Friday, May 31, 2013

The History of Street Harassment

Street harassment is a daily phenomenon in every pocket of the United States during the present day. Interestingly, this social trend can be dated back to the late 1800s in America.

Back then, street harassment was called mashing. There are actually records of women who physically exacted revenge on their harassers. In 1904, a Manhattan woman arranged to meet privately with a masher so she could beat him up. Two years later, when a woman boxer in Massachusetts was grabbed by a man, she knocked him out and then revived him with smelling salts out of pity. Other women slapped mashers in the face with their handbags and umbrellas, gave them swollen eyes, and even lacerated their faces.

The police of the early 1900s were very active in combating street harassment. Female officers were often put in charge of catching mashers, and were usually extremely successful. In New York City, a group of jiu jitsu-trained policewomen called the Subway Squad patrolled the trains as plainclothes officers, looking out for mashing. In both the subway and aboveground, mashers were often caught through stings, where they had female officers or harassed women serve as bait to entice the would-be masher.

Interestingly, many victims of street harassment pursued legal justice against mashers. By the 1920s, women were likely to sue because of the availability of private hearings and public encouragement. This era was also the Jazz Age, when women began exploring their sexuality. Since they had gotten the right to vote in 1920, women felt more liberated. A possible result of this increased sense of self is that women were more likely to value their bodies, and were apt to prosecute a man for violating their space.

Men had mixed responses to mashing. Male officers were often apathetic towards victims of street harassment, part of the reason women police became so vital to the cause. However, many men in the force championed the anti-mashing cause. For example, after learning about a “masher’s corner” on 125th Street in Manhattan, the police chief stationed additional officers there. In general, men did take an active stand against street harassment. The Anti-Mashing Society was established in 1903 by a group of men frustrated by the mashing epidemic, and numerous men physically protected women who were being mashed.

What lessons can we, as anti-street harassment activists, learn from the history of mashing?

As effective as it may have been in the early 1900s, it may not be wise for us to support women beating harassers with their handbags. However, self-protection is vital, and women must be able to learn how to effectively protect themselves from street harassment. We cannot, however, pin the responsibility on women to not be harassed. We must educate men not to harass, and work with like-minded men to encourage their brethren to respect women’s space on the street. Our mission is to shift the social paradigm and change people’s attitudes. Hopefully, the term street harassment will sound just as foreign to our children as the term mashing does to our generation.

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