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Masher Menace: When American Women First Confronted Their Sexual Harassers

Women know that sexual harassment is nothing new. When women began to travel outside their homes unescorted, especially on public transportation, harassment came with the territory. In the 19th century, the men who accosted women in public were called "mashers," and just like today, their harassment could escalate into sexual assault. Also like today, a woman's wish to be left alone sparked derision.

By the 1890s, women were so fed up with sexual harassment, they refused to grin and bear it anymore. They began to lash out at mashers in earnest—without the assistance of men. Sometimes a woman gave into to indelicate impulses and slapped or punched a masher with her own hands. Mashers were shoved, tossed, or kicked by women, episodes that were comically illustrated in newspapers.

“There were all sorts of cartoons poking fun at women trying out these self-defense tactics, and of course, tying them to the meme of the Angry Suffragist,” historian Karen Abbott tells me. “Men portrayed women’s desire to have the right to vote and to venture into public safely as inherently unladylike.”

In December 1898, Mrs. Charles C. Lane—also known as strongwoman Mademoiselle Suzinetta, a sideshow entertainer who juggled cannon balls and broke iron chains with her hands—punched a stalker so hard he hit the ground. He charged her with assault, and when she testified at the Yorkville Police Court, she said he’d been annoying her for two days so she hit him. The magistrate told her, “You are the woman this town has been looking for for a long time.” He dismissed the charges against her.

Read more about mashers and how women of the time fought back against them at Collectors Weekly.


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