From Hat Pins to Ogle-Ins: 100+ Years of Activism Against Street Harassment

Only a few years ago, street harassment was not a commonly used or understood term; though it is pervasive, it was largely an invisible problem. Today, that has changed significantly and that is the topic of my new book Stop Global Street Harassment: Growing Activism Around the World (Praeger, 2015).

As someone who regularly speaks and writes on the topic, a recurring question I have been asked over the last year has been whether or not street harassment activism is new. It is not. The Internet is wonderful for facilitating activism and idea-exchanges among activists in ways that were not previously possible (or at least not possibly so quickly) and it makes activism efforts more visible. But people’s — especially women’s — resistance is not new.

Here is an excerpt from my new book about this:

“People have been challenging and addressing street harassment for as long as it has happened, but there have been pockets of time when it was more prominent. ‘While street harassment was probably going on consistently through the centuries, the condemnation of harassment strongly correlates with the height of the suffrage movement in the early 1900s — and in more recent decades, with the feminist movement — and other claims to space and rights,’ Dr. Estelle Freedman, author of Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation, told me in an interview for the Stop Street Harassment blog.

Looking at the United States from 1880 to the 1920s, for instance, both Freedman and Kerry Segrave wrote [in their books] about news articles detailing women who reported harassers, hit them with parasols, and poked them with hatpins. There were news stories about self-defense classes for women and how the first policewomen in urban areas like Chicago were specifically tasked with looking out for street harassers. In Washington, D.C., in the early 1920s, there was even an “anti-flirt club” that focused on actions we describe today as street harassment.

“Anti-Flirt” Club in Washington, DC, early 1920s. Image via The Atlantic

Notably, the newspaper stories were primarily about white men who harassed either white or black women. When black men harassed black women, the women rarely said anything about it publicly, and almost no black men would dare harass a white woman for fear of severe punishment and even lynching. White men preying on black women was a huge problem, especially in the segregated South. From the 1940s to the 1960s, a large number of black women collectively challenged the centuries-old practice of white men harassing and raping black women with impunity.

In 1944, for example, white men attacked and gang-raped 24-year-old black sharecropper, wife, and mother Recy Taylor as she walked home from church with female friends. Her story caught the attention of a Montgomery, Alabama, NAACP member, Rosa Parks, an established anti-rape crusader. Parks led a national campaign for justice for Taylor that resulted in the assailants admitting they committed the crime — despite white male police trying to cover for them — and the case went to trial.

Sadly, the all-white, all-male jury did not indict any of Taylor’s assailants. Despite not gaining justice for Taylor, Parks’ campaign laid the foundation for other campaigns. In Danielle McGuire’s 2011 book At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance, she chronicles Taylor’s story and how the civil rights movement began not only out of outrage over the lynching of black men, segregation, and general discrimination, but also because of people’s indignation over white men’s assaults of black women in public spaces.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, street harassment was occasionally addressed within Women’s Liberation actions, the rape crisis center movement, and Take Back the Night rallies. Women hung up and distributed flyers, patrolled places with high rates of reported rape, and even held demonstrations. An example of a demonstration occurred in New York City in June 1970. At that time, newspapers routinely printed the commuting schedules and physical measurements of pretty women who worked on Wall Street, and some men lined up outside their workplaces to harass them. In response, Karla Jay and Alix Kates Shulman organized an ‘ogle-in’ during which they yelled sexualized “compliments” at men on the street. ‘We’re trying to point out what it feels like to be whistled at, pointed at constantly every time we walk down the street . . . they think that we’re just sexual objects. And we don’t want to be sexual objects anymore,’ one of the women participants said in an interview.

The term ‘street harassment’ was first formally used in Michaela di Leonardo’s 1981 article “The Political Economy of Street Harassment.” More on-the-ground actions focused specifically on street harassment took place in the 1980s. Notably, in Washington, D.C., Marty Langelan, the director of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center, Nkenge Toure, the center’s director of community education, and other women led the first large, comprehensive city-wide campaign to stop street harassment from 1985 to 1987. They collaborated with groups like the D.C. African Women’s Committee for Community Education, unions, and religious organizations and organized hundreds of street actions, public speak-outs, demonstrations, leafleting, harassment intervention training sessions, and sustained neighborhood action to take back specific public spaces. They tested different ways of responding to harassers, and Langelan later published their suggestions in her 1993 book Back Off: How to Confront and Stop Sexual Harassment and Harassers.

