How Women Dealt with Gropers, 1943

There had been that time in the train when, hanging from a strap and so tightly wedged in the crowd that she couldn’t so much as lower her arm, she had felt a man’s hand. No matter how she twisted and squirmed, she couldn’t get away from that hand. When she swayed with the crowd as the cars swerved, the hand tightened. She was unable to twist her head to see whose hand it was. She stood in desperate futility, helplessly enduring the indignity. She could have called out and protested but she was too ashamed to call public attention to her predicament. It seemed an eternity before the crowd thinned out enough for her to move to a different part of the car. After that, standing in a crowded train became a dreaded ordeal. One Sunday, when she and Mama brought Laurie over to see Granma, Francie told Sissy about the man on the train, expecting that Sissy would comfort her. But her aunt treated it as a great joke. “So a man pinched you on the El,” she said. “I wouldn’t let that bother me. It means you’re getting a good shape and there are some men who can’t resist a woman’s shape. Say! I must be getting old! It’s been years since anybody pinched me on the El. There was a time when I couldn’t ride in a crowd without coming home black and blue,” she said proudly. “Is that anything to brag about?” asked Katie. Sissy ignored that remark. “The day will come, Francie,” she said, “when you’re forty-five and have a shape like a bag of horses’ oats tied in the middle. Then you’ll look back and long for the old days when men wanted to pinch you.” “If she does look back,” said Katie, “it will be because you put it in her mind and not because it’s anything wonderful to remember.” She turned to Francie. “As for you, learn to stand in the train without holding on to a strap. Keep your hands down and keep a long sharp pin in your pocket. If you feel a man’s hand on you, stick it good with the pin.” Francie did as Mama said. She learned to keep her feet without holding to a strap. She kept her hand closed on a long vicious pin in her coat pocket. She hoped someone would pinch her again. She just hoped so, so that she could stab him with the pin.

(From A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith)

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