In 1970, a group of women lined Wall Street in lower Manhattan with one purpose: to leer at men. They shouted comments about their bodies. They whistled like wolves; they smacked their lips.
“Those pants, they just bring out your best! Put your best leg forward, sweetie!”
“I love gray hair — it makes men so sexy, you have no idea.”
“I’m so turned on!”
It was the first “Ogle-In,” a new type of protest that took inspiration for its name from the sit-ins of the 1960s. And this particular protest, strange as it may seem, started in response to an even stranger incident.
A 21-year-old Brooklynite named Francine Gottfried who worked in a bank in the financial district became known to men in the area for her figure in mid-1968. Hordes of men soon discovered her commute, and as many as 5,000 men followed her from the subway to her office and then crowded to wait for her, according to a report in New York Magazine at the time … which also printed her measurements.
Organizer Karla Jay wanted to make headlines and show that the women’s movement had a sense of humor, all while giving men a taste of their own medicine. The first Ogle-Ins counted only a dozen or so participants, but reports of the protest reached far beyond Wall Street. Soon the Ogle-Ins made news across the U.S., and Jay and her fellow oglers appeared on radio programs. Jay received hundreds of letters over the protest, with women voicing their support and sharing their own stories of harassment — even though the term “street harassment” wouldn’t be coined until 1981, women knew exactly what it was.
While the protest might seem flip, it sparked others like it around the country. Soon a Los Angeles feminist group held their own version of the Ogle-In, and within months protests surrounding women’s right to public space and a safe working environment starting cropping up around the U.S. While a firm feminist stance on street harassment wouldn’t develop until later in the 20th century, the Ogle-Ins were one of the first public protests to establish a conversation around sexual harassment as a serious issue rather than just an annoyance.
“You’re trying to get to work. You need to earn money. That harassment is limiting your opportunity to walk down certain streets, or to work in certain kinds of spaces. And so you get this sexually enforced economic discrimination,” says Estelle Freedman, a historian at Stanford and author of the book Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation.
Street harassment worked in tandem alongside more traditional organizing issues, such as access to health care and equal work opportunities. Sexual harassment and street harassment in particular often resurface at moments in history when women are demanding equal rights or seeking a more prominent physical space in society. After all, it is more difficult to work, protest or vote if your physical path is marred by leering, groping or worse. Anti-harassment campaigns often go hand-in-hand with anti-rape and pro-choice movements, as they all reassert both a woman’s right to her own body and her sexual agency.
Suffragists first broached the subject of harassment in the early 20th century, as they began riding train cars and going out in public unaccompanied by men, and encountered all manner of harassment. These women took to defending themselves with their long, sharp hatpins, making headlines and even in some cases ending up in court.
Again, in the 1970s, as the U.S. saw a wave of women entering the workforce and acting up for their rights, street harassment resurfaced as a topic of debate. Susan Brownmiller, a prominent second-wave feminist and author of the seminal book on rape, Against Our Will, experienced the way these two issues went together firsthand. While handing out flyers for a feminist organizing group, a man came up behind her and grabbed her by the crotch. Brownmiller arrived to that group later that night with her foot in a cast — after kicking the man so hard that she broke her foot.
“I had always felt really cheapened when I would pass a construction site and the guys would automatically start in, making noises, making comments,” she says. Brownmiller saw street harassment as an attack on working-class women, who were required to exist more publicly and in potentially more dangerous working conditions than those who had money. Harassment had been an issue long before the 1970s — and even before the early 20th century — but back then it overwhelmingly affected working-class women and women of color, who had little political capital.
In her capacity as a journalist for the Village Voice, Brownmiller attended the first Ogle-Ins, describing an atmosphere of raucousness and levity in an otherwise serious movement. While she didn’t see it as the most important protest of the feminist movement, it started to galvanize women to discuss problems like “goosing” and harassment in their own communities. “I think that the whole purpose of feminism is ultimately to be able to have women talk about all kinds of issues,” she says.
“The economic and the sexual are two sides of the same coin,” says Freedman. “In other words, it’s not just about your body, or being defensive or being vulnerable. It’s actually about your earning power. And it’s not just about your earning power; it’s also about the way your body is treated. They work together.”