Image courtesy of Marty Langelan

Starting in 1989, a popular way of documenting street harassment and women’s feelings of insecurity in public spaces was through a Safety Audit. That year, after the media reported on numerous cases of men attacking women in a popular city park in Toronto, Canada, the most dominant response from community leaders and the media was to tell women not to go out at night, not to go places alone, and to avoid the park. At first, frightened women in Toronto stayed home. But then, several women came together and decided instead to examine what made that particular park conducive to acts of violence. Without yet having a name for it, they conducted a Safety Audit and took their findings to the local municipality. That process was formalized by the Toronto-based nonprofit organization Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence against Women & Children (METRAC).

The United Nations (U.N.) took on the audit model in the 1990s, particularly in its work in African countries. Safety Audits conducted by women in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, for instance, contributed to local governments pedestrianizing more city streets, reorganizing transit routes, and installing more street lights. Today the audit is a component of every international Safe Cities initiative (see Chapter 5).

Women conduct a safety audit in Dar es Salaam as part of the Gender Inclusive Cities Programme. Photo credit: ICNIC-T

During the 1990s, violence against women gained recognition as a problem both internationally and in the United Sates. In 1993, the U.N. adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women in 1993. It was first time an international human rights doctrine included violence against women. In the United States, the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women recognized the elimination of gender-based violence as central to gender equality and the empowerment of women. Much of the focus in the years that followed was on violence against women in private or intimate settings: domestic violence, incest, and rape between non-strangers.

Image via the Roger’s Park Young Women’s Action Team website

The 2000s saw the start of many campaigns and efforts focused specifically on street harassment. During this time, the first website where people could share their stories, StreetHarassmentProject.org, went online. Groups like Young Women’s Action Team and Girls for Gender Equity, with young women of color as leaders, organized actions like the RESPECT campaign in Chicago and the Youth Summit on Street Harassment in Brooklyn. The anti-harassment groups Blank Noise and the Gulabi Gang began in India in 2003 and 2006, respectively. The Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights started an anti-harassment campaign in 2005. In New York, RightRides for Women’s Safety was formed in 2004, and Hollaback! launched as a website in 2005. The Stop Street Harassment website and blog launched in 2008.

Image via http://www.submedia.tv/

Since 2010, efforts to stop street harassment have accelerated. On a daily basis, social media — from Twitter and Tumblr to Facebook and YouTube — is flooded with stories, images, songs, and campaign ideas about the topic. There is a groundswell of individuals who are holding rallies and marches, conducting surveys, putting up flyers, meeting with government officials, and leading youth workshops. Where we once had almost no data on street harassment, we now have scores of studies. Influential entities like the U.N. have Safe Cities initiatives and work with grassroots groups and governments to address sexual harassment and assault in public spaces.

UN Safe Cities Global Leaders’ Forum in Delhi, India, June 2015. Image via UN Women

Many major media outlets regularly cover the topic. Countries like Belgium, Egypt and Peru have new laws that touch on street harassment, and there has been an explosion of new transit campaigns in countries worldwide. These efforts, of course, build on the work of our foremothers and their male allies.

During 2014 specifically, there was a sharp increase in attention to and action around this issue, even compared to 2013 as Google Trends attests. Some of the contributing factors were influential Twitter hashtags and widely viewed videos, including one by Rob Bliss Creative that has been seen 39 million times to date. Stop Street Harassment released the most comprehensive study on street harassment in the United States and oversaw the largest International Anti-Street Harassment Week with hundreds of actions by participating groups in 25 countries [it grew even larger in 2015: groups in 41 countries took part].

After the biggest year for street harassment news, activism, and action to date, it is worth taking time to look at the past five years to reflect on what has transpired and to consider where we go from here. I am grateful that Praeger is providing the space for this discussion.”