"Smashing the Masher:" The early women's movement against street harassment in America

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"Smashing the Masher:" The early women's movement against street harassment in America

by Theresa Johnston on Monday, April 18, 2011 - 3:14am

The term “mash note” refers to a gushing or steamy love letter -- something a breathless fan might send to a movie star. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, though, the word “mash” had a more disturbing connotation.

According to Estelle Freedman, the Edgar E. Robinson Professor in U.S. History at Stanford University, aggressive male street flirts, or “mashers,” were a widespread and vexatious problem for American urban women in the pre-suffrage era. She recently encountered the term in old newspaper articles and editorial cartoons, while doing research for a book on the history of sexual violence in America.

Unlike the stereotypical black rapist in the white press and in the 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation, mashers usually were depicted as well-dressed white men whose behavior was more irritating or comical than menacing. In this way, Freedman explained, the masher scare minimized the sexual threat of white men while leaving intact dominant fears of black men as violent rapists.

Illustration from The Cosmopolitan Dec 1, 1906, p. 168

“I just couldn’t stop reading about it,” Freedman told a lunchtime gathering at Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research. “In America the term ‘masher’ initially applied to married men who approached women in public, or who frequented brothels. By the 1880s more sinister representations of mashers appeared. Cartoons showed them ogling women ominously in public spaces like Coney Island, which were becoming popular.”

The rise of the masher phenomenon reflected changes in American demographics. As industry supplanted agriculture, more single men were leaving their families for work in the cities. At the same time, more women were entering the public sphere on their own as shoppers, students and wage earners “Matrons ventured downtown to go to the new department stores, where they would encounter an increasingly young female sales force,” Freedman noted. “En route downtown, both shoppers and shopgirls might encounter the masher.”

One of the most interesting things about the masher problem, Freedman said, was the evolving public response to it. At first newspapers urged respectable men to play a stronger role in protecting women from ogling and catcalls. Gradually though, women began taking matters into their own hands. One of the masher cartoons shows an outraged shopper beating her tormentor with an umbrella.

When a crime wave terrorized Chicago in 1905, the Tribune helpfully reprinted stories from around the country about women who had fought back successfully. “One told of a Philadelphia stenographer who took boxing lessons from her brother and then knocked out the man who was forcing his attentions on her,” Freedman said. “Another told of a Japanese visitor to New York who used jujitsu against an electrician who tried to speak to her on the street.”

The masher threat also impelled more women to exercise in city parks not to improve their health or looks or even to provide the brute strength to fend off an attack, said Freedman, but to give them a “keener intuition of what her assailant” might be planning, noted the Tribune article.

On an institutional level, cities from New York to Los Angeles began hiring female police officers specifically to protect young women. “By 1920,” Freedman noted, “almost 300 women were serving on police forces in over 200 cities, many of them acting as quasi social workers.” Victims of street harassment also were encouraged to prosecute men who had tormented them, despite the notoriety a public court appearance might bring.

Interestingly, public outrage over mashers seemed to decline significantly after women got the vote in 1920. As Freedman observed, “In the new sexual era taking shape, public flirtation ceased to be as offensive as it had once been.” Movies popularized the adventurous flapper, while radio stations filled the airwaves with titillating songs about flirting. At the same time, “a more aggressive ideal of manhood was replacing the chivalrous protector and the respectful gentleman of the late Victorian era,” she said. “Guardians of street morality seemed outdated . . . The street pickup became comic and normative.”

It wasn’t until the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and ’70s that mashing again became a matter of public interest – only by this time the behavior had a new name: street harassment. As with the anti-masher movement, outrage over street harassment emerged at a time when more women were venturing into historically male spaces. And just as at the turn of the century, “Fighting back physically and legally represented a forum of female resistance to sexual threats,” Freedman said, “and insistence on full economic and political citizenship.”

A graduate of Barnard College and Columbia University, Freedman specializes in women’s history and feminist studies. She has taught at Stanford since 1976 and is currently a Faculty Fellow at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research. Freedman has just been awarded a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship for next year that will allow her to complete her book, which is tentatively titled “The Political Response to Rape: Gender, Race, and Sexual Violence, 1870-1930.”