Angels and Anti-Pornography Feminists: A Comparative Analysis of Civilian Public Safety Organizations

Abstract: Late 1970s New York, rife with fear of crime and low trust in government to keep people safe, was a fertile ground for civilian public safety activism, which channeled people’s anger at the city’s situation into action to change it. The Guardian Angels and Women Against Pornography (WAP) were two of the best-known examples of this trend. Though rarely taken up together, this article places them in dialogue with one another in order to examine how racial, gender, sexual, and economic anxieties influenced the perception and possibilities of anti-violence community organizations at this time. I argue that while the predominately young, male, and nonwhite Angels were seen as belligerent, WAP’s adherence to the state’s social norms of acceptable female activism and sexual reformism facilitated their broader acceptance. The same social hierarchies that colored perceptions of the two organizations also shaped the available sources of partnerships, legitimacy, and funding, incentivizing both groups to undermine the most radically inclusive aspects of their missions in order to secure the resources they needed to continue operating most effectively.

In February 1979, two new civilian organizations emerged in New York City to fight crime and violence in the city for which these had become hallmarks. The Guardian Angels, led by Curtis Sliwa, set out on nightly patrols to keep New Yorkers safe on the notoriously dangerous subways. Women Against Pornography (WAP), on the other hand, was most concerned with seedy Times Square and the threat it posed to women. Both organizations sought to keep non-elite New Yorkers safe from forms or sites of violence they felt the state had overlooked, and they promised relief from the interminable aura of fear saturating the city. Despite these commonalities, they have been siloed into distinct historical trends, namely urban vigilantism and second-wave feminism. Almost all existing literature on the Angels consists of sociological studies concerned with whether or not their crime fighting was successful (Kenney; Pennel et al.). Similarly, most of the literature on Women Against Pornography contextualizes the group within histories of second-wave feminism (Bronstein; Strub). This strict division not only obscures the relationship between urban vigilantism and second-wave feminism in general but also prevents an analysis of why these two organizations received such starkly different treatment. In this paper, I compare the Angels and WAP as contemporaneous examples of civilian public safety organizations in order to illuminate the reasons for these differences, which were deeply informed by perceptions of race, class, gender, and sexuality. This, in turn, helps demonstrate the mechanisms by which both organizations quickly reneged on the most inclusive aspects of their missions to provide safety to all.

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