The Woman Who Took On All Of New York City (By Smoking)

In 1908, New York had a short-lived ordinance. One woman was arrested for violating it.
The Woman Who Took On All Of New York City (By Smoking)

In 1908, Katie Mulcahey challenged the sexist norms of society by … uh, smoking outside in public. For this act, she was arrested. Whether she intended to protest against the laws or simply wanted to have a smoke, she became a minor yet important figure in the history of women's rights.

In the early-20th century, smoking was huge in the United States. Mass production of cigarettes began in 1881, and by the turn of the century, everyone was puffing away. Those pesky "long-term health risks" weren't on most people's minds yet, so the American public was smoking wherever and whenever they pleased. Well, men smoked wherever they pleased. The idea of a woman smoking a cigarette in public was beyond scandalous. That would just be too tempting for the eyes of the good, righteous men of the time!  

Smoking wasn't the only thing that women were either discouraged or outright prohibited from doing in public at this time. Women who wanted to go to a restaurant were often not allowed in unless they had a man with them. However, there were slivers of a societal shift. With the rise of department stores, women started having opportunities to shop alone, and this helped give women more public rights as a whole.

Public Domain/Wiki Commons

Some men probably passed out at the idea of these women shopping at Macy's BY THEMSELVES.

As for smoking, it was still scandalous. After some restaurants decided to allow women to smoke indoors, New York City alderman Timothy "Little Tim" Sullivan, likely with his monocle popping off of his face in disgust, proposed a city ordinance. This law, dubbed the Sullivan Ordinance, was passed on January 21, 1908, and it declared that no business owner would be allowed to permit women to smoke in their establishments.

Interestingly, the law did not state that women were prohibited from smoking on public sidewalks. It only explicitly banned smoking in businesses. Regardless, the Sullivan Ordinance was more broadly interpreted as banning women from smoking anywhere in public, and this is where Katie Mulcahey's story begins.

The day after the Sullivan Ordinance was passed, Mulcahey was smoking outside when a cop noticed her. Upon seeing her cigarette, the cop reportedly said, "Madam, you mustn't," which sounds exactly like what a 1908 cop would say after seeing something as benign as this. For the crime of smoking outdoors, Mulcahey was arrested, sent to jail, and fined $5. When she stood before a judge about the incident, she gave the highly quotable line, "I have never heard of this new law, and I don't want to hear about it. No man shall dictate me." 

This might not have been the rallying cry of smoking activists, but it could have been. Plus, the entire ordeal highlighted just how dumb the Sullivan Ordinance was, and New York City Mayor George McClellan Jr. took notice. He vetoed the Sullivan Ordinance just two weeks after it was enacted.

Top Image: The Evening World in 1908/Wiki Commons


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