Live-Blogging Women’s History: March 27, 1922

March 27, 1922: In a show of solidarity not seen since winning nationwide suffrage a year and a half ago, local women are protesting tonight’s enforcement of a New York City law that bans them–but not men–from smoking in public places.

Mary Garrett Hay, a non-smoker and head of the New York City League of Women Voters, expressed the view of many:

If they are telling the women they must not smoke in public they should tell the men not to also. It is perfectly ridiculous. Women should not be discriminated against in any way, and aside from that I think the police could be better occupied in curbing crime and stopping some of the hold-ups and housebreakings that are going on.

Ruth Hale, who last year founded the Lucy Stone League, which fights for the right of married women to use their birth names, thought this law might be a follow-up to alcohol prohibition, but:

You may be sure there will be strenuous resentment on the part of women generally. They can be counted on to mobilize to fight such an ordinance. Members of women’s clubs, political leaders, women who do things and women who don’t, most certainly will join forces to resist any such infringement on their liberties.

At the T.N.T. Tea Room in Greenwich Village, plans are under active consideration to send groups of women smokers to various places in the city to disobey the ordinance as a protest, as well as to see if it is being enforced in all areas equally. As to the reason why such an ordinance would be sought, its author, Alderman Peter McGuinness, explained at the time of its introduction:

The morals of our young girls are menaced by this cigarette smoking …. young fellows go into our restaurants to find women folks sucking cigarettes. What happens ? The young fellows lose all respect for women and the next thing you know the young fellows, vampired by these smoking women, desert their homes, their wives and children, rob their employers and even commit murder so that they can get money to lavish on these smoking women. It’s all wrong and I say it’s got to stop.

The new law is identical to the Sullivan Ordinance, passed by the New York Board Of Aldermen on January 21, 1908. It, too, banned women from smoking in public places by punishing owners of establishments who allowed it with fines up to $25 and imprisonment of up to ten days. The 1908 law was vetoed by the mayor soon afterward.


FOLLOW-UP: The outcry by women’s groups and individual women was so vehement that city officials the next morning checked to make sure the law was properly passed. It was discovered that, instead, a City Clerk had made a mistake in sending this unpassed bill on to the police for enforcement, along with a group of other laws which had been enacted and signed by the mayor.

Though this incident turned out to be a false alarm, the response certainly made a clear impression on city officials that women’s groups were still alive and well after the suffrage battle was ended, and any attempt to pass laws that discriminated against women would be opposed with the same ferocity as seen in the campaign to win the vote.

Photo of Ruth Hale from Wikimedia Commons


David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.