Here's Why Men Feared a Woman With a Hatpin in the Early 1900s

In the first decade of the 20th century, men had two fears above all others: giving women the vote and what a woman might have in her hair. As they had since the country's founding, men would successfully hold off any efforts for women's suffrage until 1920, but — for a time — there was no stopping the Hatpin Panic of the early 20th century, which represented something of a feminist revolution in its own right.

Weapon of Choice

If you're unfamiliar with what a hatpin is, the name describes its purpose pretty well. It's a pin that kept a lady's hat on, which was pretty important at the turn of the century when big hats were in vogue. But while you might be imagining some sort of bobby pin or a barrette like you'd see today, you're not quite getting the whole picture. See, as they were used to fasten big hats, the hatpin needed to be big — like, really big. Hatpins around that time were usually about 6 to 8 inches (15 to 20 centimeters) long — sometimes even longer — and they were as sharp as a dagger.

At the time, as women were increasingly showing their independence from men, it was becoming more and more common to find a lady walking alone on a city street. While firearms were illegal and many believed a woman couldn't handle one anyway, ladies still had plenty of ordinary objects they could use as a means of defense, like umbrellas, rolling pins, dishware, and the deadly hatpin.

The Heroic Hatpin

According to The Chicago Tribune, the Hatpin Panic started in 1898 when Sadie Williams, a woman on her way to a funeral, foiled a robbery on board a cable car. Williams had entered the car and was alone but for one other woman until two men got on. As the conductor was bending over to put more coals in the fire, one of the men grabbed the conductor's hands and held them back while the other began to rummage through his pockets. That was when Williams leaped into action. "See here, you can't fight here," she said. One of the men pushed her, but she stood back up, pulled a hatpin from her hair, and stabbed him in the chest. The men escaped, but Williams had proven herself a hero, and the hatpin had proven itself a useful means of defense.

In another incident in the fall of 1900, a crowd had gathered to watch the then-governor of New York Theodore Roosevelt speak. When a bunch of men climbed a railing to see him — thus blocking the views of women — one industrious woman shouted "Try your hatpins!" after the men refused to get down. Once the women drew their pins, they proceeded to march forward and the men got down and fled. Roosevelt delighted in the squabble, later declaring that "no man, however courageous he may be, likes to face a resolute woman with a hatpin in her hand!"

The Hatpin Panic

Soon, stories abounded with women suddenly defending themselves for the first time against "mashers," as catcallers and gropers were referred to at the time. While the stories were novel at first, over time they became more common and the female defender became more heroic in the eyes of the public. Proud of the bravery of the increasingly independent woman, feminists latched onto these incidents to illustrate how a woman can indeed fend for herself and, therefore, should have the right to move through the world without a chaperone.

Characteristically, those who opposed the feminist movement soon began to oppose the hatpin by fueling rumors of innocent men being attacked and highlighting any incidents where people were accidentally injured by hatpins. European countries began limiting hatpin length and some American lawmakers decided to do the same. Hatpin length was soon regulated in cities like Chicago, Baltimore, New Orleans, and others.

Ultimately, it would be the changes of the times — and of fashion — that was the undoing of the hatpin. Smithsonian explains that they declined as World War I began and were gone a few years after that when big hats gave way to bobbed hair and more fitted headwear. And so ended a rather unique chapter in feminist history — and, perhaps, began an era of men being thankful that hairpins have those protective rubber tips.

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For another tale in feminist history, check out "Yale Needs Women: How the First Group of Girls Rewrote the Rules of an Ivy League Giant" by Anne Gardiner Perkins. The audiobook is free with an Audible trial. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Brian VanHooker September 12, 2019

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