When Cincinnati Debated Flirting: Acceptable or Reprehensible?

Back when women had little control over their own lives, any type of self-promotion was controversial.
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It’s rather quaint these days to remember that our ancestors once argued vehemently about the virtues and vices of flirting. There’s an app for that today, when “flirting” mostly involves swiping left or right. Some years ago, however, there was a studied art to flirting as well as a surprisingly feminist argument in favor of this entrée to the mating dance.

Did flirting undermine women’s quest for equality, or was it an assertion of feminine agency? The debate once raged in Cincinnati, where the language of fans was well known.

Cincinnati Enquirer (1891), image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

The Cincinnati Enquirer [May 24, 1874] thundered ominously against flirting:

“It has been said that, with woman, coquetry is one of the sweet arts she indulges in to bring about that much desired step in her career called marriage; or, to take another view of it, to bring a score of admirers to her. But who can help reflecting that this, at all times, bad practice has been carried to such an extent that, in these days, flirt and prostitute have become almost synonymous terms, so that through this evil practice woman does not attain the end it would be natural to suppose she seeks, but thereby sinks into a life of degradation and shame?”

This curmudgeonly vituperation inspired a feminine retort just a few days later. Identified only as “Co-Quetty,” an anonymous woman claimed flirting was among the few accepted measures her sex was permitted in the game of romance:

“The woman has equal rights, but she is at a disadvantage. She is in all truth and honor as much entitled to the sweets of courtship and the blessedness of marriage as the man. If it be honorable for the man to make advances to domestic happiness, it is not the less honorable in woman to do so. I do not want to do any thing improper, any thing wrong, but the chances are against me and I do not wish to be left out. Love and marriage are a woman’s whole existence. I want a good, loving husband, and if he is to be captured with a glance I’ll not shut my eyes when he comes along.”

As the new century dawned, the matter of flirting was still up for debate. Ella K. Dearborn, a syndicated columnist in The Cincinnati Post [April 15, 1907], came down firmly in favor of flirting, within reason:

“Every woman flirts—always has and always will! ’Tis a life test—when she stops she is dead.”

Dearborn drew the line, however, at egregious flirting for mere display:

“The Summer Girl and seaside Man flirt for the amusement of themselves (and the throng), and it is a cheap and unsatisfactory pastime.”

Cincinnati Post columnist Ella K. Dearborn came down firmly in favor of flirting. “Every woman flirts,” she opined, “always has and always will!”

Cincinnati Post (1907), image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

This indulgence would not stand with another Post columnist, the pseudonymous “Mrs. Evans,” especially for women who were already married. In response to an inquiry, Mrs. Evans huffed:

“It is wrong for a woman to flirt with men at any and all times. To flirt only cheapens, and a woman should have enough self respect, if she has none for her husband, to make her conduct dignified.”

Times were changing, though. A major blow was struck in favor of flirting by a controversial article published in the May 28, 1910 issue of Collier’s magazine. The author, Margaretta Muhlenberg Tuttle, outlined, with much the same logic of “Co-Quetty” 36 years earlier, the various ways in which social restrictions restrained women from openly communicating their attraction to men. After outlining all of the options available to male suitors, Tuttle protested the paucity of actions open to women:

“But a woman! Consider her plight should she meet with a man she feels she would like to know better. She can not call on him, she can not frankly say I should like to spend an hour talking to you, she can not even conspicuously call herself to his attention without declassing herself. She has to rest content with showing him in some indirect manner that he pleases her—a thing, of course, that by now women have become expert in accomplishing with reasonable delicacy—and then she has to wait his possible response.”

The root of the problem, Tuttle said, was inequality:

“Some of the trouble of modern marriage would not occur if a woman had as wide a choice as a man, and if she would defer her choosing until her preferences were decided and her requirements taken account of. Scandal and intrigue are ugly words, but who can say when they may rise on his own horizon? But the chance of such a contingency would be immensely lessened if women had as square a deal in this matter as men have.”

Until the sexes achieved true equality, Tuttle argued, any strategy—including flirting—should be acceptable as a way for a woman to communicate her intentions, however indirectly, to a man of her choice.

This article made the news back home. “Cin’ti Society Woman Puts O.K. On Flirting” announced The Post on May 28, 1910, as Tuttle was quite well known in Cincinnati social circles as the wife of Frederic C. Tuttle, executive with the Peters Cartridge Company, owners of the large munitions factory at Kings Mills.

The Post’s headline is interesting because nowhere in her article does Mrs. Tuttle actually use the word “flirting.” Her argument is accomplished entirely through circumlocution.

Her defense of flirting was neither her first foray into national magazines nor her last. In her time, Tuttle was a frequent contributor of short fiction and reporting to the major publications of the day, including Ainslee’s and Ladies Home Journal. One of her stories was turned into a silent film by director Lambert Hillyer, and the legendary producer Cecil B. DeMille based a film on her novel, Feet of Clay.

Margaretta Tuttle was the daughter of George Perkins, editor of The Enquirer. She began her literary career at the University of Cincinnati, where she contributed to the yearbook and to two student newspapers. Whether flirting was involved in her courtship with Mr. Tuttle is unrecorded, but intriguing.

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