“Well, with the way girls dress these days, what do you expect?” is something I’ve heard WAY too many times from people who try to dismiss street harassment as a serious issue by blaming the harassed person – instead of the harasser – and by making it sound like this is a “new” problem. As if in the “good old days” this didn’t happen.
Guess what, it did happen. This is not a new problem.
A week ago, I listened to a presentation about street harassment around the turn of the 20th century, given by Dr. Estelle Freedman. She covers this topic in her forthcoming book on sexual violence during that time period called Redefining Rape: The Struggle against Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation. It will be published by Harvard University Press in fall 2013.
I was fascinated by what I learned. And curious. This past Saturday, my partner and I spent our afternoon at a local college library combing through old newspaper articles. We found HUNDREDS of stories about street harassment from the 1880s through the 1950s. We were so excited, we kept nudging each other, sharing humorous stories of women getting the better of their harasser(s).
On the one hand, it’s depressing to have documented proof showing how long street harassment has been a problem, on the other, it’s exhilarating to read how women fought back! And, I think it’s important evidence showing how street harassment is not about what women today are or are not doing or about what we are wearing. Street harassment is a symptom of inequality and women’s second-class citizenship and that was a reality 100+ years ago and it is still a reality today. Until that changes, street harassment will continue.
I hope to launch a Tumblr or some kind of online museum full of “street harassment in history” stories in the near future. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the story posted below (found via ProQuest.com). And also, here is a book about self defense for women, written in 1942, that is accessible in its entirety online. One type of person the author advised women to fight off was the street harasser…often termed “masher,” “street flirt,” and “sheik.”
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