The female self-defense movement began with punches and pinpricks, but stand back—literally—we now have flamethrowers. A new mini-flamethrower that’s small enough to fit snugly inside a purse, but potent enough to shoot a nearly 2-foot torch just hit the Chinese market, proof that the demand for lightweight, easily concealed weapons to fuck up annoying men is only getting more lethal and sophisticated.
Our methods weren’t always this disfiguring. From the 1890s to the 1920s, soon-to-be emancipated women in increasingly urbanized areas were now walking the streets unescorted, hungry for self-defense strategies to deal with unwanted attention from men, who might flirt, intimidate, harass or assault them on streets and subways. In her book on the history of female self-defense in the U.S., Her Own Hero, out a week from today, Wendy Rouse identifies one common urban turn-of-the-century threat—the “masher.”
Mashers were basically today’s garden-variety catcaller or sexual harasser. They “grinned, ogled and made goo-goo eyes at women,” Rouse writes, often brushing their legs or arms on streetcars. They propositioned women for drinks, flirted or sometimes simply asked them to name a price.
Women could alert policemen to arrest or fine these men. But droves of women began learning martial arts and a more feminized form of boxing to at least deliver a few good blows. For those who couldn’t, and as the tide turned toward blaming women for dressing too provocatively, women increasingly relied on their own means to survive the urban jungle, including sneakier concealed or repurposed objects and an element of surprise to thwart and derail their attackers.
Though Rouse’s book doesn’t explore personal weapons in-depth, aside from a brief mention of “parasols, umbrellas and hat pins,” over time, these weapons have increasingly taken more sophisticated and deadly forms.
Filled with bricks, a flashlight, or even theoretically just a smartphone and a dildo, women have been swinging their purses on the heads or at the faces of unwanted male assailants for as long as they’ve carried purses (the 16th century). See also: Umbrellas, parasols.
Early in the 20th century, women used hatpins (or hairpins) — ornate, decorative metal pins up to a foot long — to pierce the flesh of men who dared to get fresh on the subway or street. Though they’re mentioned in a history of weapons Samurai wives used in the 16th century to defend themselves, a slew of newspaper reports from 20th-century America depict women across the country using this “hatpin peril” to stay out of harm’s way.
“By 1909, the hatpin was considered an international threat, with the police chiefs in Hamburg and Paris considering measures to regulate their length,” Karen Abbott writes in a history at the Smithsonian. They were used this way so frequently that in 1910, Chicago’s City Council threatened women wearing or using hatpins over 9 inches with arrest and a $50 fine. Hatpins eventually faded out when the bob became popular around World War I, Abbott notes, thus leaving women to move onto other forms of self-defense weaponry that were less female-specific and simply thoughtful adaptations of tactical weapons used by men. Many were first invented in the 1960s and have simply evolved into other, more clever disguises.
Just like rape, the whistle has been around for at least 5,000 years. The safety protection whistle can be used for emergencies ranging from bear run-ins to search-and-rescue missions. But at 116 decibels (about as loud as a chainsaw), this piercingly screechy weapon is particularly adept at making a terrible man flee right into a woodchipper.
Romantic, yet troubling: In 1965, after his wife Doris was attacked on the street, Allan Lee Litman invented portable teargas she could carry to stop any jackanapes in his tracks. Mace is now a combination of teargas and pepper spray, which is, among other things, the chemical compound capsicum, derived from capsaicin pepper plants. It temporarily blinds people, and also comes in pen, keychain and lipstick form.
These were invented in the 1960s as a nonlethal weapon for emergencies, and women soon began using them to incapacitate their attackers with a not-fucking-around electric jolt. Sometimes disguised as cell phones and even tampons.
A common-sense use of an everyday item. Car keys can be gripped in the hand to protrude through the fingers for an effective jab. The more sophisticated version of car keys, a cat defender keychain is a knuckle grip with razor sharp claws, gripped in the palm to recreate a cat scratch. It will take the skin off a watermelon.
Similar to the rape whistle, panic alarms emit an ear-piercing squeal that could wake up a corpse. Often in keychain form.
If you can’t beat them up, burn the shit out of them. Such is the logic of the aforementioned tiny flamethrower. It fits in a woman’s handbag and emits a stream of fire as much as a half-meter — or around 20 inches — long. It is said to not kill but permanently disfigure.
Of course, women can rely on other weapons in certain situations to deter certain kinds of irritating men — withering looks, verbal shredding. They don’t fit in a purse, and the scars don’t show, but they are a perennially handy form of damage control.
That’s, of course, still no reason not to have a flamethrower backup.