insults, sometimes physically harassing them. Periodically urban police chiefs in cities ranging from Chicago to San Francisco had declared war upon these white men they called ‘obnoxious oglers.’
“The revolt against the masher signaled an important transition in American women’s public lives as they navigated urban space as workers and consumers,” Freedman continues. “Parallel to the quest for full citizenship as voters, the call for safety to travel alone meant greater access to both labor and leisure.”
In particular, the anti-masher weapon that captures our imaginations most today is the hatpin, highlighted in the December 2017/January 2018 issue of “Bust” magazine. It’s the perfect intersection of first-wave feminist chutzpah and a fashion accessory so arcane we have a hard time picturing it in use.
“As far as protection goes, they were very handy,” hatpin collector Jodi Lenocker, vice president of The American Hatpin Society, tells me. “What else did girls have available to them?” The phenomenon even inspired the bawdy 1920s tune, “Never Go Walking Without Your Hat Pin,” she says. “It says, ‘If you go walking out without your hat pin, you may lose your head as well as lose your hat.’”
The earliest record we have of a woman dispatching a masher with her hatpin is an April 20, 1903, newspaper account about Mayme Andrews, who was walking to her East St. Louis home from her department-store job. A brief report in the “St. Louis Republic” describes the scene: A “young man, whom [Andrews] does not remember of having ever seen before, accosted her. She did not reply to him and walked faster. The young man walked alongside of her and almost touched her arm. Miss Andrews, as a last resort, reached into her hat and withdrew a big hatpin. The act was not discovered by the young man, who, the next moment, howled with pain, as she drove the hatpin into his shoulder. The would-be masher then ran down the street.”
A month later, the tale of Leoti Blaker—an “exceedingly pretty” young tourist from Kansas who encountered a predatory man in big bad New York City—received a thorough, colorful write-up in the “Evening World.” The reporter describes the masher as a well-dressed “elderly” 50-year-old man who offended her on a Manhattan ground-level streetcar, then called a “stage coach.” Judging from Blaker’s response, it’s likely he used the crowded car as an excuse to touch her.
“A blue-eyed girl, a hatpin, a Fifth Avenue stage and a well-dressed man of fifty were the constituents of a short but absorbing drama to-day which resulted in a new method of exterminating the masher evil being introduced,” the reporter wrote breathlessly. “The blue-eyed girl was Miss Leoti Blaker, and she ran a hatpin into the masher’s arm with such violence that the occupants of the coach were thrown into confusion by the screams of the elderly stickee.
“‘If New York women will tolerate mashing, Kansas girls will not,’ said Miss Blaker indignantly to an Evening World reporter afterward. … ‘I reached up and took a hatpin from my hat. I slid it around so that I could give him a good dig, and ran that hatpin into him with all the force I possessed. Of course, all the time I was looking calmly in front of me, so that when he let out a terrible scream of pain no one in the coach had any idea what had happened. They all looked at him inquiringly, but he didn’t have a word to say. He just got up and left the coach at the next corner.”
“The Evening World” then explained that Blaker, who didn’t count herself as a feminist, was still a big advocate for the hatpin as a weapon of self-defense. She said she planned to carry an extra hatpin in her shirtwaist from then on. “As a masher exterminator, [Blaker] has met with such unqualified success that she recommends [the hatpin] to all Gotham girls who are annoyed by the attentions of evil-minded men.”
Writing for “Smithsonian Magazine,” Karen Abbott described how, in a few short years, the hatpin went from a heroine’s tool to a social menace. Perhaps it was too effective. By the end of the Edwardian period, women’s hats were so tremendous, the hatpins that held them could be 12 inches and longer. The tip of such a pin often protruded from the back of a woman’s hat an inch or more.
“A 19-year-old girl in Scranton playfully thrust her hatpin at her boyfriend and fatally pierced his heart,” Abbott writes. “In New York, a hundred female factory workers, all wielding hatpins, attacked police officers who arrested two of their comrades for making allegedly anarchistic speeches. Even other women weren’t safe. In a suburb of Chicago, a woman and her husband’s mistress drew hatpins and circled each other, duel-style, until policemen broke it up. ‘We look for the new and imported Colt’s hatpin,’ one newspaper sarcastically opined, ‘or the Smith and Wesson Quick-action Pin.’ By 1909, the hatpin was considered an international threat, with the police chiefs in Hamburg and Paris considering measures to regulate their length.”
Around the United States, men began to worry about getting inadvertently stabbed with the tips of these pins when the streetcars jostled passengers about, for example, and asked politicians to take action.
“I do appreciate that at that point, men realized that attacking women was a losing strategy, because the juggernaut of women’s increasing freedom was not going to slow down. So they said, ‘Let’s instead target the hatpin,'” Abbott tells me. “At least it shifted the conversation to how the women were defending themselves rather than whether or not they had the right to defend themselves, which had become the norm at that point. That was something feminists accomplished, having women’s right to travel unmolested accepted in the mainstream narrative. People who were against women’s advancement had to find other ways to make their case.”
