Daniela Sheinin: How do past voices resonate in the present moment? And how do we make sense of those voices? What were they trying to say and whose job is it to find out? This is Reverb Effect.
Imagine you’re sitting on the subway. You look up and you see someone staring at you. Is there something in your hair, in your teeth? A stain on your shirt? No, that’s not it.
He’s still staring. What could he possibly be looking at? You start to feel uncomfortable. People keep getting on getting off the train and he’s still looking at you. Should you get up and leave? No. You still have 12 stops left. Maybe you should move to the other side of the train car. No, he could probably just follow you. Wait, would he follow you? Would he follow you off the train? Is he still looking? Yes. He’s still looking at you.
Welcome to episode one of Reverb Effect, a podcast brought to you by the University of Michigan Department of History. I’m your host, Daniela Sheinin and today we’re talking about the long history of street harassment, a phenomenon that includes looking in all its forms, staring, leering, ogling. This includes cat calls and whistling, smacking lips, explicit comments. This could be an arm brushing up against you, a comment on your smile or your hair. Since ninetenth-century urbanization, women have always dealt with these intrusive behaviors on the city street, on the bus, on the train, essentially in all public spaces. We’re going to hear from Molly Brookfield, a PhD candidate in the Departments of History and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan. Her dissertation covers this very topic.
Molly Brookfield: Let’s begin in 1974. It’s early spring and we’re in a high school in California. Imagine the students rushing from class to class. The bang of lockers as they open and close. Students stop to talk to one another or pass notes, and in one unused classroom somewhere in the building, a researcher from the University of Minnesota is in the middle of an interview. This interviewer is spending the spring semester talking to high school students about their lives. The students she’s interviewing are all girls, mostly around 15 or 16 years old and mostly African-American. The interviewer whose name is Jenny Oliver, has a list of questions that she’s supposed to ask. They are broad and wide ranging. She asks girls about their relationships with their parents. She asks about their friendships with girls at school, about their interests and afterschool activities and she asks about the students’ feelings about boys and their experiences with sex.
She asks them what they think about politics or women’s liberation, and she asked them to talk about what they see as the common problems their peers face. In response, the girls talk about whether or not women should marry. Some talk about fights they’ve had with their best friend. One girl talks about her moral code and how she tries her best to be kind to everyone she meets. Many of the girls talk about the different cliques and groups at school, how they fall along racial lines and how they make some people feel left out. Then about halfway through each interview, Jenny Oliver asks the girls how they feel about being harassed on the street. The question changes a little each time. As you might imagine, it’s hard to stay consistent when interviewing 30 some girls over the course of a school semester, but the question is generally pretty close to the version Jenny Oliver used on February 1st, 1974. On that day, she asked, “How do you feel when you’re walking down a street and a boy whistles at you or makes a pass at you?”
I stumbled across Jenny Oliver’s interviews in the archives in 2018. When I saw that she had asked her interviewees about boys whistling at them, I did the archival equivalent of jumping up and shouting in excitement: so kind of wriggled in my seat and grinned silently so as not to disturb others. It was a rare find. Someone asking the very question, I wish I could have asked teenagers and young women in every decade of the 20th century.
That’s because I’m writing a dissertation about the history of men’s intrusive behaviors in public places. You might know it better as street harassment. That means I’m interested in behaviors like ogling or cat calls in men who grope women on public transit and follow them down the street or shout at them from car windows. I want to understand how these behaviors have come to be viewed as normal or harmless for much of the 20th century and also how they affect women’s ability to move through public space freely. I found Jenny Oliver’s interview transcripts in the social welfare history archives at the University of Minnesota and they felt like a gold mine. Here was someone asking one of the very questions I’m interested in and leaving a record of 30 some responses. It was an even more exciting find because the responses were mostly from black teenage girls–a racial and age demographic that can be extremely difficult to find in a traditional paper archive.
Jenny Oliver’s interviews are part of something called Project Girl. A study put on by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Youth Development and Research from 1973 to 1975. According to the center, the project was trying to identify the needs, concerns and aspirations of adolescent girls. Interviewers spoke to girls in Alaska, California, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Puerto Rico and Texas. You can read about their findings in the book published from the study called, “Young girls, A Portrait of Adolescence.” But I found out about the Project Girl records while on a visit to view other records at the social welfare history archives in Minnesota. The archivist, Linnea Anderson mentioned the records as something I might want to look at given my other interests. And she was right. The collection holds hundreds of interviews with teenage girls about their thoughts and feelings on a huge range of subjects including sex, sexuality, and relationships.
