February/march 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 1
Women Who Smoke and the Men Who Arrest Them
Having recently secured the right to vote, America’s women rose up in early 1922 to defend an even more fundamental liberty: the right to smoke. In February newspapers reported the shocking news that smoking was common among female students at Northwestern, the University of Chicago, and Columbia University’s Teachers College. In response, the state of Nebraska took swift action to shield its daughters from such evil big-city ways. The board of education of Nebraska’s normal schools voted to refuse leaves of absence for teachers to attend those three colleges, or any other where female smoking was common. Citing Prohibition, The New York Times sarcastically endorsed the ban: “Tobacco must ‘go.’… Millions of people enjoy its use. Therefore, they mustn’t be allowed to use it.”
A newspaper survey of colleges in the heartland showed little smoking by coeds. Purdue and three Pittsburgh-area colleges reported no such cases. The same was true of Louisville, whose dean of women doubted that “a real, genuine womanly girl would form the habit” and explained that the South was “a little more conservative than the North.” Kansas’s dean of women called the problem “negligible”: “We have no rule against smoking by women here any more than we have a specific rule against lying or stealing.” Ohio State’s dean of women estimated that one percent of her charges smoked, and her Minnesota counterpart was equally dismissive: “The sororities at Minnesota have all spoken against it.”
Wisconsin’s dean of women said the smoking fad, most popular among women of the “idle, blasé, disappointed class,” was already passing. She pointed out that an intelligent woman “cannot see herself rocking a baby or making a pie with a cigarette in her mouth, flicking ashes in the baby’s face or dropping them in the pie crust.” Among Eastern women’s schools, Wellesley, Vassar, Smith, and Bryn Mawr all punished smokers with expulsion, though they left enforcement of the rules to the students themselves. Barnard College, the women’s division of Columbia, was (as usual) less prim than its sisters, allowing unrestricted use of the devil’s weed.
Barnard’s permissive attitude was not universal throughout New York City. On March 27, with no warning, police began to enforce an ordinance that banned smoking by females in restaurants, hotels, and other public gathering places. The women of Gotham were outraged, especially in bohemian Greenwich Village, where, according to the proprietor of a tearoom on MacDougal Street, almost every woman smoked. The law’s sponsor, Alderman Peter J. McGuinness of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, defended the prohibition by saying: “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 … 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.”
Alas for domestic tranquillity, the law vanished as quickly as it had appeared. Investigation revealed that the ordinance had never been properly passed by the city council or signed by the mayor and had been sent to the police department by mistake. Mayor John Hylan, visiting his fellow den of coed iniquity in Chicago, approved the reversal: “I make it a policy in my administration never to interfere with the ladies—for they will do as they please anyway.” As predicted, the ladies of Hylan’s city returned to their cancer sticks, and New York City’s moral climate resumed its eternal downward spiral.