Stop That Skirt-Chaser! The Movement to Outlaw Flirting in the 1920s

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If the Anti-Flirt activists of the early 20th century had gotten their way, cheeky advances and drive-by flirting would today be things of the past.

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The Washington-based chapter of the Anti-Flirt club (Library of Congress)

During the weeks leading up to Valentine's Day, an abundance of articles offering familiar advice on amorous overtures suddenly materialize en masse. But there was a time when one of the holiday's most popular topics—flirting—was under attack in America.

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A Washington Post article from February 28, 1923, titled "10 Girls Start War on Auto Invitation," laid out the problem: "Too many motorists are taking advantage of the precedent established during the war by offering to take young lady pedestrians in their cars, Miss Helen Brown, 639 Longfellow Street, declared yesterday." Brown, the secretary of the nascent Anti-Flirt club, warned that these men "don't all tender their invitations to save the girls a walk," and while there were "other varieties of flirts," motorists were the absolute worst.

Brown, along with the president—a Miss Alice Reighly of 1400 Harvard Street—made their plan of action known. On March 4, 1923, the first-ever Anti-Flirt Week (and only since) would commence. The Post published the club's rules:

1. Don't flirt; those who flirt in haste oft repent in leisure.

2. Don't accept rides from flirting motorists—they don't all invite you in to save you a walk.

3. Don't use your eyes for ogling—they were made for worthier purposes.

4. Don't go out with men you don't know—they may be married, and you may be in for a hair-pulling match.

5. Don't wink—a flutter of one eye may cause a tear in the other.

6. Don't smile at flirtatious strangers—save them for people you know.

7. Don't annex all the men you can get—by flirting with many you may lose out on the one.

8. Don't fall for the slick, dandified cake eater—the unpolished gold of a real man is worth more than the gloss of lounge lizard.

9. Don't let elderly men with an eye to a flirtation pat you on the shoulder and take a fatherly interest in you. Those are usually the kind who want to forget they are fathers.

10. Don't ignore the man you are sure of while you flirt with another. When you return to the first one you may find him gone.

It seems there was a small, national movement underway, with chapters springing up in Manhattan, Chicago, and other cities. But unlike the female-led Washington, D.C.-based group, Manhattan's fledgling Anti-Flirt club was headed up by men, including "George Carroll, theatrical man, and James Madison, a broker." On November 21, 1922, a reporter for the New York Times summed up their concerns:

The five men forming the nucleus of the organization say that in New York's streets, especially in the theatrical districts, hordes of pests of the masher species are carrying their activities to a point where no woman is safe from approach and insult.

The association intends, through publicity, to educate public opinion to the point where a woman will consider it her duty to prosecute the masher who attempts to force his attentions upon her. The association intends to have its own counsel, who will aid in prosecuting all masher cases.

During those initial meetings at the Hotel Biltmore, the New York contingent settled on a slogan ("Jail the flirt") and an insignia (a lizard pierced by a hatpin). The term "lounge lizard" first appeared in the American vernacular in 1912, and while it most often referred to musicians who performed in lounges, the truncated label applied to well-dressed men who wooed women with their deceptive charm. Likewise, a "masher"—similar to a skirt chaser, wolf, or philanderer—was a man who made his amorous intentions known in an aggressive manner, maintaining brief relations with various women.

New York membership was "unlimited," voluntary, and required no dues, but each member "pledged to obtain five others to join the campaign for the extermination of the flirt." Perhaps comrades were difficult to enlist, or leadership was unable to secure counsel. Whatever the reason, the Times seemed to quickly tire of the subject.

"The Flirt," however, a production at the Rialto Theater in New York, sought to capitalize on whatever notoriety the club had garnered. An advertisement for the production appeared in the Times on December 23, 1922 with a new, provocative line: "Anti-Flirt Crusaders: You don't know the half of it."

A day later, the Chicago Tribune ran a grainy photograph of man being thrown upside down. Sadly, no article follows—just a caption by way of explanation:

TREAT 'EM ROUGH is the war cry of the Anti-Flirt society. Miss Olga Emrick, a Cincinnati stenographer, shows how a jiu-jitsu twist of the wrist will send a man flip-flopping as pictured above.

What remains unclear, though, is what these men could have actually been charged with if the New York coalition had secured a lawyer. Several politicians had tried and failed to pass legislation regulating mashers. As early as 1897, Missouri representative Prichard B. Hoot introduced a bill that sought to regulate flirting on trains, but the endeavor ultimately proved unsuccessful. That same year, Senator James G. McCune recommended Virginia make flirting a misdemeanor; like his earlier proposal to outlaw football, this bill did not come to fruition.

Legal precedent aside, police officers did arrest mashers, paying special attention to motorists. On August 9, 1931, The Chicago Tribune recounted the "emphatic edict" issued by Acting Police Commissioner John Alock:

This street flirting has got to stop in Chicago. No longer may young men in automobiles edge over to the curb and honk their horns at pretty girls on the sidewalk. They must quit ogling women from loafing places in front of drug stores, cigar stores and other public hangouts.

The Commissioner demanded "vigorous prosecution" of all offenders, an order which had apparently been last issued "in the days of yore, when 'O, you kid' was considered quite a daring remark when addressed to long haired girls in long dresses." A great number of complaints about "sheiks and hoodlums" preying on unescorted young women flooded the precincts, and police were instructed to respond immediately and "lock them up." For what, we do not know. If any of the cases ended up in court, they did not garner media attention.

The Chicago Defender later mentioned the movement on July 12, 1938, albeit somewhat mockingly. Under the headline "Police Drive Auto Mashers; 17 Boys Seized," a reporter wrote that "prisoners' cars thronged the streets in front of the police station, and residents smiled as they learned the anti-flirt campaign was on again."

The Anti-Flirt movement all but disappeared from the papers in the late 1930s. Women who have walked city streets in the decades since know subsequent generations of the offending motorists, mashers, and lizards who hoot, whistle, and heckle still abound—but the only entity still bearing the Anti-Flirt name today appears to be a lingerie company in France.

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Alexis Coe is a writer in San Francisco and a columnist for SF Weekly.

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