But actually most of the interviewers did not explicitly ask their teenage interviewees about street harassment or cat calling specifically. Sometimes it came up, especially when talking about sex or sexual assault. So, for example, most of the interviewers asked the girls if they’d ever been molested. That’s the term they use. An 18 year old Latina girl in Texas responded with a story about a man in a car who had followed her as she walked down the street. Eventually the man pulled up to the curb and started masturbating in front of her. A pretty extreme, but by no means uncommon behavior. For the most part though, these were rare glimpses of street harassment dropped into conversation at random. The only way I could find these stories in the collections 20 some archival boxes was to pull out files randomly and hope I got a representative sample.
But Jenny Oliver’s interviews were different. For reasons that might forever be a mystery to me, she decided to ask every single one of her 30 some interviewees what they felt when men cat called them or as she put it, made a pass at them in public. She did not have to ask this question. It was not on the list of questions each researcher got and no one else appeared to have asked a similar question in any systematic way. Maybe Jenny Oliver had a personal interest in asking it, but whatever the reason, it gave me a treasure trove of reflections on street harassment from black teenage girls.
In the interview transcripts, the girls talk about all sorts of things. About the mixed feelings they had when men cat called them, about how they felt they needed to avoid places where groups of men congregated, about the way cat calls reminded them that they were vulnerable in public space. Their responses are sometimes terse, sometimes verbose and thoughtful, but they’re all revealing.
Many girls talked about how they did not feel good when men harassed them on the street. One girl told Jenny Oliver, “I don’t like it. I don’t know why most girls like it, but I hate it. It makes me feel embarrassed and I don’t like it.” Another said she thought boys whistling at girls was silly. She explained, “I think that it’s stupid. I can’t stand that.” One girl responded that being whistled at made her feel good. She explained that at least it meant somebody cared. Another simply responded to Jenny Oliver’s question with one word, happy. She felt happy when boys whistled at her on the street. Quite a few interviewees felt ambivalent about men who made passes at them in public. They talked about how being whistled at could make them feel either embarrassed or attractive or sometimes both at the same time. Some felt bad because they also enjoyed it.
One girl told Oliver, “I feel shame. Not shame, but you feel good, but then you don’t want, you know, you try to get away from it. At least I do.” Another girl explained how it depended on her mood. She said, “if I’m in a happy mood, I’ll say, Oh, he’s looking at me or if I’m in a bad mood where I just don’t want to be around anyone, I’ll say, that makes me mad. I guess it really depends on how I’m feeling that moment.” Some girls didn’t seem to mind being whistled at if the boy doing the whistling was attractive. One respondent said, “well, if he’s cute, it’s all right, but if he’s ugly <inaudible>.” Another argued that age was the most important factor. When Oliver asked her how she felt about men who make passes on the street, she responded that it was okay as long as he’s not too old.
She explained that when older men whistled at her, it made her feel fast or like she looked too old for her age. Some of the most heartbreaking examples are from girls who talked about the fear they associated with intrusive behaviors like whistling or cat calling. One girl told Oliver that she had been attacked on the street at the age of nine and now she’s careful about going out late or going out by herself because as she put it, “something even worse might happen.” All the girls talk about how they try to avoid men who might make a pass at them on the street. One girl explained, “I hate walking past a group of boys. I don’t care how big or small they are. It seems like somebody always has a remark to say, so I try to avoid them.” Another talked about how she felt threatened if she didn’t play along with the men who approached her on the street. She told a story about walking down the street and a few men shouted at her to join them. When she didn’t want to, they started insulting her and calling her names. She told Oliver bluntly, “you could do without that.”
Lucky finds like these form the basis of my primary source research for my dissertation. Researching the history of something as every day and normalized as street harassment comes with significant challenges. Cat calls or leers or a similar kinds of intrusive behaviors just don’t stick around for very long. They’re rarely recorded in any kind of systematic way, particularly for those periods in American history when the behaviors were so normalized that they seem to just blend into the urban landscape. I’ve had to work hard to figure out how to approach archives at an unconventional angle to see what kinds of stories I can shake loose.
It’s easier in periods when Americans saw men’s intrusive behaviors as problems. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, for example, urban reformers and women’s groups complained about men who bothered women in public places. Newspapers reported on incidents when men embarrassed women with ogling, sexual remarks or other intrusive behaviors. At moments like this, a historian need only learn the kind of language used to describe these incidents and then plug them into any digital database to find a huge archive of reports. But when street harassment is seen as normal, masculine behavior, it’s much harder to find relevant material. In these cases, I often start by looking for adjacent subjects in the archive. So I have found stories about street harassment in papers from social workers who interviewed women about their transition to city life or in writings about single women and dating life in 1950s New York. In the 1970s, feminist groups that started rape crisis centers and advocated for anti rape legislation often talked about how street harassment made them fear for their safety on the street.
