Skip to content
CityLab
Justice

What Makes Subways Safe? Harasser Bans? Women-Only Cars? NYC Is Asking

While other countries have turned to women-only cars, New York legislators are proposing to ban repeat sex offenders and increase penalties for subway grinders.
Cities like New York are trying to figure out how to reduce subway harassment. In Mexico City they are trying women-only subway cars like this one.
Cities like New York are trying to figure out how to reduce subway harassment. In Mexico City they are trying women-only subway cars like this one.Edgard Garrido/Reuters

For three months in 1909, women could choose to ride between New York City and Jersey City isolated from men. Years before women would gain the right to vote, these women-only “Suffragette cars” were meant to protect female commuters from harassment and trafficking.

New York City advocates originally hoped to expand the program to the inter-borough subway system—reserving the last car of every rush hour train for women—but the pilot, which ran along the current PATH train route, was ill-fated. Some felt women were infantilized by the separation; headlines in newspapers around the country called it the “Jane Crowe Car,” the “Hen Car,” and the “Old Maid's Retreat.” Though it shielded women from “brutes” who would “insult a lady” on a crowded train, as one city councilor put it in a 1909 New York Times story, other women found that “gentlemen are the best protection the ladies want against such conduct.” The car became segregated by class as well as gender: Older, upper middle-class women used it to travel back from shopping expeditions apart from the rowdier masses.