The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In 1923, Washington women formed the Anti-Flirt Club

The 10 charter members of the Anti-Flirt Club pose on a D.C. porch in 1923. (National Photo Company/Library of Congress)

If Alice Reighly was around today, I would love to sit with her and watch the Oscar-nominated movie “Promising Young Woman.”

Alas, that’s impossible. Reighly died in 1973 in her 80s.

I enjoyed the film, if that’s the right word to use for a movie that’s about sexual violence, victim-blaming and the male gaze in extremis. It stars Carey Mulligan as a woman who dresses provocatively, then heads to bars and pretends to be drunk. We watch as men attempt to take advantage of her before she turns instantly sober, like an avenging angel in a micro-mini.

A century ago, Alice Reighly made headlines across the country as the president of a group called the Anti-Flirt Club, founded in Washington in 1923. The Washington Evening Star put the news on its front page, describing the club’s effort as a “passive offensive against the curbstone loafer and flirtatious motorist.” Women were tired of “mashers” who harassed them with catcalls and worse.

During the shortages of World War I, American motorists had been encouraged to give rides to people who might otherwise have walked or taken the bus or streetcar. This could put women into vehicles with men they did not know.

The Anti-Flirt Club had its inaugural meeting on Feb. 27, 1923, at the Longfellow Street NW home of Helen Brown. Wrote the Star: “Miss Brown declared at the meeting yesterday that many girls had become [irritated] by the repeated offers from autoists who, as emphasized in the club’s rules, don’t all tender their invitations to save the girls a walk.”

The club’s 10 rules make amusing reading today. They’re aimed not at men, but at women. Perhaps that’s not surprising, given how intransigent many men were and how little power women had. The club seemed to be saying: Ladies, we have to look out for ourselves.

The rules:

1. Don’t flirt; those who flirt in haste oft repent in leisure.

2. Don’t accept rides from flirting motorists — they don’t all invite you in to save you a walk.

3. Don’t use your eyes for ogling — they were made for worthier pursuits.

4. Don’t go out with men you don’t know — they may be married, and you may be in for a hair-pulling match.

5. Don’t wink — a flutter of one eye may cause a tear in the other.

6. Don’t smile at flirtatious strangers — save them for people you know.

7. Don’t annex all the men you can get — by flirting with many you may lose out on the one.

8. Don’t fall for the slick, dandified cake eater — the unpolished gold of a real man is worth more than the gloss of a lounge lizard.

9. Don’t let elderly men with an eye to a flirtation pat you on the shoulder and take a fatherly interest in you. Those are usually the kind who want to forget they are fathers.

10. Don’t ignore the man you are sure of while you flirt with another. When you return to the first one, you may find him gone.

The 10 inaugural members were photographed sitting on the railing of a D.C. porch, six of them wearing beauty-pageant-style sashes that read “Anti-Flirt Club.”

The club designated March 4 as the beginning of Anti-Flirt Week. Members handed out pamphlets and buttons on the street.

Media coverage was as sexist as you’d expect. Reighly, of Harvard Street NW, was the face of the club. A caption in the Evansville (Ind.) Journal noted that winking at men was a no-no for club members, but even so, Reighly “wields a wicked eyelash.”

The effort appeared in newspapers from Milwaukee to New Orleans. It even attracted the attention of a former member of the House of Representatives named Manuel Herrick, a Republican from Oklahoma who had just lost his reelection bid. In a nifty bit of mansplaining, Herrick offered advice and vowed to support the club’s efforts. (More on him in tomorrow’s column.)

The campaign inspired what appeared to be bandwagon-jumping. Ads for a new movie called “The Flirt” snarkily referenced the anti-flirt drive. The film was based on a Booth Tarkington novel about “an average American family, where the daughter, who knows she is beautiful, rules the family and nearly wrecks it through her vanity and flirtatious disposition.”

A display ad in the Star even aped Reighly’s rules: “A smile in time saves a formal introduction. . . . When the wife’s away even nice men play. . . . Spare the nod and spoil the smile.”

The ad encouraged readers to see the film at the Rialto “and learn that it doesn’t hurt to flirt — if you don’t flirt to hurt.”

Washington’s Anti-Flirt Club has been written about everywhere from academic journals to the Atlantic, but as far as I can tell, I’m the first to discover this: Alice Reighly worked at the Interstate Film Corp. So did another club member, Kate S. Smith.

In other words, the whole thing appears to have been a clever stunt to hype that movie.

That doesn’t lessen the need for the club, but it sure makes me wish I could sit down with Reighly. I think she might just say, “I can’t believe women still have to put up with this . . . stuff.”

Twitter: @johnkelly

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