I’ve used social media conferences and writing workshops to solicit recommendations for novels, films, or music that talk about street harassment. And sometimes I stumble upon relevant material hiding in plain sight. One day while listening to a 1960s pop music mix, I suddenly realized that Roy Orbison’s, Pretty Woman, was a song about a man trying to pick up a woman on the street. I mean, of course it is, but the act of catcalling is presented as so normal, even romantic in this song, I didn’t notice it until I was working on a project that had me thinking about street harassment constantly. When I go into an archive, I’m focused on finding materials that will give insight into the meaning of behaviors like cat calling or ogling and how these meanings changed over time. I start an archival trip by asking how are people talking about cat calls, ogling and other intrusive behaviors in these sources?
How do women and girls feel about these behaviors? What are some popular responses to harassment? What are law enforcement doing about it? Is there any feminist activism responding to these behaviors? Once I gather material, then I have to make my sources talk to each other. I mixed what I can find about specific incidents with sources that tell me how people thought about those experiences. So for example, Oliver’s interviews give me examples of specific things that happened to the girls, but they also give insight into how the girls felt about being harassed on the street and how it affected their feelings about public space. I then combine these insights with other sources such as feminist pamphlets from the time, manuals for self defense, and representations of street harassment in popular media. My ultimate goal is to put individual experiences of street harassment and intrusive behaviors in a wider context that helps us understand their impact on women’s everyday lives.
I hope to show how cultural messages about street harassment help to define what was appropriate behavior in public space, what was taken for granted, and what behaviors women were allowed to complain about. Jenny Oliver’s interview transcripts are a small but extremely enlightening part of that project. And I would add, as an aside, that they are proof that women have always felt ambivalent about cat calling and other forms of street harassment. While some might argue that these behaviors are supposed to be complementary, it’s clear that women haven’t always experienced them as compliments even in the past.
Daniela Sheinin: Where do we place Me Too or Time’s Up in the history of street harassment? A history that’s being remade every day with every new story that comes to light. I spent the better part of 2017 living in New York City, conducting my own dissertation research. Every day, I got on the subway and traveled to one of the archives in the city. Too many times to count, I would experience some kind of harassment and I would often think of Molly and her work in these moments. I wondered if she too was experiencing this harassment on her way to the archives where she was uncovering the history of these very behaviors. I probably didn’t even need to ask her. I’d seen enough with my own eyes. I’d spoken with enough friends and acquaintances to know this was happening on a regular basis. But, I did ask her. And sure enough as she was documenting the past, she had also started documenting the present.
Molly Brookfield: I remember a moment when I experienced somebody cat calling me on the street and thought to myself, I should start keeping track of these because it’s weird that I am writing about these experiences in the past and experiencing them in the present at the same time.
Daniela Sheinin: Surprisingly to some while unsurprisingly to others, we are not so distant from the past. But now, women are sharing their stories more frequently and with more people. Hopefully this means for historians of the future, these records will be more than just a rare find left by a select few in the archive.
Molly Brookfield: This is a phenomenon that is experienced also disproportionately severely by gender nonconforming folks, transgender women, transgender women of color in particular like experience, extreme harassment, assault, violence in public places. And those are histories and experiences that are vitally important to document and to understand. And what my project is interested in, is the, the things on the other end of the spectrum, right, is those experiences of leering cat calling that are experienced really widely by all types of people. The people in my archive who who write about them and talk about their experiences are what today we would most likely think of as cis women. Their sexuality is a lot more nebulous, like it’s just you don’t know most of the time. But that is something that is, that is worth mentioning and talking about, right, that these are, that we’re talking mostly about cis women because those were the ones whose voices I’m getting in the archive. Not exclusively, but primarily and that there’s something about like that kind of quieter, like insidious, like trivialized kind of harassment, that is the thing I’m most interested in.
Daniela Sheinin: In April, 2019 the UC San Diego Center on Gender Equity and Health released a report, Measuring #MeToo, a National Study on Sexual Harassment and Assault. The study found that 81% of women and 43% of men reported some kind of sexual harassment and or assault in their lifetime. Most frequently, this was happening in public space. Locations reported included the street, the park or a store. This study shows what many people experience every day, women in particular. And along with current movements like Me Too, we can start thinking about a new archive with fewer gaps and fewer silences.
