20 Things Women Weren’t Allowed to Do in the 20th Century

Things were pretty backwards not very long ago.

20 Things Women Weren’t Allowed to Do in the 20th Century
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As hard as it is being a woman in 2019—the disparities in pay, the infringement on reproductive rights, the #MeToo movement, the constant battle to “have it all”—the truth is women used to have it so much worse. In fact, when you consider that sexual harassment in the workplace wasn’t even recognized at all until 1977 (yep, 1977!), you’ll get a sense of all the wildly outrageous challenges women have faced as recently as last century.

From not being able to work after 10 p.m. to not being able to puff a cigarette in public (while men smoked like chimneys), these are the most egregious things women couldn’t do in the 20th century. So read on, and be thankful we’re making progress. And for more legal embarrassments, check out The 47 Weirdest Laws from Around the World.

1
Work Jobs That Were “Hazardous to Their Morals”

Handsome man talking to female taxi driver through opened window

That was the state law in Michigan, which prohibited women from working certain jobs which were seen as bad for their morals or their health. It wasn’t just the Great Lake State that had these restrictions. In Ohio, women were not allowed to work in pool halls, bowling alleys or to drive a taxi or handle baggage. As historian Catherine Gourley writes, “Most likely, the reason for this law was that mostly men… frequented these places and were thought to negatively influence women’s behavior.” And for more of how things have changed, don’t miss these 30 Crazy Facts that will Change Your View of History. 

2
Vote

Susan B. Anthony grave

It was not until 1920 that the 19th amendment was ratified and women across the country were granted the right to vote. The win came after a decades-long battle fought by suffragettes such as Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Among the shockingly sexist reasons women were not allowed to weigh in on elections: “A woman’s brain involves emotion rather than intellect“; “the interests of women are perfectly safe in the hands of men“; “her sensitiveness and her modesty will often be offended“; and it would “distract this loving potentate from her sacred, God-imposed duties” of raising a family.

In every presidential election since 1980, the proportion of eligible female adults who voted has exceeded the proportion of eligible male adults who voted, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. That’s just one of the reasons why in 2016, women proudly covered Susan B. Anthony’s grave in “I Voted” Stickers

3
Use Birth Control

Birth Control

The first oral contraceptive, Enovid, was approved by the FDA in 1960. But that didn’t mean it was automatically available for use. It wasn’t until 1965 that the Supreme Court allowed married couples the right to use birth control and 1972 that it legalized birth control for all citizens, irrespective of their marital status. The main concern was that birth control would lead to excessive risky sex and the dissolution of the family unit.

4
Keep Their Money

woman jar of money

Imagine heading to your decidedly non-hazardous job each morning and not even getting to keep your wages? That actually happened! Gourley also points out that until 1928, half a dozen states still had property laws on the books that gave a husband the right to take his wife’s wages.

5
Keep Their Citizenship

woman taking off a wedding ring sitting at a table going over divorce paperwork

If an American woman married a non-citizen between 1907 and 1922, she would immediately lose her U.S. citizenship. This was part of the Expatriation Act, which generously granted that if her husband later became a naturalized citizen, a woman could then also go through the naturalization process to regain her citizenship. Of course, none of these restrictions applied to men. 

6
Work While Pregnant

happy pregnant african american woman drinking green vegetable juice or smoothie at home

Until the passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, women could be fired for being pregnant, with some states outright banning women from working during varying periods of time before and after delivery. For example, schoolteachers were often required to take unpaid maternity leave out of concern for the health of the woman and her child, and the idea that it might distract the students in “unfavorable” ways.

7
Have Their Own Name on Their Passport

Passport

Until the 1920s, married couples were issued a joint passport on which only the husband’s name appeared along with “and wife.” This was partly because many countries did not yet require a passport to enter (and therefore many couples wouldn’t go through the trouble of applying for two) and partly because the idea that a married woman would be traveling alone was so inconceivable that no one bothered to plan for it.

Even once the state department began issuing married women their own individual passports, the women were required to use their husbands’ last names on the documents, even if they still used their maiden names everywhere else. It wasn’t until 1937 that the decision was made to drop marital information entirely from a woman’s passport

8
Sue for Sexual Harassment

female lawyerThings Said in Court

Sexual harassment was not recognized by the courts until 1977, when a federal appeals court ruled in favor of a woman who had been fired because she wouldn’t put up with her boss’s sexual advances. Up until that case, sexual relations were not something the court viewed as being under its jurisdiction. Sexual harassment was later officially defined in 1980 by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

9
Enlist in the Army

Hispanic American Female Soldier in uniform saluting in front of American flags

During World War I, Loretta Perfectus Walsh became the first American woman to enlist in the military as anything other than a nurse (going back centuries, women would disguise themselves as men and then enlist). But it was not until 1948 that Congress passed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, which permitted women to serve as permanent members of the military. Prior to that, they could only serve during times of war. Progress continued over subsequent decades, as women gained the right to enter U.S. military academies in 1976 and serve in combat in 2013. 

