It was a normal, rainy Tuesday in 1912 when 18-year-old Elizabeth Foley found herself in the midst of an armed robbery. She had been walking home with a male colleague from the bank when someone came up behind them. In a flash, the robber swung his arms high and smashed her male companion in the head. The entire payroll for the staff was in his pocket.

Foley, however, was not shaken. In one swift movement she reached for her hatpin, jumped at the robber and aimed right for his face.

“Quick wit, feminine courage, and a hatpin put to flight a bold, daylight highwayman at Bleecker Street and Broadway,” the New York Times reported. Foley was just one participant in a movement of women, armed against their male attackers with a popular fashion accessory of the time: hat pins.

As women gained independence and started walking and traveling alone during the late 1800s and early 1900s, hatpins provided a quick line of defense from the unwanted touches and words of passing men. These lecherous men were known as “mashers,” and considered to be “low-down, cowardly cumberers of the earth,” as a 1904 blurb in the Los Angeles Herald put it.  “Any woman with courage and a hatpin can prove it,” the paper added.

An illustration from the Chicago Daily Tribune, September 16, 1900.
The Chicago Tribune
An illustration from the Chicago Daily Tribune, September 16, 1900. 

The jewels and feathers decorating the metal pins used to secure ornate hats obscured their injurious possibilities. Hatpins grew larger as hats became more decorative, featuring false flowers, fruits and birds; the pins that fastened these hats could be over ten inches long, and their needle-like points posed a considerable threat to anyone who got in its way.

Newspapers across the United States were dotted with stories of women who defended themselves or others with hatpins; one woman prevented a train robbery, while a news bulletin from Chicago heralded a woman’s stabbing of a masher who “tried to put a chloroform rag over her nose.” On September 30, 1900, President Theodore Roosevelt remarked that he loved the “exhibition of strenuous life” by women who used their pins, saying that “no man, however courageous he may be, likes to face a resolute woman with a hatpin in her hand.”

Women began educating one another on the task; self defense manuals, some of which were attributed to a woman named Mademoiselle Gelas, advised a combination of jiu-jitsu, hatpin stabbing and umbrella work to fend off men while walking alone. As historian Estelle Freedman writes in her book Redefining Rape, during the early 1900s sexual assault was too socially damning for many women to report.

At the same time, women’s safety was becoming a public issue. Women protected themselves with hatpins in cities around the country, but the Chicago Daily Tribune was a frequent source for masher and hat-pin stabbing news in the 1910s. While the newspaper “rarely covered rape accusations or trials,” writes Freedman, the murder of 24 women in Chicago in 1905 caused a panic over women’s safety, spurring an extensive anti-crime campaign that focused on arresting and reporting news of mashers.

Suddenly, Freedman writes, news articles openly praised a “fourteen year old who used a hatpin” on a train and a sixteen year old who was “now carrying a pocket revolver.” Hatpin defense even inspired a music hall ballad. Women didn’t always get off scot-free when they used their hatpins to protect themselves, however; they were sometimes arrested or paid medical expenses for the assailant, as actress Eva Tanguay did in 1911 after a stagehand drove her to reach for her pin.

A woman using her umbrella during a 'Lesson In the Art of Womanly Self-Defense', 1906
Museum of the City of New York/Byron Collection/Getty Images
A woman using her umbrella during a ‘Lesson In the Art of Womanly Self-Defense’, 1906

The sudden publicity of violence against women ignited debate over a key question: what is harassment, and what can be done about it? At the time, the definition of harassment was hazy and not necessarily illegal, usually placing the responsibility on women to avoid it. And who counted as a masher— someone who physically attacked a woman or simply called out to her on the streets? No matter the definition of harassment, women were clear on the matter: they were sick of having their mobility threatened by men.

For a time, many men seemed to agree. Before women had the power to vote, anti-masher ordinances popped up around the country, and one judge in Omaha, Nebraska created a fee schedule based on various levels of verbal harassment, from a $5 fee for calling a woman “chicken” or “baby-doll.” His law was a rarity, but also widely publicized: “Woe unto the masher that addresses any girl as ‘little Cutie,’” said news reports. Some men complained that city road work was tabled while anti-masher bills occupied council meetings.

Once the anti-masher sentiment was voiced louder and more publically by suffragists and working women, however, the tone of news articles shifted to the offense, criticizing why women felt compelled to stop men’s attentions. One article in the New York Times argued that “a man would not be a very good one otherwise” if he didn’t want to bother a woman in the street.

Much like the suffragists agitating for women’s rights, the hatpin began to be considered a dangerous nuisance, making it easy to argue against them while avoiding talk of harassment. The Los Angeles Heraldreported that in 1910, one woman’s hatpin stabbed and scarred a man’s chin by mistake; the New York Timesdescribed a case wherein a stray football drove a passing woman’s hatpin into her own head. Some women were using hatpins against policemen during arrests.

Drawing of women observing a diminutive man through a magnifying glass, about to poke the man with a hat pin, 1903.
The Library of Congress
Drawing of women observing a diminutive man through a magnifying glass, about to poke the man with a hat pin, 1903

After 1912, a combined fear of sharp hatpins and of the women who wielded them resulted in a number of local hatpin ordinances, as well as a few inventions for protecting the ends of a hatpin. By the 1920s, the pins themselves were less common, as many women had freed themselves of their heavy hats, and adopted shorter haircuts as part of flapper culture.

But while fleeting, those vigorous early attempts at combatting mashers with hatpins paralleled “the drive to redefine street harassment as a crime, along with the language of women’s rights,” Freedman writes. Hatpin-wielding women were some of the first voices to call rude men out on their behavior, all while using a tool from the seemingly innocent and feminine world of fashion.

“It would, when intelligently guided, pick a lock, open an ink bottle, furtively spear a pickle,” wrote the San Francisco Call of the hatpin’s growing popularity in 1898. It was nearly impossible to name all the uses of a hatpin, the writer adds, but one stuck out: just as women’s place in the public sphere grew, “all at once the sphere of the hatpin widened. The pin became a weapon of defense…Let the men who have been punctured by it examine their own consciences.”