Every Woman Her Own Bodyguard

Before women got the right to vote, they learned jiu-jitsu and boxing to defend themselves on the streets

Wendy L. Rouse | Her Own Hero | NYU Press | August 2017 | 16 minutes (3,900 words)

On a spring evening in 1909, Wilma Berger decided to go for a short walk after work. Twenty-year-old Berger, an American-born white woman and the daughter of a prominent local doctor, was studying to be a nurse at the Henrotin Hospital in downtown Chicago. As she walked along Ontario Street and approached Lake Michigan, she suddenly felt a piercing pain from a blow to her head. In the next instant, a stranger’s arm reached around her neck and pulled her to the ground. Just as she came to her senses and prepared to stand up, a man sat on top of her, pinning her firmly down. The attacker clenched her throat with a choking grip with one hand and used his other hand to cover her mouth to prevent her from screaming. At first, Berger panicked, but then she decided to relax and wait for her opportunity. As soon as she saw her chance, she caught hold of the man’s arm, pulled him toward her, and sent him flying through the air with a jiu-jitsu move. Berger immediately fled to safety, knowing she had successfully fought back against a violent surprise attack. The publicity surrounding the incident vaulted Berger to local celebrity status as newspapers praised her mental prowess and physical skill in fighting off the assailant.

Shortly after this incident, reporters revealed that Berger had learned jiu-jitsu under Tomita Tsunejiro in New York City and later went on to teach her own female students in Colorado Springs before moving to Chicago. She used her moment in the spotlight after the attack to advocate that all women train in the art of self-defense, and she began teaching a class of Chicago society women. The necessity of being able to protect oneself in the city was on the minds of many women. Dr. Maude Glasgow, a New York physician, was also a firm believer in self-defense training for women. Glasgow argued that girls and women should be taught boxing so they would be able to protect themselves. As she explained, “Woman has the same weapons for defending herself that man has, and a little instruction in the manner of using them would enable her to beat off brutal assailants.” In response to Glasgow’s advocacy of boxing, Berger countered that jiu-jitsu was more effective for women in that it allowed smaller individuals to defeat larger opponents. Both women agreed, however, on the importance of some kind of self-defense training for all women.

Women’s self-defense training thus emerged in large part out of the practical concern of providing women with a means of protection as they stepped out of the sheltered domestic realm and into the very public space of the city. Rapid immigration, urbanization, and industrialization fueled anxieties about shifting social and gender norms. Increasingly women ventured out into urban centers to find employment, purchase goods and services, and engage in recreational activities.

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Beginning in the late nineteenth century, newspapers offered accounts of the perils that awaited unescorted women who ventured into the cities by themselves. From annoying mashers to devious white slavers, danger lurked in the shadows of the city streets. A “masher” was a slang term used to describe a man who made unwelcome sexual advances toward women. These advances ranged from seemingly innocent flirtations to solicitations for sex and, in some cases, threats of sexual violence. Mashers clearly violated social conventions by seeking to close the physical distance and pierce the aura of invisibility created by the proper woman on the street. Norms of appropriate behavior were beginning to shift, and the masher took advantage of this precarious situation.

The typical masher was described in the newspapers as a white, native-born male who was impeccably and loudly dressed, with gloves, cane, and hat. He was often described as 35 or older and married. He smoked incessantly while waiting on the street corner for his prey. Though appearing much less frequently in popular constructions of the masher, young and single mashers were often depicted as traveling in herds and as more bold and unruly in their insults toward women, except when separated from the pack. The masher, young or old, was described as arrogant and conceited, overconfident in his flirting abilities. The masher’s ego was believed to be the cause of the behavior. Mashers grinned, ogled, and made goo-goo eyes at women. They “accidentally” brushed their legs and arms against ladies on streetcars. They catcalled or offered unsolicited compliments to women as they passed. The boldest of mashers threw his arm around the shoulder or waist of a woman and offered to walk her home, take her to the theater, or buy her a drink. The suggestion of impropriety undergirded every stare, remark, or touch.

Some argued that jiu-jitsu was more effective for women in that it allowed smaller individuals to defeat larger opponents.

The women who were subjected to these repeated insults described feeling annoyed, threatened, and even fearful. As women increasingly found themselves the objects of unwanted sexual attention in a variety of public places, they demanded protection against these insults. Mary Collins took offense when, while watching a movie at a museum in New York with her two small children, she was annoyed by a masher. Isaac Moses approached her from behind and whispered, “Hello Dear,” and then added, “Let’s sneak out while it is dark and go next door and get a drink.” Regardless of his intent, the violation of respectability in directly speaking in public to a woman he did not know was enough for the vast majority of polite middle-class society to condemn the man. Law enforcement officials sympathized with Collins and arrested Moses. Magistrate Pool also concurred with the general feeling of disapproval of the man’s behavior and held him on $1,000 bail until his trial. Collins’s determination to press charges revealed her knowledge of her right to protection against such insults.