It was around 6:00 PM in February. I was sitting on the last train car of the subway on my way home from the library. At one stop, a man got on. He was an older man, maybe around 65 and he was wearing a tweed jacket with elbow pads. There were maybe four or five other people on this subway car, plenty of room to sit and he came and sat right beside me, shoulder to shoulder, thigh to thigh. He was basically pushing me up against the very edge of the bench. I sat frozen in total disbelief that this is where he had chosen to sit. Panic started to creep up. I asked him to move and he, looking straight ahead, simply said, “no.”
I got up and moved to the other side of the train car. A few moments later, he did the same thing, sitting right across from me. At this point, I was in full panic mode: I wanted to leave the train, but I didn’t want him to follow me. I wanted to switch train cars, but I didn’t want him to see where I was going. I decided at the next stop I would leave the train car and run to one of the other ones, hoping he would think I had just gotten off at my stop. I settled into a more populated train car and three stops later, in he walks, white hair Tweed coat, and sits down across from me.
This was not the first time something like this had happened, nor was it the worst thing that ever happened to me on public transit. I decided to ask some of my colleagues if they had gone through similar experiences. These stories had certainly come up before among friends, but it’s something we don’t really talk about. It simply becomes a part of the journey to get to work, to get to school or to get home. It becomes commonplace in occupations that take women on the road or in the field and for women who have long commutes on public transit or by foot. The following stories come from Molly Brookfield and our fellow PhD candidate, Stephanie Fajardo. Her dissertation explores gender and the US military’s regulation of interracial intimacies in the post World War II Philippines.
Stephanie Fajrdo: I set off to do research at an archive located in a major city in the US. I had been there two times before, um, on this trip I decided that I would spend a little bit more money and stay a little bit closer to the archive so that I would save time and I could just walk there. I chose an Airbnb that was only 10 minutes away walking and what I thought was great about it was it also had a grocery store in between the Airbnb and the archive. So I thought I could stop by the grocery store on my way; I could grab lunch or I could grab groceries on the way home. The first day that I arrived, I decided to go to the grocery store to get some things for breakfast and dinner. After I did my shopping, I had so many things that I decided to call an Uber to get home.
When I was outside waiting for the Uber, an older man came up to me and offered me a ride by saying that I should get in his car. Although it was daytime and there were a lot of people around, I felt really scared and vulnerable being alone and not really knowing the city very well. I told the man that I didn’t need a ride and he just kept saying that he could give me a ride and I started to pick up my things and it looked like he was going to follow me. So, I just started walking. I found a fast food restaurant. I just went in and then got in line and decided to order something to kind of like, buy myself some time.
Molly Brookfield: I’ve had experiences where men will address questions to me that seem innocent, um, or like they’re not going to become about my body or about my sexuality or anything else. And then very quickly turn into that. So like asking the time of day and then being like, “so you want to get a drink,” you know, or like saying “good morning, how’s your day going?” And I don’t respond and them and then them getting mad. So clearly they, they want some kind of interaction with me that I’m not giving them. That these are masqueraded as pleasantries that um, it becomes very clear that that’s not what they’re intended to be when they’re followed up either with anger because I’m not responding or with like, an invitation for a date or something.
Stephanie Fajrdo: The next morning I set off for the archive. As I was walking, I noticed immediately it felt awkward to be out on the street. There weren’t very many people walking, even though there was a sidewalk and there weren’t many women. On this walk, it happened at least two times, maybe three. Men would roll down their windows and shout things at me. Things like, “hey cutie, can I get your number?” At the end of the day, on my way home, I decided to just take an Uber just to avoid, um, all of the cat calling. That one Uber costs $15 and I realized that I just couldn’t afford to spend that much on transportation to the archive twice a day. So the next day I set off for my walk again and just brought earphones with me and decided to listen to music and ignore all of the people around me
Daniela Sheinin: Over and over in stories of present day straight harassment, looking seems to be the most consistent offense. Sure there might be an accompanying comments, maybe some unwanted physical interaction, but women have become very well acquainted with the various forms of looking. Staring, leering, ogling. And when we came together to share our experiences, Molly took it back to the past.
Molly Brookfield: So one of the things that is so interesting about this work is you can tell me that story and I immediately think of a source from the 1860s where a woman describes that exact experience. So I’ve been really interested in like, ogling for instance, both because it has this particular quality and also because in the progressive era people are obsessed with ogling. They’re obsessed with looking and staring and how insulting a look can be in a way in which like they acknowledged that there is such a way to look at someone that can be uncomfortable and insulting, that fades away. That doesn’t exist by the 40s and certainly not by the 50s when people are drawing cartoons of men ogling women and calling them Girl Watchers and talking about their technique and like the best way to watch girls in public. They’re doing the very same thing that men are doing in the progressive era. But now it’s like funny and amusing and I feel like we’re still sort of in that paradigm of looking where if someone looks at you on a subway for too long and it’s uncomfortable, what are you supposed to do about that? Because you look nuts if you start yelling at them, but you can feel that there’s something off about that. And so there are these, like, subtle little ways that men in public places find a way to catch women’s attention, but in such a way that you can’t really complain about it and you can’t really defend yourself because it looks harmless and it looks in some cases like pleasant and friendly, but it is not necessarily experienced that way by the woman who’s actually receiving that attention.
