January 21

1908 New York bans women smoking in public

Though the prohibition of alcohol is a story well-known to fans of Elliot Ness and the Untouchables, less attention has been paid to the serious campaigns waged against the consumption of tobacco.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was a leader in this campaign, urging boys and girls to take the Clean Life Pledge: “I hereby pledge myself with the help of God to abstain from all intoxicating liquors as a beverage and from the use of tobacco in any form.” At the turn of the 20th century a number of states and municipalities had enacted legislation banning the sale of cigarettes, cigars, and chewing tobacco. Particularly worrisome to the nation’s legislators was the sight of the fair sex ingesting the smoke of the demon weed.

On January 21, 1908 New York City passed an ordinance, the Sullivan Act, forbidding women from smoking in public. The very next day, a female scofflaw named Katie Mulcahey was arrested after striking a match against the wall of a house and lighting a cigarette.

The officer protested, “Madame, you mustn’t! What would Alderman Sullivan say?”

“But I am,” Mulcahey replied, “and don’t know.”

In night court she stated her views to the judge, who was, of course, a man: “I’ve got as much right to smoke as you have. never heard of this new law, and don’t want to hear about it. No man shall dictate to me.”

The shameless hussy was found guilty and fined $5.00 but she refused to pay and was thrown in jail for her impudence.

The Sullivan Act lasted only two weeks before being vetoed by Mayor George McClellan. Smoking attracted women as a symbol of liberation and sophistication, especially in the post-World War I period. Here is a picture of my parents in the late 1940s. What makes my mother’s cigarette addiction so important is that she was a recovering tuberculosis patient with only one lung.

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