On the afternoon of May 28, 1903, Leoti Blaker, a young Kansan touring New York City, boarded a Fifth Avenue stagecoach at 23rd Street and settled in for the ride. The coach was crowded, and when it jostled she noticed that the man next to her settled himself an inch closer to her. She made a silent assessment: elderly, elegantly dressed, “benevolent-looking.” The horse picked up speed and the stage jumped, tossing the passengers at one another again, and now the man was touching her, hip to hip, shoulder to shoulder. When he lifted his arm and draped it low across her back, Leoti had enough. In a move that would thrill victim of modern-day subway harassment, she reached for her hatpin—nearly a foot long—and plunged it into the meat of the man’s arm. He let out a terrible scream and left the coach at the next stop.
“He was such a nice-looking old gentleman I was sorry to hurt him,” she told the New York World. “I’ve heard about Broadway mashers and ‘L’ mashers, but I didn’t know Fifth Avenue had a particular brand of its own…. If New York women will tolerate mashing, Kansas girls will not.”
Newspapers across the country began reporting similar encounters with “mashers,” period slang for lecherous or predatory men (defined more delicately in Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie as “one whose dress or manners are calculated to elicit the admiration of susceptible young women”). A New York City housewife fended off a man who brushed up against her on a crowded Columbus Avenue streetcar and asked if he might “see her home.” A Chicago showgirl, bothered by a masher’s “insulting questions,” beat him in the face with her umbrella until he staggered away. A St. Louis schoolteacher drove her would-be attacker away by slashing his face with her hatpin. Such stories were notable not only for their frequency but also for their laudatory tone; for the first time, women who fought back against harassers were regarded as heroes rather than comic characters, as subjects rather than objects. Society was transitioning, slowly but surely, from expecting and advocating female dependence on men to recognizing their desire and ability to defend themselves.
(San Francisco Sunday Call, 1904)
Working women and suffragists seized control of the conversation, speaking out against mashers and extolling women’s right to move freely—and alone—in public. It was true, as social worker Jane Addams lamented, that “never before in civilization have such numbers of young girls been suddenly released from the protection of the home and permitted to walk unattended upon city streets and to work under alien roofs.” Dating rituals and sexual mores were shifting. A man no longer called at a woman’s parlor and courted her under the close eye of her parents, but took her to a show or a dance hall, where all manner of evil lurked. The suffragists rejected the notion, advanced by the Chicago Vice Commission, that unchaperoned women should dress as modestly as possible—no painted cheeks or glimpse of ankle—in order to avoid unwanted attention. The issue lay not with women’s fashion or increasing freedoms, one suffragist countered, but with “the vileness of the ‘masher’ mind.”
Instead of arguing with the suffragists, some detractors took a more subtle approach, objecting not to women’s changing roles but to their preferred mode of self-defense: the hatpin. Tales abounded of innocent men—no mashers, they—who fell victim to the “hatpin peril.” A 19-year-old girl in Scranton playfully thrust her hatpin at her boyfriend and fatally pierced his heart. A young New York streetcar passenger felt a sharp pain behind his ear—an accidental prick from a stranger’s hatpin—and within a week fell into a coma and died. Also 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.
In March 1910, Chicago’s city council ran with that idea, debating an ordinance that would ban hatpins longer than nine inches; any woman caught in violation would be arrested and fined $50. The proceedings were packed with curious spectators, men and women, and acrimonious from the start. “If women care to wear carrots and roosters on their heads, that is a matter for their own concern, but when it comes to wearing swords they must be stopped,” a supporter said. Cries of “Bravo!” from the men; hisses from the women. Nan Davis, there to represent several women’s clubs, asked for permission to address the committee. “If the men of Chicago want to take the hatpins away from us, let them make the streets safe,” she said. “No man has a right to tell me how I shall dress and what I shall wear.”
Despite Davis’ impassioned speech, the ordinance passed by a vote of 68 to 2. Similar laws subsequently passed in several other cities, including Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and New Orleans. Ten thousand miles away, in Sydney, Australia, sixty women went to jail rather than pay fines for wearing “murderous weapons” in their hats. Even conservative London ladies steadfastly refused to buy hatpin point protectors.
“This is but another argument for votes for women and another painful illustration of the fact that men cannot discipline women,” argued the suffragist Harriot Stanton Blatch, a daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. “Women need discipline; they need to be forced, if not led, out of their barbarisms, but women never have and never will submit to the discipline of men. Give women political power and the best among them will gradually train the uncivilized, just as the best among men have trained their sex.”
The furor over hatpins subsided at the onset of World War I, and died entirely when bobbed hair and cloche hats came into fashion—at which point emerged a new “social menace”: the flapper. It wouldn’t be long, of course, before politicians grew less concerned with what women wore than with how to win their votes.