How Our Fierce Feminist Grandmothers Fought to Claim Their Space

A woman’s place is in the home; the streets are too dangerous. If a woman must be out in public, she should be accompanied by a male relative or companion—her natural protector. If she happens to find herself alone, she should try in every way to make herself invisible, looking neither here nor there in order to avoid inviting trouble.

This was the advice that nineteenth century women, our grandmothers, were given when they left their homes and ventured out into the urban center. As much as things have changed, much remains the same. We may recognize in this advice echoes of the warnings we give young women today. It is rooted not only in our fears about the dangers that await women on the streets but in much deeper fears about shifting gender roles and the expanding rights of women.

As far back as the mid-nineteenth century, gender roles for men and women were rigidly defined. The concept of separate spheres emerged as an ideal among the middle-class. Women and men each occupied their own space—men in the public, business world; women in the private, domestic world. Men were expected to serve as the primary wage-earners, financially supporting the family. Women were to be the moral caretakers, raising children and managing the household. This was of course only an ideal and rarely the reality for most Americans. Yet, these narrow views of “proper” gender roles permeated the culture.

The women’s rights movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries attempted to shatter these preconceptions. Industrialization and urbanization increasingly drew women out into the public world for school, work and leisure. Women’s rights reformers insisted on their right to be there. Lucy Stone insisted on women’s right to pursue education and professional careers. Ida B. Wells spoke against racism and sexism by working to end the segregation and violence faced by African American women. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony fought against popular beliefs that women were not capable of political thinking to secure women’s right to vote and engage in political action.

The expansion of women’s rights however, generated a great deal of cultural anxiety. Even as women achieved major victories such as the right to attend universities or the right to vote, they still had to physically lay claim to those rights. Women began attending college and found employment in professional positions in urban centers. Others formed political organizations or engaged in social reform activities in the city. Recreational activities also drew them into the urban world. Whereas previously the city streets were primarily considered the realm of men, women increasingly began to occupy public space. Their presence in traditionally male spaces faced backlash.

Men viewed women who dared step out into the public realm as merely visitors whose rights and privileges could be revoked at any time. Women were warned to avoid venturing out in public without a father, husband, brother, son or male friend to provide them with protection against the dangers they might face in the male world. Women were advised that in order to protect their reputation and their persons they should keep their eyes down, their heads low and to be less visible. Making eye contact with men on the street was generally considered inappropriate and inviting trouble.

Yet, even those women who followed all the rules, careful to avoid encroaching too much into male space, found themselves confronting ogling, cat-calls, insults, sexual harassment, sexual battery and rape. Nixola Greeley-Smith, an early twentieth century newspaper columnist, described the problem in the 1914 Chicago Day Book, and further noted that attempts to dress modestly or make oneself appear invisible did not deter:

Whether she is attired soberly or indiscreetly—any day at the noon hour as she leaves her place of employment she is likely to hear an oily voice call over her shoulder, “Come to lunch, now, do!” If she is shopping and sees some garment in a window that may be what she is looking for, she dares not stop even for a moment, for she knows that if she does some elderly unknown satyr will remark with a leer: “out for a little stroll? May I join you?” If she lunches alone she cannot raise her eyes from her plate without encountering some ingratiating masculine ogle that would be laughable if it were not so insulting.

Here you may look as modest as St. Agnes and some day, as you are walking about your business, an oily voice will say over your shoulder, ‘Come to lunch,’ or ‘May I walk with you?’ or even ‘Aren’t you feeling lonesome, little girl?’

Newspaper accounts of sexual assaults further added to the concerns about the dangers facing women on the city streets. When Wilma Berger was attacked on her way home from work in Chicago in 1909, her horrific ordeal made newspaper headlines.

Berger had been working at the hospital where she was training to be a nurse. When she began walking home, a man approached her from behind, threw his arm around her neck and dragged her to the ground. The assailant sat on top of her pinning her down. With one hand he gripped her throat attempting to choke her, with the other he covered her mouth to prevent her from screaming.

Berger’s story might have ended right there. But it didn’t. Instead, Berger waited for an opportunity and fought back. Using techniques she had learned in a jiu-jitsu class, she was able to hit back, escape from the pin, throw her attacker to the ground and run to report the incident to the police. Women like Berger decided they weren’t going to be intimidated any more. When interviewed by reporters, Berger insisted that all women train in self-defense because they had the right to walk the city streets safely.

Beginning in the 1900s and 1910s, women like Berger decided that enough was enough. They went to boxing gyms and jiu-jitsu schools in large numbers demanding to learn techniques to protect themselves from street harassers and assailants. They enrolled in self-defense classes in women’s colleges, at their churches and at their places of employment. They learned how to verbalize their resistance to hecklers and harassers. They learned to submit, punch, kick and fight back against sexual assailants. Most importantly, they learned that they had the right to stand up, speak up and physically claim their own space. Casting off the doctrine of male protectionism they rejected the idea that they had to rely on a male relative or friend to protect them. Instead they insisted on the radical idea that they had the power and the ability to speak for and defend themselves.

A writer in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1922 noted a change and attributed it to the successes of the women’s rights movement in the political and social liberation of women:

Life is not what it used to be even for burglars since women forgot how to scream. In the old days a marauder who encountered a stray female could be fairly certain that she would either cower beneath the sheets or yell for assistance. He acted accordingly. But now—what with higher education, bobbed hair, jiu-jitsu, knickerbockers and the like—she has ceased to function according to the best traditions of her sex. She neither cowers nor yells. And she may do almost anything.

Women were embracing their new roles and they empowered themselves mentally and physically for the challenges that lay ahead.

These early advocates of women’s self-defense stressed women’s right to stand up and speak out at a time when women were not supposed to even make eye contact with men on the street. Although they had met significant opposition in everything from claiming their right to walk down the street, speaking in public and working in professional occupations, nevertheless they persisted. Subsequent generations of women would face similar battles.

Our grandmothers donned boxing gloves in order to claim their right to public space. They hoped their granddaughters wouldn’t have to. 


Wendy L. Rouse teaches United States History and social science teacher preparation at San Jose State University. Her research interests include childhood, family and gender history during the Progressive Era. She is the author of Her Own Hero: The Origins of the Women’s Self-Defense Movement.