1900s Street Harassment and Lessons for Today

redifining rape

In college, I double majored in history and women’s and gender studies, and I also regularly faced street harassment when I left campus. I had no language to talk about it at the time and I often changed my life to try to avoid it.

Given my background, I really appreciate Stanford Professor Dr. Estelle Freedman’s new book Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation and the chapter on street harassers (“mashers”) from the 1880s to 1920s.

While I bought her book for that chapter, I read it cover-to-cover and literally underlined and made margin notes on every page. In approachable language, she examines women’s (and their male allies’) efforts to strengthen laws against rape, marital rape, and incest, and the parallel and intersecting movements by persons of color (and their white allies) to gain more legal rights and end lynching. I highly recommend her book if you’re interested in ending sexual violence, seeing racial equality, and care about social justice in general.

As more and more scholars are uncovering, street harassment is not just a contemporary social problem and Dr. Freedman’s chapter on mashers brings to light new information.

Poor women who have always been in public places for work have likely always faced street harassment (and worse), but once middle-class women began experiencing it in large numbers in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they made it a visible problem.

By the late 1800s and early 1900s, a growing number of people lived in cities instead of farms or small villages and many white men used the new anonymity a city afforded them to harass women without facing consequences. Around this time period, more middle-class women of all races were in public spaces unaccompanied by men as they went to work, shops, and the theater, and as “unescorted women,” some men saw them as “fair game.” Phrases used by street harassers sound the same as today: “Hey, baby,” “Hey, honey,” “How much for you?”

Upset by this unwanted attention, many middle class women — both white and black — spoke out and took action, making it visible in newspapers and other publications.

Dr. Freedman graciously spoke with me by phone about mashers.

Holly Kearl: While the chapter focuses mostly on street harassment in the early 1900s, you found references to it in the 1770s when women expressed their concerns about “sexual dangers” in public spaces and spoke about their desire to have the “liberty to travel freely.” Did you find it surprising that very similar language to what anti-street harassment activists use today to talk about equality in public spaces was used hundreds of years ago by women? Why or why not?

Dr. Estelle Freedman : I’m not entirely surprised. Women began to use the language of rights in different historical periods in different cultures. In England and the United States, at the time when women were moving into the public sphere in larger numbers it was also a time of democratic revolutions and women said, “We deserve our rights, too.”

While street harassment was probably going on consistently through the centuries, the condemnation of harassment strongly correlates with the height of the suffrage movement in the early 1900s — and in more recent decades, with the feminist movement — and other claims to space and rights.

Throughout your chapter, you cite newspaper articles featuring women who verbally and physically fought back against street harassers and even reported them to the police using laws like disorderly conduct so that the harasser faced a fine or a night in jail. Do you have a favorite story among the many you read?

Two stories come to mind right away. One is from 1924 in New York City when a black woman was riding the subway and a white man from a southern state is trying to pick her up as a prostitute. When she refused his attention, he told her that if they had been in Georgia, “I would have you strung up.” A white woman who witnessed this joined her and detained him until the police arrived and arrested him. This is a really rare example of a black and a white woman cooperating together and bringing in the authorities. It was very striking and atypical.

Another story I like is in Chicago around 1906-1908 when women held self defense classes in parks for other women. The idea was to help them feel less fearful in the streets, to walk with confidence, and to give them a sense of their physical power while in public spaces.

Today, sometimes men of color are disproportionately blamed for street harassment and depicted as street harassers. I found it interesting, then, to learn that in the time period you examined, the majority of news stories and reports featured white men as harassers – of both white and African American women.  Can you share why this was, and how it ties into the larger issues of race in your book?

In the newspapers, early nineteenth century mashers were all white and for good reason. For a black man to even chance looking at white woman on the street could lead to lynching. They had much less opportunity to be harassers. It would have been highly dangerous. [The newspapers typically only depicted white men as harassers of black women, too. While black women faced street harassment by black men, they largely kept quiet for fear of fueling the myth that black men were sexual predators.]

By type casting white men as a masher, it reinforced the idea that white men are harassers and black men are rapists. Keeping white men in the role of minor offenders masked white men’s more sever offenses against white and black women.

Right now, there is a huge resurgence in attention to the issue of street harassment and what we can do about it. What is one lesson you think we can learn today from how the issue was treated and addressed in the late 1800s to early 1900s?

One lesson is that you can’t separate the issue of street harassment from the larger issue of inequality. Women are underrepresented in legislatures, leadership, and are underpaid, and as long as women occupy a subordinate position economically and politically, they’re going to remain more sexually vulnerable.

Whenever women are mobilizing politically to get more rights, they also seem to have more of a vocal voice opposing sexual violence and street harassment. We need to keep the vulnerability of sexual assault and street harassment within the larger grid of women needing more economic and political leadership. We can’t treat it as separate.

Just passing laws doesn’t make a difference; we have to have a cultural shift, too. It’s really those deeper cultural values that can undermine the legal changes. Keeping an eye on what’s happening in the larger culture around sexuality is important and the more that women gain economically and politically, the more they can gain sexually.

You can find other scholarly articles, books, and theses about street harassment in the Stop Street Harassment resources section.

Photo Credit: Harvard University Press 

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