Today in Feminist History: Women Deserve to Smoke in Public Too! (March 27, 1922)

March 27, 1922: In a show of solidarity not seen since winning the battle for Statewide suffrage four and a half years ago, local women are protesting tonight’s first attempt to enforce a New York City law passed on March 14th which bans women—but not men—from smoking in public places.

PHOTO: Mary Garrett Hay.

Mary Garrett Hay, a non-smoker, well-known and highly respected veteran of the suffrage movement, and presently head of the New York City League of Women Voters, expressed the view of many women’s rights activists that the issue is not smoking, but male legislators imposing restrictions on women only:

“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.”

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 that 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 infringements 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 equally enforced in all areas.

As to the reason why such an ordinance would be sought in the first place, its author, Alderman McGuinness, explained his concerns at the time of the bill’s introduction:

“The morals of our young girls are menaced by this cigarette smoking. I wish to stop this cigarette smoking in the restaurants of our city. 

“If the morals of all New York were those of Greenpoint, there would be no crime wave. But 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 the 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 that allowed it with fines up to $25 and imprisonment for 10 days.

But that earlier law was vetoed by Mayor McClellan soon after its passage. Now pressure will be exerted on Mayor Hylan and other city officials to either repeal, or stop enforcement, of this discriminatory ordinance. 


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.