The masher presence was widespread enough to become a topic of discussion in the nation’s newspapers. News stories offered frequent accounts of men pestering women on the city streets. Esther Andrews, reporting on the issue of mashers in New York, declared “an epidemic of ogling and nudging by men” in the city. Judge Charles E. Foster in Omaha, Nebraska, became so fed up with the problem that he vowed to prosecute these men to the fullest extent. Foster went so far as to create a sliding scale of fines ranging from ten to twenty-five-dollars depending on the severity of the insult. Law enforcement and the courts began to take this type of harassment very seriously.

The masher problem, as it impacted all women, began to demand so much attention that police were eventually forced to take more decisive action. Some law enforcement agencies responded by assembling special teams of undercover officers to catch mashers in the act of making unwanted advances toward women on the street. Major cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York even hired female police officers to provide additional protection for women. These policewomen trained in both armed and unarmed combat in preparation for their law enforcement duties. Recognition that women of all classes, ethnicities, and races were harassed by mashers and the necessity of hiring women who understood the nuances of the community and could sympathize with female victims led to calls for a diversified police force. In 1919, the New York Police Department hired an Italian policewoman to patrol the Italian quarter and a black policewoman to patrol in Harlem. Police departments in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC, also hired black female police officers in the 1920s, most likely in response to the demands of prominent black clubwomen and the black press, which called for more protections for black women against white and black mashers. By 1920, 146 cities had hired female police officers to protect the morality of young women in urban spaces. Mary Hamilton, chief of the New York women’s squad, asserted that the threat was indeed very real and very serious, and she insisted that daily complaints from victims warranted swift action. The female officers were charged with the task of working undercover to identify and arrest men who harassed women on the streets. Police officers, judges, reporters, and officers of women’s clubs all condemned the masher and launched campaigns to eliminate the pest. Strict enforcement of ordinances against disorderly conduct, harsher fines and jail sentences, and public shaming in the newspapers represented the best efforts to deter the masher.

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The discussion of the dangers posed to women by male aggressors elicited some backlash from critics. Responses ranged from those who denied the problem entirely or recommended that women stay at home to those who blamed the victims for the attacks. Some went so far as to argue that the women were in essence “asking for it” through their manner of dress or behavior. Behind the propaganda of the backlash, the reality of a culture that contributed to the physical and sexual subjugation of women was made abundantly clear.

The typical “masher” was described in the newspapers as a white, native-born male who was impeccably and loudly dressed, with gloves, cane, and hat. He smoked incessantly while waiting on the street corner for his prey.

Women’s rights advocates of the era recognized the danger in downplaying the threats against women and especially attacked the suggestion by critics that women were essentially “asking for it” through their manner of dress and behavior. Journalist Nixola Greeley-Smith struck back by stressing that women were not in any way inviting sexual harassment through their clothing and countering the argument of a man who believed that only women who wore makeup were targeted by mashers. Nixola Greeley-Smith had made a name for herself as a journalist, writing for the Evening World from 1901 to 1919 and focusing on a variety of topics of interest to female readers. The “New York masher cares not at all whether the woman he pursues is promisingly spectacular in her attire or make-up. He is just as likely to speak to a country school girl in a muslin dress as to a queen of burlesque.” Greeley-Smith insisted that a woman may be pestered by a masher

whether she is attired soberly or indiscreetly — any day at the noon hour as she leaves her place of employment she is likely to hear an oily voice call over her shoulder, “Come to lunch, now, do!” If she is shopping and sees some garment in a window that may be what she is looking for, she dares not stop even for a moment, for she knows that if she does some elderly unknown satyr will remark with a leer: ‘out for a little stroll? May I join you?’ If she lunches alone she cannot raise her eyes from her plate without encountering some ingratiating masculine ogle that would be laughable if it were not so insulting.

In countering the argument that plain dress may be used as a method of deterrence, Greeley-Smith noted, “Nothing is further from the truth! Here you may look as modest as St. Agnes and some day, as you are walking about your business, an oily voice will say over your shoulder, ‘Come to lunch,’ or ‘May I walk with you?’ or even ‘Aren’t you feeling lonesome, little girl?’” Modest or “proper” clothing thus failed to protect women from sexual harassment and, by implication, violent assault.