In spring of 1910, some city politicians started to ponder ways to alleviate the hatpin hazard: Could they force women to cut the sharp tips of their hatpins cut, wear hatpins shorter than 9 inches, or have the tips of the hatpins capped with rubber? As Chicago’s aldermen discussed ways to regulate these fashion nuisances, an heiress and drama student named Nan Davis stepped into the fray, writing the board an open letter.
A woman “is no more permitted to carry a revolver or other weapon than is a member of the sterner sex,” Davis wrote. “Before leaving a street car I always carry a hat pin ready in my hand until I am safe within the door of my house. Many a time it has proved its need. Thousands of other women undoubtedly can speak from their experience of how a stout hat pin has been an effective defense in time of danger.”
The night the board debated an ordinance to slap a $50 fine on any woman wearing a hat pin that stuck out of a hat more than an inch, Chicago women showed up, made speeches, cheered for one another, and sneered at the hatpin opponents. One woman, Abbott says, pointed out that it was ridiculous to limit a woman’s accessory when men were the ones behaving as predators and threatening women’s safety in the first place.
One alderman insisted that the hatpin danger had to be addressed. “If women care to wear carrots and roosters on their head, that is a matter of their own concern, but when it comes to wearing swords, they must be stopped,” he declared. “One man told me he was nearly decapitated in the city hall elevator by the sweep of a hatpin like a scimitar worn by one of the city hall belles. In the streetcar, if you turn your head, you risk the loss of an ear or an eye.”
Shortly after that, Indianapolis was debating its own hatpin ordinance, modeled on Chicago’s. On May 1, 1910, “The Indianapolis Star” published a dramatically illustrated and lengthy editorial.
It begins: “Did you ever look straight at the stiletto point of fifteen inches of steel but one inch between your eye and its threatening agent of certain destruction without flinching? … you, patient husband, and you, long-suffering strap-hanger; and you, defenseless citizen of the ready-to-run-at-any-moment countenance, you should find balm herein. The hatpin crusade is on.”
The author claimed to be in favor of women using hatpins on criminals, but insisted that innocent men had been “scratched, pierced, maimed, wounded, and disfigured” by failing to dodge hatpins at home and out in public. An Indianapolis elevator man named Robert Bailey complained about being cornered and scratched by a hatpin twice while he maintained control of his elevator. Former Indianapolis mayor Charles A. Bookwater described a hatpin stabbing his face on a streetcar, just a fraction of an inch from hitting his eye. When enjoying an Atlantic City amusement ride on vacation, Indianapolis city council member George B. Rubens said he collided with a hatpin, which pierced his upper lip. The story also mentioned that Howard T. Miller of Lesfershire, New York, had his head jabbed with a hatpin when a streetcar lurched. Miller was reported to have died of “blood poisoning” a week later.
“People riding transit in any close quarters have to be aware of their surroundings,” Abbott says, dismissing the reporter’s sensationalist fears. “Once people against women’s advancement decided to police the length of hatpins, they found one of the most effective means of selling the laws was to point out accidental pricks and stabbings. Some of the stories they reported seem unlikely, or very exaggerated,” like Howard T. Miller’s supposed hatpin-related death. “But it just underscores the length some men were willing to go to stop women from defending themselves. The fact that these ordinances passed shows you how absurd the Edwardian era was.”
However, police chiefs in other cities like Washington, D.C., and Salt Lake City were less eager to disarm women. D.C. chief Major Sylvester said, “As long as women must go about the streets, otherwise unarmed, so long will we feel reluctant to take from them a ‘concealed weapon’ that serves them so effectively.”
Indeed, the Chicago law may have made the masher situation worse. In July 1912, one South Chicago judge, fed up with street flirts, put out an itemized list of anti-masher fines. Historian Kerry Segrave writes, “For a kiss by a masher the fine would be $100; for a wink $40; for each additional wink $40; for a covert glance $10; for an additional covert glance accompanied by a ‘good afternoon’ $50. [The judge] explained that there were doubtless other mashing behaviors not then on his schedule, but they would be added as they came to his notice.” In Portland, another judge asserted he would levy a fine of $10 for each word a masher spoke to a strange woman. The Omaha, Nebraska, the “Masher Schedule,” announced in 1913 was $5 for calling a woman “chicken”; $10 for “honey-bunch”; $15 for “turtle-dove”; $20 for “baby doll”; and $25 for “little cutie.”
In other municipalities, citizens organized their own anti-mashing clubs to fight the masher menace. These groups might be all women, all men, or co-ed. Some worked with police and served as like spy networks to call attention to man in the act of mashing. Other clubs started patrolling the streets themselves, responding to mashers by hitting them with canes and blowing whistles to attract nearby cops.
