You know what’s really scary/frustrating/anti-social, in the British sense of the word? People yelling at you from their car. I had one particularly obnoxious encounter with a couple of individuals while I was crossing a street in Boston a couple years ago. I didn’t catch everything they said, but it was something to the effect of, “Hey, wanna get in the truck? What are you afraid of, you fucking dyke?!” Charming.
When people try to turn this into a point about chivalry, or confusion over gender roles, or how things were better Back In The Day, I generally implore them to remove their Rose-Tinted Glasses of Unfounded Nostalgia and examine the historical record. So I was intrigued to see an article in The Atlantic today about a 1920s “Anti-Flirt” campaign.
A Washington Post article from February 28, 1923, titled “10 Girls Start War on Auto Invitation,” laid out the problem: “Too many motorists are taking advantage of the precedent established during the war by offering to take young lady pedestrians in their cars, Miss Helen Brown, 639 Longfellow Street, declared yesterday.” Brown, the secretary of the nascent Anti-Flirt club, warned that these men “don’t all tender their invitations to save the girls a walk,” and while there were “other varieties of flirts,” motorists were the absolute worst.
Let’s take a moment to define some terms. Although these 1920s ladies defined this behavior as flirting, I would like to remind readers that there is a distinct difference between flirting and harassment, and this sounds like the latter.
Now, there’s a fair amount of moralism in the advice given to young ladies by the Anti-Flirt club, such as a suggested moratorium on smiling or winking at people. Unfortunately, this supports the idea that people can’t tell the difference between mutual flirting and one-sided harassment, although I suspect that people actually can, and that those who harass do so because harassing people makes them feel powerful.
The Anti-Flirt list does include this crucial advice, however:
Don’t fall for the slick, dandified cake eater—the unpolished gold of a real man is worth more than the gloss of lounge lizard.
OK, totally filing that one away for later use. Sir, you are a dandified cake eater and a lounge lizard! I say good day!
Apparently the Anti-Flirt movement in New York was led by men, who objected to the presence of “hordes of pests of the masher species [who] are carrying their activities to a point where no woman is safe from approach and insult.” I rather wonder how this was affected by the changing social landscape in the post-war period; had middle and upper class women previously been more insulated from this sort of behavior? The phrase “no woman is safe” seems to imply shock over “respectable” women from privileged backgrounds being subjected to harassment.
Some legislators even introduced bills to outlaw “flirting,” and the police commissioner of Chicago had strong words on the subject in 1931:
This street flirting has got to stop in Chicago. No longer may young men in automobiles edge over to the curb and honk their horns at pretty girls on the sidewalk. They must quit ogling women from loafing places in front of drug stores, cigar stores and other public hangouts.
Yes, I quite agree that this behavior is obnoxious and calculated to make women feel uncomfortable in public spaces, but it’s harassment, not flirting! Well, it was 1931.
Of course, the first comment on the Atlantic article is from a gentleman who says, “Alright ladies, I wont [sic] flirt with you. Now, would you rather I spit on you or just a nice hard punch in the face?”
Dude, if you don’t have a setting between “flirt” and “punch,” you seriously need to revamp your social skills. How on earth do you manage to make it through life without alienating everyone you know and/or getting arrested?
Anyway, more proof that this sort of behavior predates miniskirts/no-fault divorce/same-sex marriage/women in the military/whatever other bugbear is used to blame women for being harassed. Not everyone was polite and chivalrous Back In The Day. Not even close.