No man, however courageous he may be, likes to face a resolute woman with a hatpin in her hand. – Theodore Roosevelt
In the early 20th century, fashion dictated that more was more when it came to hats. Women across the globe were sporting teetering towers of ribbons, flowers and fruit (usually fake), and these concoctions required ever-larger and more decorated hatpins to hold them on the wearer’s head, some as long as 13 inches. Initially dismissive of such ‘vanity’, men of the period were soon forced to take notice of these pretty, bejewelled trinkets…
Enter: the Hatpin Panic of the 1910s!
With public transport more readily available, and calls for women’s suffrage growing, women, particularly in the USA, began travelling alone more often…and we all know how fun that can be! Shockingly, it turns out sexual harassment in public is hardly a recent trend. Men making unwanted advances on random women in public were known as ‘mashers’, and they started to get a little more than they bargained for once women started using the surprisingly-effective improvised weapons available to them…
The most famous incident which seems to have sparked awareness of this new ‘trend’ was that of Leoti Blaker, a tourist from Kansas visiting New York. Sick of being harassed by the man next to her, she snapped when he put his arm around her, and stabbed her hatpin into the ‘meat’ of his arm! In an interview with the New York World magazine, she said that she was sorry to have hurt the man, that she had been warned about New York ‘mashers’ before her trip, and that ‘if New York women will tolerate mashing, Kansas girls will not!’.
As ever, society was quick to overreact, despite the vast majority of hatpin self-defence injuries being very minor. Newspapers were filled with letters from men asking if this women’s independence stuff hadn’t gone too far, and how is a poor innocent man supposed to harass a woman on the tram if she’s allowed to defend herself, and don’t women know it’s just boys being boys… Sound familiar?
The use of this uniquely feminine self-defence weapon sparked the so-called Hatpin Panics or Hatpin Perils across the USA, Europe and the Antipodes, leading to attempts (some successful) to create by-laws forbidding hatpins beyond a certain length.
However, women began making a case of their own, in defence of their right to carry these ‘portable weapons’ for their own safety.
If you replace the word hatpin for ‘pepper spray’ or ‘house keys’, this letter published in the Bennington Evening Banner on 4 March 1910, sent by a Ms May E. Davis, could have been written today:
A hatpin is a woman’s weapon of defence. […]
I always feel safe going home at night with a hatpin available for protection. Before leaving a street car I always carry a hatpin ready in my hand until I am safe within the door of my home. […]
Thousands of other women undoubtedly can speak from their experience of how a stout hatpin has been an effective defence in time of danger. A hatpin is also useful in repelling “mashers”.
The same year, in Chicago, Nan Davis (no relation to the author above as far as I know!) stood in front of the city council to speak in favour of hatpins, declaring,
If the men of Chicago want to take the hatpins away from us, let them make the streets safe. No man has a right to tell me how I shall dress and what I shall wear.
Unfortunately, society once again decided to protect the rights of abusers over their victims, and pleas like those of both Davis’ went unheeded. Women across the world, on the other hand, supported this newfound method of defence, which even got its own music hall song.
There was also a more directly political reason for curtailing the use of hatpins: governments in many countries began to grow concerned about suffragettes and suffragists using their hatpins in defence of their cause, banning them altogether in several circumstances. To be fair, this wasn’t out of the bounds of possibility; in 1912, during the Brisbane General Strike, famous Australian suffragette Emma Miller used a hatpin to stab either the leg of Police Commissioner William Cahill, or potentially the leg of his horse. Either way, women wearing ‘illegal’ pins – or any pins at all – began to be banned from parades, public meetings, and other events as a safety precaution.
Fortunately for ‘mashers’, hatpins went out of fashion in the 1920s… unfortunately for them, women’s anger and desire to protect themselves did not and has not! Although a relatively short period of the 20th century, the hatpin panics of the early 20th century perfectly pinpointed (sorry) the tension between women, who were repositioning themselves in the public sphere, and men, who had occupied that space uninterrupted for centuries.
Edwardian women simply wanted the right to move around in public safely, un-pestered, whilst wearing whatever they liked – a century later, it seems like this is still too much to ask… However, one thing the Hatpin Panic does demonstrate is women’s ability to pull function from fashion and power from powerlessness. If we can, we will defend ourselves, and we’ll look damn cute doing it!