“Pugnacious Females”: Women’s Public Violence and the Police in Reconstruction-Era New Orleans

Friday, January 8, 2016: 8:50 AM
Room A704 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis)
Elizabeth P. Smith, University of Arkansas
In June 1870 New Orleans’s Daily Picayune detailed an incident it deemed “eminently interesting.” “Two pugnacious females indulged in a pugilistic encounter in the gutter,” it reported of a street fight the night before in which the women hit, pulled, and scratched at each other until “they left nothing but . . . torn and abbreviated skirts.”1 As colorful as this episode was for the newspaper’s readers, it was not unfamiliar to readers in the Crescent City after the Civil War. Women brawled on city streets (or “in the gutter” as the Picayune described it) and in restaurants, ballrooms, saloons, and other public spaces across the city. They did so, moreover, with a frequency that alarmed city authorities and led many residents to ask, “Where were the police?”2

Physical violence bound the diverse women of Reconstruction-era New Orleans’s neighborhoods together in close, sometimes contemptuous, connections across lines of race, ethnicity, and occupation. This paper uses episodes of women’s public fights from the Picayune and local court records to recover women’s everyday experiences and examine their fractious relationship with city authorities. On one hand, such violence revealed more interracial sociability than we might expect in the nineteenth-century South. At the same time, these everyday incidents also divulged larger economic, racial, and political contests that roiled below many personal antagonisms. Motifs of brutality and eroticism were common elements in the Picayune’s coverage of women’s public fights, but so was the implication that authorities, especially the city’s police, were overmatched by these women and their disruptions of the social order. Women’s brawls were thus simultaneously titillating and troubling public spectacles.

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