“Women as a whole realized that they needed to stop depending on men. They were finally in a place in society where they felt comfortable asserting and standing up for themselves.”
In 1910, Alice Stebbins Wells made history joining the Los Angeles Police as the first female cop on the official payroll, and that year, suffragist Alice Clement was one of 10 women hired as Chicago police officers, assigned to shield women from “vice.”
In Los Angeles, Fay Evans volunteered her services as a masher decoy for the police in August 1911. In one day, she had nine men accused of flirting with her arrested, and the press dubbed her “the flirt cop.” But the L.A. police chief was mortified when he saw her outfit: “a light-colored lace dress, white shoes and stockings, black silk large-sleeved wrap lined with the silk of brilliant red, and collar and cuffs of the same hue. This was topped with a tall black domino hat.” The chief fired her immediately, stating “It’s all very plain to me now. That get-up would make most any man stare. You are discharged.”
By 1913, Chicago had official policewomen patrolling the streets for mashers. L.A.’s Alice Stebbins Wells told a reporter in 1914 she thought the female cops would deter harassers significantly. Other city police departments followed suit; for example, New York City police eventually established a women’s squad.
But the justice system wasn’t so friendly toward women. By the mid-1910s, the flapper movement was stirring in the jazz underworld, encouraging rebellious young women to cut their long hair, ditch their binding clothes, and show more skin. Even as these women began to push for more personal freedom in 1914, authorities tried to hold young women back. In Atlanta and Los Angeles, judges dismissed charges against mashers on account of their victims being “too pretty to be walking around alone.” In L.A., a court ordered 20-year-old Reatha Watson, a regular victim of mashing, to either return to her family or accept a court-appointed guardian.
In New York City that year, a bank clerk was charged on complaints of “forcing his attention” on a stenographer named Anna Molnar for several days, smiling, smirking, and lifting his hat at her on the elevated streetcar. He pled with the court, stating, “I am an honorable man and I wanted to meet this young lady. She is handsome and I am attracted by her. I have seen her often and I love her.” He was sentenced to 10 days in a workhouse.
Finally around 1914, black women were empowered enough to ask for the same safety that white women had been demanding for decades. “In the South, [black women] had long endured sexual insults from white men as they traveled, but they had little recourse for complaint,” Freedman writes. As the black newspaper “‘Chicago Defender’ noted in 1914, ‘It is next to impossible for a woman of good appearance to walk the street unescorted after 7 o’clock without being repeatedly subjected to the insults and indecent assaults of white men.’ Soon the black press began to highlight the racial dynamics of street harassment.”
Mrs. George Howe, a white suffragist whose husband was a nephew of President Woodrow Wilson, became an anti-masher crusader, remarking to the press, “Just think. I have been in New York three years, studying elocution, and in that time I have been annoyed by no fewer than 500 mashers.” In October 1914, Howe made a splash in the news when she got her latest harasser sentenced to 10 days of hard labor.
“Women recognized that street harassment impeded their mobility and marked them as intruders on historically male space.”
After World War I ended in 1918, “the image of the harmless street flirt began to supplant that of the dangerous male pest, while policewomen came under greater scrutiny,” Freedman explains. “Benign representations of mashers had never entirely disappeared. Coincident with efforts to suppress public flirtation, popular songs such as ‘The Flirt‘ and ‘Wouldn’t You Like to Flirt With Me?’ depicted men tempted by female beauty as well as young women willing go off with them. In his 1914 silent film ‘The Rival Mashers,’ Charlie Chaplin triumphed as the sympathetic underdog who won the attentions of women on the street at the expense of a seemingly more powerful male flirt. By the 1920s, women’s magazines popularized the ‘It’ girl, epitomized in film by Clara Bow playing a working girl who knew how to flirt, get the right man’s attention, and retain her virtue. For white middle-class youth, not only flirting but even premarital intercourse became more common, though still taboo to admit.”
In the 1920s, women finally had the right to vote. That same decade, more and more Americans embraced car culture, so would-be mashers either drove a vehicle or rode in a friend’s car, instead of loitering in a park or on a street corner. Eventually, the state requirements for license plates killed the anonymity that had allowed men to solicit women as “auto sheiks” without consequences.
Some crusades against sexual harassment carried on. In the black press, the attack on “ofay” (derisive slang for “white people”) mashers was just beginning in the 1920s, as those newspapers zeroed in on self-defense, male protection, maintaining respectability in an effort “to redefine sexual assault—or insult—as unacceptable for women of their race,” Freedman writes.
In 1922, five white men organized the Anti-Flirt Association, which first met on November 22, at the Biltmore Hotel in New York City. The club’s slogan was “Jail the Flirt,” and its logo, printed on buttons, was a lizard pierced with a hatpin. An Anti-Flirt leader, James Madison, told the press he wanted the group to establish branches in every American city to make U.S. streets safe for women.
