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How the 1920s Woman Dealt with Cat-Calling Men on the Street How the 1920s Woman Dealt with Cat-Calling Men on the Street

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Politics

How the 1920s Woman Dealt with Cat-Calling Men on the Street

An anti-flirting movement to crack down on unwanted male attention cropped up in Washington, Chicago, and New York City.

The 10 members of the Anti-Flirt Club, established in the 1920s in Washington, D.C.(The Library of Congress)

photo of Marina Koren
February 13, 2014

For women living in big cities, getting cat calls from random men on the street has been a daily occurrence for decades.

In 1920, a small group of women in Washington, D.C. were especially fed up with the heckling, whistling, and hooting. To combat this unwanted attention, they formed the Anti-Flirt Club. "Too many motorists here are taking advantage of the precedent established during the war by offering to take young lady pedestrians in their cars," Helen Brown, the club's secretary told The Washington Post on Feb. 28, 1923.

The Anti-Flirt Club, led by Harvard Street resident Alice Reighly, laid out this set of 10 rules for young American women to do their part to eradicate street harassment:

 

1. Don't flirt: those who flirt in haste oft repent in leisure.

2. Don't accept rides from flirting motorists—they don't invite you in to save you a walk.

3. Don't use your eyes for ogling—they were made for worthier purposes.

4. Don't go out with men you don't know—they may be married, and you may be in for a hair-pulling match.

5. Don't wink—a flutter of one eye may cause a tear in the other.

6. Don't smile at flirtatious strangers—save them for people you know.

7. Don't annex all the men you can get—by flirting with many, you may lose out on the one.

8. Don't fall for the slick, dandified cake eater—the unpolished gold of a real man is worth more than the gloss of a lounge lizard.

9. Don't let elderly men with an eye to a flirtation pat you on the shoulder and take a fatherly interest in you. Those are usually the kind who want to forget they are fathers.

10. Don't ignore the man you are sure of while you flirt with another. When you return to the first one you may find him gone.

Club president Alice Reighly stands along Harvard Street on Feb. 27, 1923. (Tom Wigley/National Photo Company Collection/Flickr)Seems easy enough: Don't get into cars with strangers, juggle too many suitors, or accept passes from creepy old men. All suggestions that still ring true for the modern, young American woman. Unfortunately that also means that modern, young American women still deal with the same unwelcome male attention that the Anti-Flirt Club members experienced decades ago.

After all, "lounge lizards," which The Atlantic's Alexis Coe defined as well-dressed men who woo women with their deceptive charm, still roam the streets (and bars) today. So do their similar counterparts, those "slick, dandified cake eaters."

And so do "mashers," men who made their "amorous intentions known in an aggressive manner, maintaining brief relations with various women," Coe writes. But in early 20th-century Chicago, mashers were akin to criminals, arrested for calling out at women they drove past on the street.

"This street flirting has got to stop in Chicago," acting Police Comissionner John Alock declared, according to a report by the Chicago Tribune from Aug. 9, 1931. "No longer may young men in automobiles edge over to the curb and honk their horns at pretty girls on the sidewalk. They must quit ogling women from loafing places in front of drug stores, cigar stores and other public hangouts."

A similar anti-flirting movement took hold in Manhattan, this one led by a group of men, including "George Carroll, [a] theatrical man, and James Madison, a broker," Coe wrote. Their goal? To "educate public opinion to the point where a woman will consider it her duty to prosecute the masher who attempts to force his attentions upon her," explained a New York Times article in Nov. 21, 1922.

"The five men forming the nucleus of the organization say that in New York's streets, especially in the theatrical districts, hordes of pests of the masher species are carrying their activities to a point where no woman is safe from approach and insult," the story went on.

Washington's Anti-Flirt Club launched an "anti-flirt week" on March 4, 1923, but some were skeptical about the campaign. "The trouble, as suggested so far, is that the organizers are trying not only to abolish the masher but to stop women themselves from flirting," The Washington Star reported.

By the end of the 1930s, the campaign to crack down on rowdy male motorists died out. Today, the blame behind street harassment rests solidly with the flirters, not the flirtees. The current movement mirrors the early campaigns of Chicago and New York City, encouraging women to report their harassers to law enforcement. Philadelphia-based artist Hannah Price even photographs the men who cat call her on the streets and posts the images online.

Modes of street transportation may evolve over time, but the mashers and lounge lizards never change.

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