Katie Mulcahey and New York’s Short-Lived Women’s Smoking Ban
Two girls lighting cigarettes, 23 April, 1931, have the right to do so thanks to Katie Mulcahey. Photograph by Leslie Cardew. (Photo by Daily Herald Archive/SSPL/Getty Images)
Smoking cigarettes was a big thing in the early 1900s. Most men smoked and many women did. The problem was, no one looked twice if they saw a man smoking in public, but they were extremely uncomfortable if a woman smoked in public. This sort of double standard happened all the time. It was shocking, for example, for women to enter a store, restaurant, or hotel without a proper male escort. But the times, they were a-changing. By 1908, women were clamoring for their rights…to vote, to shop or dine alone in public and to light up a cigarette in public. That didn’t sit too well with some, especially an alderman in New York City.
“Little Tim” Found a Smoking Woman to be Offensive
New York City Alderman Timothy Sullivan, known his whole life as “Little Tim” to distinguish him from his cousin, “Big Tim” Sullivan, a Lower East Side political boss, strongly believed that a woman who smoked cigarettes in public was immoral with loose character. Although he admitted that he had never actually witnessed a woman smoking on the streets of New York, he was sure he would lose all respect for a lady if he did see it.
“Little Tim” was Under Pressure from Christian Groups
The Christian lobbyists were on “Little Tim’s” back about public smoking among women, which they identified as sinful and wicked behavior for respectable women to engage in. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which mostly advocated for bans on alcohol, also pressured lawmakers, like Sullivan, to address the issue of women smoking in public places. Buckling to the pressure, Sullivan proposed an ordinance that banned women, not men, from light a cigarette in public. He humbly named it the Sullivan Act and in no time, the act unanimously passed.
The Sullivan Act Extended into Businesses, Too
The wording in the Sullivan Act carried the smoking ban from the streets and public parks of New York City, into privately owned businesses, too. Restaurant, shop and hotel owners were told they had to forbid ladies from lighting up in their establishments. For the owner of one restaurant, the Café Martin, that over-reaching law rubbed him the wrong way. James B. Martin, the owner of Café Martin, operated a restaurant that catered to New York City’s elite, as well as visitors from Europe. When he saw the wife of a prominent ambassador puffing on a cigarette in his restaurant, he stopped his waiters from confronting her. He told the New York Times, “Personally, I think New York is ready to allow ladies to smoke in good restaurants.” Other business owners followed suit and announced that, despite the Sullivan Law, ladies were welcome to smoke in their businesses.
The Sullivan Law Went Into Effect on New Year’s Day, 1908
The very next day, Katie Mulcahey struck a match against the stone wall of a Bowery District building and lit her cigarette. A nearby police officer approached Mulcahey and exclaimed, “Madam, you mustn’t…what would Alderman Sullivan say?” Mulcahey was dumbfounded. She was unaware that a new smoking ban had been passed and didn’t realize she was breaking the law. The police officer arrested Mulcahey for public smoking.
Katie Was Feisty and Stubborn
If “Little Tim” was looking to make an example out of someone as a way to bring awareness to his new law, he picked the wrong girl. Katie Mulcahey was outspoken, feisty and stubborn. When she was presented in front of the district court judge, she was defiant. She told the judge, “I’ve got as much right to smoke as you have. I never heard of this new law and I don’t want to hear about it. No man shall dictate to me.”
Katie’s Arrest Led to Open Discussions on the Topic
The newspapers reported the arrest of Katie Mulcahey for public smoking. While the Christian temperance groups applauded the arrest, the majority of the residents of New York City sided with Katie. Feminist groups took up the cause and added public smoking to their long list of women’s rights that they were advocating for. Women took to the streets and held rallies and public discussions. Women, they proclaimed, should have all the rights that men were afforded, including the right to vote and the right to smoke a cigarette wherever they wanted.
Katie Was Released the Next Day
The district judge fined Katie Mulcahey $5 for her offense, but Katie flatly refused to pay it. Lawyers reviewed the wording of Sullivan’s Law and observed that it did not mention a fine or punishment for public smoking. Katie was released the next day without as much as a mention on her record. She was the first and only person to be cited for breaking Sullivan’s Law. Two weeks later, the mayor of New York City, George B. McClellan, Jr., vetoed the law and it was stricken from the books.
Women Continued to Push for Equality
Throughout the remainder of the decade, women activists pushed for more gender equality. Their biggest rallying point, women’s suffrage, was finally achieved in 1920.
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