A cop ran toward Katie Mulcahey, making sure he got her attention. “Madam, you mustn’t,” he shouted. “What would Alderman Sullivan say?” Then he arrested her.

Mulcahey’s crime wasn’t theft or DUI. It was January 1908, and she had just become the victim of New York’s newest law, a short-lived ordinance that banned women from smoking in public.

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. That the government tried to ban only women from smoking says a lot about how society responded as women claimed new rights at the turn of the 20th century.

For most of the 1900s, women weren’t free to move as they pleased outside of their homes. “Without a male escort,” writes historian Emily Remus, “women were refused service in most restaurants, cafés, and hotels, while saloons and private clubs simply closed their doors to female customers.” Women who appeared in public places without a respectable man were often regarded as prostitutes.

So were women who smoked. Smoking women were rebellious, and their mutiny—which began in the 1880s with the mass production of cigarettes—occurred along with a number of other social changes. A new invention, the department store, suddenly made it socially acceptable for women to shop and appear in public without escorts. More and more women agitated for suffrage and participated in public activism. And more permissive social attitudes infuriated those who questioned both public women and their smoking.

Many women—including rich and influential ones—enjoyed smoking by 1907. When they weren’t at home, though, things got dicey. Though men smoked openly in restaurants and hotels, a woman who did so would likely be tapped on the shoulder by a waiter or the proprietor and told to stop.

Women smoking in the late 19th century. (Credit: The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images
Women smoking in the late 19th century.

For one restaurant, though, that ended on New Year’s Eve of 1907. A few days before the new year, Café Martin, a restaurant frequented by elite New Yorkers, announced it would allow women to smoke on New Year’s Eve and maybe even throughout the following year.

“Smoking by ladies is never objectionable,” the restaurant’s proprietor, James B. Martin, told The New York Times. “Personally, I think New York is ready to allow ladies to smoke in good restaurants.”

The idea was wildly successful. It even seems to have emboldened other businesses. “Proprietors were inclined to grant women permission to please themselves,” wrote a Times reporter, who noted that an ambassador’s wife smoked freely in one of the city’s most stodgy hotels without being asked to stop. Inspired by Martin’s success, other restaurants and hotels announced they’d stop banning smoking, too.

But Timothy “Little Tim” Sullivan (so named to distinguish him from his cousin, Bowery and Lower East Side political boss “Big Tim” Sullivan), a city alderman, did not agree. He felt that a smoking woman eroded the respect a man should have for her and that the practice was unseemly and immoral. Though he had never personally seen a woman smoke, he proposed a bill that forbade owners of public establishments from allowing women to smoke. It passed unanimously.

The ban didn’t technically prevent women from smoking on city streets. But it was interpreted—and enforced—as if it did.

Suddenly, women and smoking became a very public debate. When a reporter asked European women who freely smoked on a White Star Liner what they thought of the ban, they told him it was absurd. Social clubs bickered over whether the practice was disgusting or sensible. And letters to the editor represented both sides, often revealing the gender biases of the time.

As it turned out, Katie Mulcahey was the law’s only victim. She was the only person cited for violating the ordinance, though it’s unclear how many other women refrained from lighting up in public because of the ban. After just two weeks on the books, it was vetoed by New York’s mayor.

It wasn’t the last time the city tried to ban smoking, though. Just three years later, the Board of Alderman tried again. But they were quickly slapped down when the city’s chief legal officer declared it against the law. “He also ruled that women could smoke at will on the city streets, be it cigarette, cigar or pipe,” writes smoking historian Kerry Segrave. By trying to crack down on women smoking, the alderman inadvertently opened the door to even more freedoms for women.

So what did Mulcahey, who earned a $5 fine and served time in jail for her daring, have to say about Sullivan’s short-lived ban? “I never heard of this new law, and I don’t want to hear about it,” she told the judge. “No man shall dictate to me.”