Daniela Sheinin: As we kept talking, she had stories from the late 19th early to mid 20th century that sounded almost like they were out of 2019.
Molly Brookfield: In New York in 1888, a woman talks about how she endures insult and workers who quote, “expose themselves in a manner I cannot explain.” Which, she can’t explain, so I can’t say for certain what that means, but expose themselves certainly sounds like they’re showing her something that she doesn’t want to see. That one’s a rare one for that time period, but certainly by the 70s when you start to have women who may or may not call themselves feminists, may or may not be involved in like the quote unquote movement, um, talking about this experience and especially in women who live in New York city, um, and because of the subway, because of the number of people and the way that you’re packed into spaces that are very small. There was a woman in 72 who wrote an article for Ms magazine about this where she talks about being on a subway and having men press up against her on the train and her not really being sure if it’s part of what she calls, the general crush of being on the subway or if it’s some guy who has just found an opportunity to get really close to her. And she goes on to talk about, you know, the countless men that have exposed themselves to her in various places and times.
In 1916 in Chicago, there’s a woman who talks about a man who sits beside her on the streetcar and slowly edged his way closer to her. Until he finally put his hand on her knee and then she like bolts up out of her seat and she goes to talk to a police officer and the police officer just says, “there’s nothing I can do that’s not illegal.” Um, but like, she literally leaves, you know, the street car, like she’s on her way to wherever she’s going and she has to interrupt her journey because this guy decides to touch her in a way that she doesn’t want to be touched. Um, and that’s even kind of an extreme, as it were, example, because he’s physically touching her and there’s so many other examples of women who jump off buses or street cars or trains on their way somewhere that they need to be because a man is, um, staring at them or won’t stop talking to them. So these things really do interrupt women’s ability to move freely through the public space of the city and have done for decades.
Daniela Sheinin: So where do we go from here? Sure. Women might be more likely to speak up or come up with informal ways of dealing with these incidents. There’ve been numerous campaigns to fight back, to talk back and to look back. But how do we address the larger issue?
Molly Brookfield: I think it’s important to think about these experiences as being part of the history of sexual harassment and in the present as part of the definitions that we have for sexual harassment. A lot of conversations that we’re having now like around Me Too, and Time’s Up, they’re not exclusively about the workplace, but they are heavily tilted in that direction. And part of the reason for that I think is because there exists legislation already about sexual harassment in the workplace that people can point to as being effective or ineffective. Um, and then make recommendations based on that.
I mean even the way sexual harassment is often defined within the legal system. In order to get a successful case, women often have to show that sexual harassment is repeated, um, that it is severe and that it like impinges on their ability, on their earning ability, right? It’s very hard to show seriousness of offense and repetition of offense when that offense is leering from like seven different men on the subway today, but then eight different ones the next day. And you don’t have the repetition because it’s different people, you don’t even know their names, who they are. So there’s no one to like complain about to anybody. And so I think those experiences have very similar effects on women’s sort of um, autonomy in public space and like freedom from fear or even discomfort or whatever you want to call it. But it’s not thought of as being part of the same problem all the time just because it’s so nebulous and hard to legislate against basically.
I mean, I think so much of like our conversations about sexual harassment are about like, how do we make people accountable and that’s I, it’s just not gonna work, I don’t think for the kind of sexual harassment that women experience all the time in every other aspect of their lives beyond the workplace and beyond their educational institutions. And so then the question becomes how do you talk about it with others? How do you talk about A, that these experiences are happening and B, like, what are your solutions to it? There’s, it’s really unclear what any kind of solution would be even, to this. And so I think that means that people just don’t really talk about it or assume that it’s part of the business of being a woman in the world.
Daniela Sheinin: Thank you so much for joining us, and a special thank you to Stephanie Fajardo and our segment producer for the episode, Molly Brookfield. You can find out more about her work at her website, Molly brookfield.com or on Twitter at MBRKFLD. Our Editorial Board is Professor Melanie Tanielian and Matt Villeneuve. And our Production Team is Executive Producer, Gregory Parker, and I’m your Season Producer, Daniela Sheinin. I hope you’ll join us for our next episode for more stories on how the past reverberates in the present. This is Reverb Effect.