[Review] Beware the Masher: Sexual Harassment in American Public Places, 1880-1930

Kerry Segrave’s 2014 book Beware the Masher: Sexual Harassment in American Public Places, 1880-1930 is absolutely packed from cover to cover with tales of street harassment. There are hundreds, each told with names, dates, places, and many are first person accounts. Just as many are compiled from news articles and official court documents. Results of cases are cataloged, and laws against ‘mashing’ passed by cities and states are described. There are scads of period illustrations, comics, and advertisements – some of them funny funny, others sad funny.

On one hand, there’s probably no better way to get a clear picture of the phenomenon of harassment than to sift through a depthy set of data points – that’s what this book is. Segrave leaves the reader to make their own impression and draw their own connections. As I read, the  old-timey accounts of what seem on the surface to be benign by today’s standards soon ring more and more familiar.1 The male sexual harassers, then called mashers, felt entitled to women’s attention and bodies, and exploited every norm to just do whatever they wanted. Same story as ever.

Structurally, the book is broken into chapters, each one addressing a different face of harassment and the response. There’s a chapter on Editorials & Opinions, Women Respond Physically, Bystanders, Law, Remedies and more, every chapter supported by dozens of exemplary accounts.

My only criticism is that the book is short on analysis, most of Segrave’s voice being contained in the front and back chapters. This isn’t necessarily a short-coming, but it might be a limitation.

I’ll leave you with this excerpt. As I said, analysis is brief, but good.

One of the things that remained constant about sexual harassment in this period was the idea that the women accosted were attractive or pretty. Of all the articles that dealt with the issue, only one or two from this time period remarked that all women were at risk from mashers, no matter what the women’s age or the state of her attractiveness. That is, only one or two commentators of the era understood, at least at some level, that the sexual harassment of women was about power and the hatred of women; it had nothing to do with sexuality. A constant reference to the pretty woman being harass brought up, albeit indirectly the idea that men were somehow no tto blame, or not completely to blame. They were victims of their hormones or some such nonsense.

The same myth holds true today, and we see it in advice for women to change how they dress, to forgive men’s actions, and the obsession with the Ideal Victim, the only victim.

Five out of five, would recommend.

This book is a part of the She Kicks She Throws Resource Library

  1. The offenses were absolutely not benign. They were deeply unwanted, socially prohibited, and caused real harm to women’s safety and reputation. []

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