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Cat Calling: A History


This is from May but I just saw it and it is a good piece putting street harassment and women dealing with it in historical context. It’s not like the last four months have aged it!

There was a time when street harassment was taken seriously in the United States. In the mid-1800s, newspapers reported that men were bothering women in public places with “street insults.” These insults could be as simple as greeting a woman with a “Good evening,” or offering to walk her to her door if she was out alone after dark.2 This conduct might appear benign at first, but it presumed a familiarity that was not supposed to exist between strangers, especially between men and women who did not know each other.

At the turn of the twentieth century, women began to campaign against “mashers” and “male flirts,” men who accosted women in city streets. While “mashing,” like street insults, involved all sorts of annoying and threatening behaviors, commentary on the phenomenon often latched on to looking, ogling, or leering as the most bothersome behavior. Women described the feeling of being watched everywhere they went, and how passing a row of men on the street felt like “running the gauntlet.”

In Detroit, the local paper denounced mashers who loitered on the post office steps because they made it hard for women to mail their letters in peace. “Every woman who passes through this throng of idlers,” bemoaned the Detroit Free Press, “is subjected to scrutinizing attention.”

In what became known as the “mashing crusades,” city councils across the country passed anti-street harassment ordinances. Many explicitly targeted “ogling” as a punishable offense. In Houston, the city council even passed an ordinance that forbade men from making “goo-goo eyes” at any woman traveling on city streets. This was a time when behaviors like catcalls, whistling, and leering were considered offenses serious enough to warrant a fine or a few days in the local jail.

It’s good to hear that the past took this more seriously than the present. And of course, the reason to take it seriously is quite profound:

In an extreme example, the murder of a young woman in Chicago in 1916 was reported as an example of how quickly street harassment could lead to physical violence. When Richard Ivins murdered Bessie Hollister on a Chicago street, he was depicted as a meandering stranger who took the opportunity to proposition an unescorted woman and then murdered her when she resisted his advances.

Today, that guy would get named by our sexual assaulting president to the Supreme Court.

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