10
Get Divorced

Divorce papers Being Single in your thirties

Technically, women could get divorced throughout the 20th century, but it was such a difficult process that few ever tried. It wasn’t until then-governor of California Ronald Reagan signed the nation’s first no-fault divorce bill in 1970 that couples could end their marriage on the grounds of irreconcilable differences. Before that, a spouse would have to show evidence of adultery, abuse, or abandonment (not always the easiest things to prove) and women would receive the bulk of the blame for tearing apart their families. 

11
Use the Bathroom Easily

pastel bathroom outdated home design

Throughout the 20th century, women’s restrooms were often treated as an afterthought, since most workplaces still tended to be male-dominated. That would mean women would be required to march much farther than their male counterparts in order to find a bathroom, and would sometimes be denied jobs because of an office’s lack of women’s toilets, writes scholar Judith Plaskow.

Even women in the House of Representatives didn’t have a bathroom near the Speaker’s Lobby until 2011. Before that, the time it would take them to walk to the nearest women’s room and back exceeded session break times, according to Time

12
Serve on a Jury

Things Said in Court

If you’re dreading your own upcoming jury duty, you might reflect on how much work our forebears put into getting everyone the right to do so. By the end of the 1920s, just 24 states allowed women to serve on juries. It wasn’t a nationwide right until 1968 when the final state, Mississippi, relented in its refusal to let ladies determine the guilt or innocence of others.

13
Work the Night Shift

Similar to how certain jobs were seen as inappropriate or even dangerous for women, certain time shifts were viewed the same way. Up until 1924, New York State had a law in place that forbade women who worked in restaurants from working between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

14
Run in the Boston Marathon

Boston, USA - April 17, 2017: Annual marathon in Boston April 17, 2017

Well, women could run in the event all they liked, but their times would not be “officially acknowledged” until 1972. Nina Kuscsik was the first woman to officially cross the finish line, with a time of 3:10:26 (which she felt was “pretty lousy” but was nonetheless historic). Six years earlier, Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as a numbered entrant, was famously harassed by a race official who attempted to tear off her race bib as she ran past him. 

15
Box in the Olympics

Louis Smith, Sophia Warner, Jade Jones and Nicola Adams are revealed as Virgin Active 2013 Event Team, Barbican, London. 31/05/2013

Stunningly, women weren’t allowed to box in the Olympics until the second decade of the 21st century. The rules were changed for the 2012 Summer Games, and British boxer Nicola Adams took home the gold medal.

16
Refuse Sex With Their Husbands

divorce over 40

The concept of “marital rape” was not recognized until the mid-1970s, when many states passed laws banning it. Finally, in 1993, it was criminalized in all 50 states.

17
Smoke in Public

Girl Pressured to Smoke Regrets

Many cities across the U.S. prohibited women from smoking in public, though these laws were generally short-lived. For example, New York rolled out an ordinance in 1908 banning women from doing so, as it was seen as disrespectful behavior most likely engaged in by sex workers. Even European women, who freely smoked wherever they wanted, mocked America for its prudishness. After just two weeks, the mayor vetoed the ordinance.  

18
Wear Pants on the Senate Floor

Hillary Clinton Pantsuit Clothing Items That Changed Culture

The 20th century saw a growing number of women entering national office. But it was not until the early ’90s that female senators were allowed to wear pants on Senate floor. Prior to that, the norm, which was enforced by Senate doorkeepers, was that women should wear formal dresses. That changed in 1993, when Illinois Senator Carol Moseley Braun walked into the Senate building wearing her favorite pantsuit. Moseley Braun, who at the time didn’t know that pants were forbidden, later wrote that “the gasps were audible.”

Despite peoples’ shock, a new policy was soon in place. Within the year, doorkeepers followed a written policy that stated, “Women are required to wear business attire, i.e. dress, skirt/blouse, business suit, coordinated pantsuit (slacks and matching blazer; no stirrup pants).” On the flip side, these are the 23 Old-Fashioned Etiquette Rules that Still Apply.  

19
Get a Credit Card Easily

woman making online payment with credit card

While credit cards were something of a novelty in the 1960s and 1970s, they had very old-fashioned application policies, which often required a husband to co-sign for his wife’s card. That shifted in 1974, following the passage of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which made it illegal to discriminate against a person based on gender.

20
Get a Business Loan Without a Male Cosigner

woman and Financial Advisor meeting

In a number of states, women were required to have their husbands or male relatives cosign for business loans—a rule that was not dropped until the passage of the Women’s Business Ownership Act in 1988. The law was a long time coming and allowed women to get equal access to capital in order to start their own businesses, without needing a man to help them do so. And for more female empowerment, check out these 20 Timeless One-Liners from History’s Extraordinary Women.

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