Why The Hatpin Panic Never Really Ended
More than one hundred years ago, public debate swirled in major U.S. cities surrounding female independence. With large hatpins holding their even larger hats in place, women suddenly found themselves free to travel alone in public.
In response to this newfound freedom, male lawmakers passed laws to limit the power that 20th century ladies now wielded in public spaces. Women held protests, organized marches and shared impassioned speeches in an effort to rebuke these imposed limits on the use of hatpins.
Sound familiar? While women today fight for the right to choose and bring predators to justice through the #MeToo movement, the source of the 20th century woman’s power while in public lay with the humble hatpin.
How the Hatpin Panic Began
At the turn of the 20th century, large, elaborate hats became all the rage in women’s fashion. Hat brims reached beyond shoulders as intricate flowers and floral design sat atop. To keep these heavy fashion items in place, women used long, sharp tools called hatpins. Typically 8 inches long, though many could reach a foot in length, hatpins secured the wearer’s hair to the hat, ensuring hats stayed in place throughout the day.
If a woman was headed into town or to another public domain, you can bet she was packing a sharp hatpin hidden within her hat.
The popularity of hatpins continued to grow and was of relative uninterest to the male-dominated society until a 1903 incident in New York City. Leoti Blaker, a young woman visiting from Kansas, was riding on a stagecoach when a stranger began making unwanted advances toward her. Commonly known as ‘mashers,’ these predatory men were known to dress in the finest clothes and target women traveling alone. These 20th century mashers are not unlike the specific brand of creep you see today on the subway or bus with a plastic smile and a fake chivalrous tone to win over an unsuspecting woman’s trust.
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When this particular masher draped his arm over Blaker’s lower back, she had had enough. Blaker took out her hatpin and stabbed the man’s arm. According to witnesses, he screamed and got off at the next stop.
Interviewed by the New York World, Leoti Blaker said, “If New York women will tolerate mashing, Kansas girls will not.”
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Over the next few years, more stories came to light of young women physically defending themselves against predators with their hatpins in major cities across the U.S, including Chicago and Boston. The rise in these incidents (and the public’s awareness of them) began to pave the way for a national reckoning.
Hatpins rise in popularity as gender politics evolve
Gender politics was changing in a major way when hatpins came into fashion. Incidents like Blaker’s experience became more commonplace as more women left their homes and secured jobs in the city. As a result, dating norms began changing, too. Tradition held that a potential suitor courts a woman in her home, under the close eye of her parents. However, as more jobs become available to young women, they had the freedom to venture outside the home, earn a wage and go where they pleased.
Young women walked public streets unattended. They had the ability to decide who to date and where to meet. This growing movement of female independence also came with a higher degree of danger, namely in the form of the 20th century masher.
But for the first time, women posed a threat of physical violence to mashers in the public sphere, armed with their hatpins.
Lawmakers Respond to Newfound Female Independence
Public debate swirled around the use of hatpins and its danger to men. The use of hatpins created a new set of circumstances in which greater society had never seen before. Men had never faced a reality in which women could physically defend themselves and even impose harm to them on the street. As a result, calls for a hatpin ban grew louder, and those in charge began to make their arguments.
Artistic rendition of 20th century masher
Argument #1: Men on the street are in danger from hatpins
Newspaper opinion sections published strong rhetoric against hatpins, pointing to the danger they poised to men and children on crowded trams or on the street. Curiously, the safety of women was not part of the discourse in these spaces, despite the fact that more women were attacking men with hatpins was because of the danger posed to them.
Rather than address the systemic problem of men harassing women in public areas, lawmakers felt more comfortable arguing that men were actually the ones in danger, so long as women carried hatpins. The debate flipped on women as male lawmakers argued that men were victims and women the aggressors. The danger women faced just by simply existing in the same space as men was left unacknowledged.
Argument #2: If women are victimized, it’s their fault
If this line of argument sounds familiar to you, then you must be paying attention. It’s the classic “What was she wearing?” argument with a 1910’s twist. In favor of banning hatpins, the Chicago Vice Commission argued that women should ensure they’re not revealing ankle or wearing makeup to attract unsolicited attention from men. This commission argued it was the onus of the woman to not be attacked by a man. So not only are women told they can’t defend themselves on the streets, if they are attacked by a man – it’s their fault.
In 1910, Chicago City Council passed an ordinance that banned hatpins longer than 9 inches. Other cities followed suit, including Baltimore, New Orleans and Pittsburgh. Across the world, women in the United Kingdom, Germany and Australia faced similar municipal laws that banned the wearing of hatpins in public. Not unlike protests for suffrage, abortion rights and equal pay, women responded with public protest, hatpins in hand.
How the Hatpin Panic ended
The Hatpin Panic of the early 20th century surely would have escalated, but World War I began brewing and national priorities changed. By the 1920s, women’s fashion shifted in favor of more pragmatic, smaller hats. The Hatpin Panic ended there.
At its core, we continue to have this same debate over and over. It’s never really stopped. Laws that seek to limit female rights are written and passed by men, and protested by women.
100 years ago, women fought for the right to physically defend themselves from predatory men. From abortion rights, to the #MeToo movement, street harassment and equal pay – we continue to fight today.
Has the Hatpin Panic really ended? Or are we really fighting the same fight, just with a different hat on?
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