Frustrated by the general backlash, some writers suggested that women should take the problem into their own hands. Greeley-Smith stressed that women had the power and the right to resist unwanted advances: “I have no sympathy for the woman who cannot rid herself of a man’s unwelcome attention or pursuit … one short, brutal sentence, one tiny shaft of ridicule, and the most persistent lady killer is rendered harmless.”

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The idea that women had the ability to eliminate the masher threat and protect themselves from more violent attacks was radically empowering. Through self-defense training, women rejected the notion that they needed white men to serve as their protectors. Instead, women began to recognize their right and ability to protect themselves. Frances Howlett Write of the Purity Federation in New York insisted, “Women must help themselves.” She urged women to resist sexual harassment by verbally standing up for themselves. Describing an incident on a streetcar with a man who kept trying to make physical contact with her by rubbing his knee against hers, Write explained how she turned to him and said, “You and I cannot ride in the same car and I am not going to leave.” The man left, embarrassed. Write said that “women have it in their own hands to stop this indecent practice.” Reporter Esther Andrews declared a “smash masher” crusade for the women of New York City and insisted on women’s ability to resist the masher by verbally or physically striking back. When, in 1909, a woman stenographer in New York turned the tables on a masher, punching him in the face, she told authorities, “The police can’t be everywhere at once, I decided to take care of myself.” She explained to a newspaper reporter that she had taught women boxing in Alabama, where she came from, and she would teach New York women boxing as well.

The woman who engaged in boxing or jiu-jitsu as a form of self-defense training confronted her perceived unsafe world head-on, claiming her body and, indeed, the city, as her own. In 1889, the Los Angeles Times announced the opening of an athletic club for women in the city. The reporter insisted that the training of women in self-defense was essential to protect them from mashers. One mother explained that she would feel more comfortable knowing that her three daughters were physically capable of defending themselves: “Our girls would not be insulted so often on the streets if the brainless puppies who make a business of annoying unprotected females know that our girls can strike out from the shoulder with telling effect.” She further argued, “The average women of today, except in England and some of the Eastern States, are as helpless as infants when they are alone; but how different it would be if they were taught the science of self-defense.” She clearly saw self-defense training as a way of preparing her daughters to stand up for themselves against male aggressors and assert their right to walk down public streets safely.

When a woman stenographer in New York turned the tables on a masher, punching him in the face, she told authorities, ‘The police can’t be everywhere at once, I decided to take care of myself.’

Stories of women successfully protecting themselves and fending off violent assaults fueled the trend of female self-defense training. Sordid tales of women’s victimization appeared in print media along with successful accounts of brave women fighting back through their own will and power. Newspapers reported that Blanche Bates fought off an attacker in the streets of New York in 1901. Bates, who credited her boxing training for her success in defending herself, stated, “I would not advocate any woman going through life leaving a trail of bruised masculinity in her wake, but if a man insults her, she ought to know where to use her fist on him where it will do the most good.” Bates insisted that all women should be able to protect themselves from such insults by training in the art of self-defense.

Law enforcement and the courts increasingly showed support for women who chose to act as their own protectors. Alexander Mullowney, a police court judge in Washington, DC, urged women to protect themselves on the streets and promised them impunity in his courtroom. Mayor George W. Dilling and chief of police Claude Bannick of Seattle similarly insisted that if “a masher accosts a woman she is certainly justified in giving him a good, stiff punch on the point of the jaw.This endorsement of women’s self-defense contributed to a general change in attitude regarding the rights of women over their own bodies and the ability of women to defend themselves.

The organization of self-defense clubs suggested the formal ways that some women chose to empower their bodies and claim their right to freely occupy public spaces. In 1906, Virgie Drox determined to form a jiu-jitsu club for the women of Los Angeles after having seen similar clubs organized in New York. Her intent, she stated, was to allow women the security of defending themselves on the street: “The girls in New York who are members of the club never think of having an escort if they want to visit one another after dark and from examples of their prowess I would think it inadvisable for any masher to attempt to speak to them.” The idea that self-defense training eliminated the need for a male escort was especially empowering to women like Drox who were socially and politically active and frequently traveled throughout the city.

