Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Proposal: Street Cars for Ladies Only (1903)

New York street car - all men?
A Proposal: Street Cars for Ladies Only (1903)

Location: New York, New York, USA

Opened/Closed: Proposed in a letter to the New York Times on March 8, 1903

We recently discussed a lady's letter to the New York Times arguing why a woman-only restaurant was needed for that fair town--this in 1885.

This time--some 18 years later--we see another plea in the same newspaper for womyn's space. This time for a women-only street car.

Street cars in one form or another had operated in New York City since 1832. The technology changed a lot over the course of the next century--horse-drawn cars were replaced by cable cars which were replaced by electric streetcars. Needless to say, the progression wasn't necessarily even-paced. According to the Brooklyn Historic Railway Assocation, "the last cable car line in New York City ended its run in 1905; the last horsecar line ran up until 1917."

But from its very beginnings, public transportation was staked out as an extension of the public streets where women were already subject to male "indignities" (harassment, groping, and sexual assault). And the street car "torture" (as this woman so accurately and bravely named it) only became more pronounced with increasing urbanization and crowding, which made it ever more difficult for women to move away from and escape their assailants. And that has never changed.
Horse-drawn street car - all men?

Finally, a woman spoke out. And not with a plea for better manners on the part of the gents. Nope, she was done with the gents. She wanted a woman-only street car.

She wasn't exactly alone in that sentiment either.

From the New York Times, May 8, 1903:


To the Editor of the New York Times:

Women societies are holding meetings and adopting resolutions full of the bitterest criticism against the loathsome conditions of our street cars. They find no words harsh enough against the indecency of crowded cars, in which men and women are huddled together like sardines. Our authorities seem to be helpless or unwilling to enforce better conditions. Even our District Attorney can't find any fault with conditions which stamp our overcrowded cars as "disorderly vehicles," in which to ride must be a torture to any decent woman.

There seems to be no remedy in sight against the complained-of conditions, and for any immediate relief. Now there is one way in which existing conditions may be improved in so far as decency is concerned if we have to stand overcrowded cars, let our women have an opportunity at least to escape situations which are embarrasing and humiliating to them. Let us have cars for "ladies only." It would cost the companies not one cent extra if, especially in rush hours, they would send cars, say every third or fourth or fifth or sixth, over their respective lines, with signs indicating that men must keep off.

Nothing easier could be done than putting this idea into practice. It would mitigate the present unsavory state of things in some way, and as we are accustomed to payment on installments, I will desist from demanding more, leaving it to our women societies to ask for conductresses, & c. But before others are going to make puns over my cars "for ladies only," let me strike the tune by asking "Why not female cars while there are "mail cars"?

                                                                                                          W. V. WEBER
New York, March 4, 1903

I haven't seen any evidence yet that W. V. Weber's street car proposal got much "traction" (if you'll excuse the pun). But six years later in 1909, New York women secured a women-only subway car for what was supposed to be a three-month trial period. During that time, the press viciously attacked the car and the women who rode in it. Some fellow even filed suit with the Interstate Commerce Commission--even though male-only facilities of all sorts were very common during this era. In fact, every attempt made in the U.S. to secure women-only public transportation--at least that I know of--has been subjected to persistent legal harassment initiated by men (kind of a variation of domestic violence by proxy). Doesn't matter if it was the modest 1909 experiment in New York or the somewhat more ambitious Women's Transit Service in Madison, Wisconsin (1973-2006).

But as we have also seen, these experiments have continued to inspire women-only public transportation efforts around the world that are still on-going, despite chronic male hostility.

Unfortunately, we now have to put up with relatively clueless liberal feminists speaking out against these initiatives as well. No women-only subway cars or buses, please, because that's discriminatory!

Instead, we get the same old tired utopian pleas for "education" and better manners--which have fallen on deaf (male) ears for nearly two centuries at this point. Meanwhile, real-world solutions that could make the woman commuter's life easier NOW are dismissed as "paternalistic."

Go figure.

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