The Time New York Banned Women From Smoking

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Today, smoking bans are commonplace. Most states ban or at least restrict smoking in restaurants and bars, and many businesses even ask smokers to leave the vicinity of the building entirely for smoke breaks. But this is 2016.

Back in 1908, smokers pretty much had free rein. Little Tim Sullivan, “Bowery moralist and political chieftain,” wanted to change that—but only for women.

At the meeting that was held to approve or deny the motion, Sullivan reminded everyone that he certainly wasn’t trying to control women. “I want you to remember that I am not trying to put this ordinance through for the sake of dictating what women should do and what they should not do. Everybody knows that that is bad business.” The point, he said, was that “proper” ladies were positively offended when other females lit up, and should not be subjected to such low class behavior. “Uptown there are restaurants all fixed up in gilt and glass that pass under the name of respectable, and these restaurants are going to allow some women to shock other women by puffing cigarettes right out in the dining room. I think this is not for the best interests of the women of this city.”

A man named John Henry Smith seemed to have the most logic of anyone at the meeting; he shook his fist at Sullivan and suggested that their time would be better spent looking into improving the lives of the poor than with “nonsensical things” such as preventing women from smoking.

Despite pushback from Smith and Dr. John Pease, who said the law should also apply to men, the Sullivan Ordinance was approved. Curiously, the way the ordinance was worded didn’t actually make it illegal for women to smoke in public, but made it unlawful for the owners of bars and restaurants to allow women to smoke there.

Nonetheless, at least one woman was arrested during this law’s short two-week life. Katie Mulcahey was taken to night court after a police officer spotted her striking a match against a wall to light her cigarette. “I’ve got just as much right to smoke as you have,” she told the judge. “I have never heard of this new law and I don’t want to hear about it. No man shall dictate to me.” He jailed her for failing to pay the $5 fine.