Women’s History Month: Peter McGuinness and Dangerous Smoking Women

Local lawmaker Peter J. McGuinness began his first term as alderman at the end of World War I when female behavior was rapidly changing, outraging conceptions of proper female behavior. Young women called flappers defied traditional ladylike behavioral expectations by cutting their hair short, wearing pants instead of skirts, and—most shocking for McGuinness—even smoking in public. These rule-breaking new women, like Greenpoint’s Mae West, flouted conventions, shocking traditionalists like McGuinness. Smoking was not just considered unladylike; it was for many a black mark on a woman’s character. A Washington Post editorial in 1914 declared, “A man may take out a woman who smokes for a good time, but he won’t marry her, and if he does, he won’t stay married.”

In 1921, McGuinness, determined to protect public morality, proposed a notorious ordinance in the Board of Aldermen banning women from smoking in public places in New York City. The bill, though was misfiled as a law, although it was never enforced., which only added to the firestorm or controversy around it. McGuinness, asked to explain the smoking ban, answered:

“Young fellows go into our restaurants to find women folks sucking cigarettes. What happens? The young fellows lose all respect for the women, and the next thing you know the young fellows, vampired by these smoking women, desert their homes, their wives and children, rob their employers and even commit murder so that they can get money to lavish on these smoking women.”

McGuinness quickly realized that he had gone too far and faced a backlash from local women who had recently gained the right to vote. He tried to backtrack from the storm of criticism he received the bill . “Everybody got me wrong,” McGuinness reportedly told his colleagues.“ I didn’t introduce the resolution as a blue law. I did not intend to stop the ladies from smoking in public places. My idea was to make the proprietors of these places fix up nice smoking rooms for the ladies to enjoy their little smoke.” McGuinness’ exculpatory comments did not impress fellow alderman Bruce M. Falconer, who charged that McGuinness with “deliberate cowardice against the ladies,” to which McGuinness replied shouting, “There never was a drop of cowardice in my blood. I come from a people with real blood, who would die for anything they would do; that’s me!” Despite the bill, Greenpoint women began to smoke in greater numbers and the shock of smoking women quickly wore off.

About Geoff Cobb

Geoffrey Cobb is a Brooklyn high school history teacher and writer of the blog historicgreenpoint.wordpress.com. He has lived in Greenpoint for over 20years and is the author of a book on the history of the area, "Greenpoint Brooklyn's Forgotten Past."

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