In February 1923, the Anti-Flirt Club was established in Washington, D.C. On March 5 of that year, U.S. congressman Manuel Herrick from Oklahoma addressed the co-ed group before it paraded down F Street to kick off “Anti-Flirt Week.” The marchers pinned anti-flirt pinbacks on the people they passed. A week later, the group was dismissed as a publicity stunt promoting the film “The Flirt,” which debuted at movie theaters in December of 1922. The bad press, whether true or not, delivered a death blow to the group’s credibility, and anti-flirt groups fell out of fashion, along with the hatpin.
In 1924, New York City women’s squad chief Mary Hamilton admitted to “The New York Times” that more women were willing to come forward with their testimonies against harassers because the hearings were now private—and she discovered mashing was still a serious problem. Women were right to be wary of the legal system, she said, as the male police officers sometimes took the side of the man accused. In fact, in that decade, the general public started to take pity on men who claimed to be confounded by coquettish flappers.
“When New York City established a ‘subway squad’ in 1924, with plainclothes policemen arresting ‘subway pests’ who approached plainclothes policewomen, complaints about innocent men being victimized by ‘hysterical or notoriety-seeking women’ followed the crackdown,” Freedman writes. “Like the move from protecting girls through statutory rape laws to blaming girls for entrapping men, the discourse on the masher could serve to shift public sympathies from women toward men, especially those arrested by [female police officers].”
Despite all the anti-masher fervor for half a century, Segrave says that law enforcement never took sexual harassers seriously, and so mashers thrived. “Police forces around the nation regularly declared war on the mashing evil, sometimes several times in a calendar year,” Segrave concludes. “But they never managed to bring the problem under control. … It was also argued by some feminists that the police were more likely to believe a man when he reported he had been solicited by a prostitute, and arrest that woman solely on the man’s word, than they were a woman wanting them to arrest a masher.”
When 1930 rolled around, social rules limiting conversations between men and women seemed downright passé. “For decades women had been going out and about in a wider and wider sphere as they sought equality,” Segrave writes. “In many such places they ran into men they did not know, such as at dances hosted by civic officials, at lectures held in various venues, and at public entertainments of different sorts. It seemed to make no sense to refuse to discuss, say, a lecture with the person who sat beside you just because he was of the opposite sex and you did not know him.”
The price women paid for access to the public sphere and some amount of sexual liberation was, ironically, increasing tolerance of men’s sexual transgressions. When a man’s innocent “flirtations” like making eye contact and saying “hi” to a stranger became accepted, women found they also often had to put up with strange men giving them too-familiar pet names, as well as unwanted touches and kisses. As new entertainments like film and recorded music exploded, men’s overt objectification and coercive, stalkerish behavior were often portrayed as innocent and romantic gestures of love. Between 1930 and 1970, a woman who found herself uncomfortable with a man’s behavior had almost no legal recourse or even social safeguards, other than claiming he offended her “good girl” respectability.
“In the growing climate of sexual liberalism, fear about sexual insult gave way to a greater acceptance of flirtation, just as concerns about statutory rape gave way to an acceptance of youthful sex adventure,” Freedman says. “Yet women of any race remained vulnerable to unwanted sexual attentions, while their repertoire for acceptable responses seemed to narrow.”
As we all know, women today struggle with how to respond to unwanted touches and inappropriate comments, especially from men who hold power over their lives. It’s been 97 years since women gained voting rights, and men, particularly white men, still feel entitled to any woman’s time, attention, and often her body. As the #MeToo Movement shows, as far as we’ve come, Americans have more work to do to mash the mashers and shut down sexual harassers.
“The ‘mashing’ that was happening to women in the Edwardian era is still happening to women on a daily basis, and we still struggle with uncertainty of how to respond to it,” historian Karen Abbott says. “As women, we’re all conditioned from a young age that you have to make yourself small and ignore these men, lest you provoke them into violence,” she muses.
“If only we could bring hatpins back, right?”
(For more information on mashing, pick up Kerry Segrave’s “Beware the Masher: Sexual Harassment in American Public Places, 1880-1930” and Estelle Freedman’s “Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation,” and click on Karen Abbott’s “Smithsonian” piece, “‘The Hatpin Peril’ Terrorized Men Who Couldn’t Handle the 20th-Century Woman” and Lynn Peril’s HiLo Brow article, “My Boss Is a Rather Flirty Man,” part of her Planet of Peril series. To learn more about hatpin collecting, read our interview with Jodi Lenocker and contact The American Hatpin Society. Abbott is also the author of “Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers and Playboys in the Battle for America’s Soul,” “American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee,” and “Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War.” Check out our interview with Abbott on female Civil War spies here.)