The rising popularity of jiu-jitsu and boxing classes was a trend that was especially common among native-born white women of the upper classes. Young women may have learned some self-defense in high school or college. In 1914, fifty girls at Lewis and Clark High School in Spokane, Washington, enrolled in a self-defense class in which the instructor, Jack Carnahan, told them they would learn techniques to stop attackers: “A couple of short hooks to the jaw, a jab from a skillfully handled umbrella, or a forced backflip on a hard pavement will do much more than moral suasion to repulse unwelcome attentions.” Similar courses were offered in other high schools across the nation from New Jersey to Los Angeles. Universities also provided opportunities for women to learn self-defense. Women at Nebraska State University were encouraged to enroll in boxing classes, and images from Temple University and Barnard College show female students practicing both boxing and jiu-jitsu. After these elite women graduated from college, many joined athletic clubs for society women. In 1904, women in Boston started the New Hub Athletic Club, which offered classes in jiu-jitsu. By 1920, more than 200 girls were reportedly studying boxing at the Albert Barnes Club in Philadelphia. Older women found opportunities to learn self-defense through their churches and social clubs. The women of Wesley Methodist Church in Chicago formed their own jiu-jitsu classes. Motivated by a concern about arming themselves with techniques to prevent victimization, the church ladies advocated carrying cayenne pepper as a means of defending themselves against potential attackers.

Working-class women also eagerly signed up for free self-defense courses when the opportunity presented itself. Responding to the demands of women who complained about harassment as they traveled to and from work, some companies offered self-defense classes for employees. A department store in Newark, New Jersey, hired a professional boxer to teach its female employees self-defense. This on-the-job training provided additional tools to safeguard women from threats that prevented them from freely pursuing public occupations. Although middle- and upper-class women had more access to self-defense training, the fact that women of all social classes trained in self-defense when they could suggest a common sense of female solidarity in their efforts to resist gender-based violence.

Our girls would not be insulted so often on the streets if the brainless puppies who make a business of annoying unprotected females know that our girls can strike out from the shoulder with telling effect.

Women who did not take formal self-defense courses could pursue a program of home training. The Yabe School of Jiu-Jitsu in Rochester, New York, offered free lessons through the mail. According to advertisements for this program, learning these simple techniques would enable “a little woman to overthrow a big, powerful man,” affording “sure protection from attack by thieves and thugs.” Books offered in-depth tutorials on how women could privately prepare themselves for defensive combat. In 1904, Harry Hall Skinner insisted that the purpose of his book Jiu-Jitsu was to teach any man or woman how to defeat “a more powerful assailant.” Harrie Irving Hancock wrote three books in 1904 and 1905 designed to teach men, women, and children self-defense through jiu-jitsu.

Newspapers also published articles and illustrations that detailed step-by-step techniques to fend off a variety of potential attack situations. Articles targeting female readers offered illustrations so that women could teach themselves the techniques in the privacy of their own homes, learning everything from the manipulation of wrist, elbow, and shoulder joints to more deadly techniques such as gouging the eyes, strikes to the nose or throat, and the use of weapons. The fighting techniques described in the various articles and books were intended to cause bodily harm. The degree of force recommended to repel the masher suggested the seriousness of the threats that women faced. One writer described how a woman could place a man’s arm in an elbow lock and with a “quick jerk with her shoulders” break his arm “as though it were a pipe stem.” After throwing the man on the ground and kneeling on his ribs, “she braces the captured arm against her other knee and holds the man captive until the police arrive. Should the man struggle the girl is still the master and can break the bone with a light pressure on the tortured arm.” These techniques were designed to subdue the attacker, but the author noted that the woman also had the option to use force to break the assailant’s bones.

Ruth Helen Lang suggested that women should use whatever force was necessary to stop a violent assault. Lang directly contradicted the perception of the female as a passive victim and insisted that women use their self-defense skills to incapacitate an attacker. She advised: “To knock a man out, hit him with the fist just on the chin point. To drop him, hit him just beneath the ear. To put him out of commission, land him on the bridge of the nose between the eyes. If he comes up behind you, suddenly swing backward quickly with your elbow.” Lang further advised: “Remember, sisters, don’t lose your nerve. Hit and hit hard … cultivate your nerve and your punch, and soon the race of mashers will be but a bruised and battered memory.” Lang believed that letting go of hesitation and fear was essential to success in a self-defense situation.

Learning self-defense techniques from a mail-order pamphlet, book, or newspaper article not only made self-defense training accessible to a wider range of women but also had lifesaving implications for some women. In October 1905, the New York Times reported an incident in which a woman used self-defense techniques she had read about to defend herself against a mugger. The assailant grabbed her pocketbook as she was walking through Central Park. Rather than scream or freeze in terror, she put him in a jiu-jitsu hold. The angered attacker pushed her against a fence and threatened to kill her if she did not give up her possessions. The woman refused to do so and instead held him in a jiu-jitsu lock until the arrival of the police, who were surprised by her cool demeanor. The woman explained that she would never “run from any man of that kind who lives.” Although she had no formal training in self-defense, she told officers that every woman should learn jiu-jitsu.

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From Her Own Hero: The Origins of The Women’s Self-Defense Movement. Published by NYU Press. © 2017 by Wendy L. Rouse.