Women Were Once Fined And Arrested For Smoking

A complicated history of discrimination, defiance and emancipation

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A woman smoking and some men staring at her : Source: History Daily

Many women enjoyed smoking, but it became a problem if they did it outside the confines of their homes. The notion of a woman smoking was almost seen as taboo and was presumed unladylike. Smoking was considered to be a completely masculine activity.

Male smokers were allowed to smoke openly, but several efforts were channeled towards restricting the smoking activities of women.

As Erin Blakemore, a history journalist puts it,

“Though men could and did smoke with abandon anywhere they wished, a woman with a cigarette was regarded as dangerously sexual, immoral and not to be trusted.”

Not only was feminine smoking associated with vulgarity, it also attracted serious warnings from the police. For example, in 1904, Mrs William P. Orr was riding a car on 5th Avenue, New York when she lit a cigarette. A policeman saw this and instantly ordered her to put it out. In his words:

“You can’t do that on 5th Avenue while I am patrolling here.”

So much negativity was attached to women smoking. Amongst the many nuances were that it made men lose respect for the women concerned. For this reason, a Washington Post Editorial reported that:

“A man may take out a woman who smokes for a good time, but he won’t marry her.”

The Sullivan Ordinance which was passed in 1908, forbade women from smoking in public. This bill was proposed by Alderman Tim Sullivan who according to several reports, was repulsed at the thought of women smoking.

A New York Times Article that was written when Sullivan Ordinance was to be passed; Source: 6sqft

On the basis of public decency, the Sullivan ordinance was passed and it declared smoking activities by women illegal. To demonstrate the efficacy of the ordinance, one Katie Mulcahey was arrested after she was caught smoking in public.

Feministic groups took up the issue of Katie’s arrest and included public smoking to the long list of women’s rights that they were fighting for. Several rallies, talks and public discussions were held. They focused on two things: the right of women to smoke anywhere and the right to vote.

Katie was released the next day, although she blatantly refused to pay the fine of $5 for publicly smoking. However, the Sullivan ordinance was short-lived as it was vetoed two weeks later.

When Katie’s arrest happened, it generated some form of debate from those who felt that priorities were misplaced as more attention should have been directed towards women who drank excessively in exclusive cafes, and not women who were smoking in public.

According to those who raised this line of argument, a woman could smoke a dozen cigarettes and still maintain her composure, but this wasn’t the case if she drank to stupor and couldn’t go home unaided.

A cartoon mocking the Ordinance from The Evening World; Source: 6Sqft

Through another bill in 1921, US Rep from Mississippi, Paul John proposed that it should be illegal for women to smoke in public places where two or three people were gathered. However, this bill never saw the light of the day.

In 1922, a city ordinance was also proposed by Peter Mc Guinness, a New York Alderman. This ordinance sought to prohibit women from smoking in restaurants, hotels and other public places.

For certain reasons, there was something unnerving about a woman smoking that made people consider it to be rebellious and immoral. Simply put, a woman who smoked was the ultimate rebel.

Since most women feared that they would be judged and discriminated against, they preferred to smoke late into the night and within closed doors.

The government’s attempt to ban women from smoking also revealed a lot about the society’s response to women trying to claim their rights at the turn of the 20th century.

Amongst several other restrictions such as being refused service in cafes, hotels, restaurants, private clubs and not being allowed to go anywhere in the absence of a male escort, women were stopped from doing a lot of other things.

Unlike men who could smoke anywhere they pleased, women were tapped and cautioned if they were seen smoking in public spaces. For instance, waiters made sure to caution and stop any female customer found smoking in the restaurants.

Many women could only smoke privately, but not in public. The influential and rich women took advantage of this and mostly enjoyed smoking indoors.

Gradually, things began to change and some tobacco companies began to use equality and the suffrage movement as a basis for campaigning that women should be allowed to smoke freely. For instance, the American Tobacco Company gathered a group of women to walk through Fifth Avenue holding torches of freedom — cigarettes.

The cigarettes were referred to as “torches of freedom” because the women wanted to transform the society’s perception of smoking as taboo for women. They wanted to be free from every form of wrongly perceived notion of women that smoked.

During the walk, a young woman, Bertha Hunt stepped out of the crowded 5th Avenue and caused a scandal after lighting a Lucky Strike Cigarette. In an interview with New York Times, Bertha admitted that her action was propelled by a man who asked her to extinguish her cigarette because it embarrassed him. In her words,

“I talked it over with my friends, and we decided it was high time something was done about the situation.”

As they walked, more women were convinced to light up their cigarettes as a defiant show of their liberation. In other words, smoking became a symbol of feminism and defiance.

Bertha Hunt smoking during Easter Parade, 1929; Source: Your Story

The campaign was considered successful because there was a noticeable rise in the sales of cigarettes to women afterwards. Many cigarette companies began to create ad campaigns that targeted women. These companies subtly encouraged women to use mild, thinner cigarettes because it would look more graceful in their hands.

A catchy marketing advert for Virginia Slims; Source: History Daily

With time, more companies began to associate smoking with women’s emancipation, freedom and empowerment. This was depicted in their subtle campaign and slogans. For instance, Phillip Morris had a marketing slogan: “ You’ve come a long way, baby.” There were also other slogans that targeted women such as “Find your voice”, “It’s a woman thing.”

Another cigarette advert by Virginia Slims, using the suffrage movement to target women; Source: History Daily

Between 1911 and 1925, the number of women who smoked tripled, particularly those between the age of 18 and 20. By 1939, the numbers tripled again.

With time, more women began to embrace the cigarette as a symbol of freedom and the stigma attached to it lessened. It was no longer the case that only prostitutes, devious and women with no character were the ones who smoked.

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