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With important conversations and movements (like #metoo) peppering the modern global dialogue, women’s rights are getting more airtime than ever before. Though the wage gap and a host of other equality issues are at the forefront of these discussions, one particular topic remains the most important — violence against women.

The tragic truth of our society is that women have long been victims of violent crimes perpetrated by men. In modern times, it’s increasingly common for women to have the means to fight back, both through powerful movements like #timesup and by having access to self-defense skills and tools. Many women have been learning how to defend themselves against predators and attackers through specialized martial arts programs.


Even before the days of fitness centers offering special programs for self-defense, women still found ways to protect themselves from harm. As it turns out, instances of ladies using a number of methods to defend themselves have been recorded as far back as the 1700s.

The Persistent Mashers Versus the Mighty Hairpin

Women have relied on their intuition to try and avoid sexual harassment or assault for centuries and still do today. However, it’s handy to have a tool — and since the mid-1800s, women have done just that. The actual products and items that were used as defense tools, however, have changed quite a bit over the years.


In 2019, many women walk home at night with their keys laced through their fingers in the case of an attacker. Others carry pepper spray, mace, or an alarm in their handbag. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, women had their own systems in place. The humble hatpin, which of course was made to secure a fashionable garment to one’s head, found another use by ladies who were trying to avoid the unwanted touch of lecherous “mashers.”


“Masher” is a Victorian term that loosely translates to “creep,” “catcaller,” or “harasser.” During the mid-1800s, women began to spend more time outside of the home. Unsavory men, not used to seeing women out and about — and often “unchaperoned” —  began to engage in the same habits that anger and endanger women today. They invaded their personal space, would often touch them without permission, and would sometimes go much further than that. To defend themselves, women would unfasten their hatpin and scratch the masher so he would retreat.

Another Form of Defense

18th-century women weren’t only defending themselves. They were also defending their country — and often against many odds. After all, women didn’t have many rights during the time of the Revolutionary War; they were essentially second class citizens. Somehow, that didn’t stop a staggering number of them from risking their lives to fight amongst the men as soldiers.


Many of the women who fought in the Revolution disguised themselves as men by chopping their hair, choosing a male alias, and using bandages to hide their breasts. Often, they served for significant periods of time and advanced along the military ranks before being discovered and subsequently imprisoned. It was risky business, but these women (like today’s women) were brave and fighting for a better future. We’re still working on it, but we’re further than we would be without them.

Evolving With Technology

Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, tools for combatting sexual harassment and assault were often more on the defensive side. Today, technology has given us additional tools that allow victims of assault to find justice in larger numbers than ever before. However, we still have a lot of work ahead of us — right now, for example, medical professionals and lawmakers are fighting for post-assault forensic examinations to be made more accessible.


Though bringing a sexual criminal to justice is empowering, however, it doesn’t take away the trauma and pain which was brought upon by this event, which is why modern public education efforts on consent and self-defense for women are so crucial.

A Modern Perspective

Though sexual harassment has changed, it is still an ongoing problem in American and international society. However, we live in a far more communicative and globalized world than we did in the 18th century, and how we deal with sexual harassment has changed. Though our female ancestors blazed a trail of self-defense and fended off mashers, many of those harassers still didn’t truly face consequences or even understand what they’d done.


Today, there is an open discourse about important topics like consent and assault. Victims of sexual harassment and assault are also encouraged to come forward and report their attacks— something which was much rarer in previous centuries— in order to both heal mentally and to prevent future incidents from the perpetrator.


Misogyny is deeply entrenched in our history, but so is the concept of self-defense. Did our female ancestors blaze an important trail when they began to stand up to the mashers? Absolutely. Is there still a significant amount of work that needs to be done? Absolutely. It’s important that we continue to fight for affordable access to post-assault forensic testing, self-defense courses for women, and public education on consent and sexual agency. With resources like these, we can continue to rise above.

About the Author:
Frankie Wallace contributes to a wide variety of blogs and writes about many different topics, including politics and the environment. Wallace currently resides in Boise, Idaho and is a recent graduate of the University of Montana.