Despite the major strides made in gender equality in recent decades, there’s plenty of evidence that women stand to benefit from a proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution that guarantees rights and wages proportionate to males. Currently, women are paid less than men in almost every field, regardless of education or even unionization—but that facts pales in comparison to some of the more outrageous prohibitions and laws that were once proudly discriminatory. While not having the right to vote was bad, some of these gender-suppressing policies were worse. Here are a few things that, at one time or another, women couldn’t do.
1. GET A CREDIT CARD
While lopsided income continues to be a problem in the workforce, there was a time when banks wanted to dictate how women spent what money they did earn. In the 1970s, single or divorced females applying for a credit card were often required to bring in a male to co-sign their application. When weighing their salaries, institutions would sometimes consider only half the total amount. It took the Senate passing the Equal Credit Opportunity Act in 1974 for lenders to stop discriminating based on gender and married status.
2. SERVE ON A JURY
At the turn of the century, a female committing a crime stood a very poor chance facing a jury of her peers. In 1879, the Supreme Court reaffirmed early common law that labeled female jurors as suffering from a “defect of sex” and made it constitutionally acceptable for courts to ban women from serving. By 1927, just 19 states had decided the ban was ridiculous; the rest were satisfied with all-male jury boxes because it was thought to be inappropriate for women to hear gory details of criminal cases. It was also thought that women might be too sympathetic to criminals. Congress changed the gender language for federal juries in 1957, but states could still choose to exclude women until a Supreme Court decision in 1975.
3. WEAR PRACTICAL BATHING SUITS
The public beaches of the 1920s were no place for bare skin: Many local governments issued standards for women’s bathing suits that prohibited them from showing too much leg, with law enforcement patrolling beaches with measuring tape. Women insisting on wearing something other than an ankle-length potato sack were asked to change; defiant bathers could be arrested. It wasn’t until the bikini became a must-have sand accessory in the 1950s, when Brigitte Bardot was photographed wearing one, that women could show as much as they cared to. (Men weren’t totally exempt from beach hysteria: They couldn’t appear topless until 1937.)
4. WORK WHILE PREGNANT
Up until 1964, maternity leave was considered permanent: Employers were under no obligation to retain workers who got pregnant, and as many as 40 percent of businesses took advantage of the lack of laws. Women carrying children didn’t have complete protection and access to benefits until the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed.
5. TAKE BIRTH CONTROL
Contraception was a taboo topic for much of the 20th century, with couples in many states prohibited from doing anything to interfere with nature’s course until a 1965 Supreme Court ruling. While that was nice for a woman who was married, a single female was still denied the right to use oral contraceptives in 26 states. In 1972, the Supreme Court finally overturned a Massachusetts law that made distributing birth control to singles illegal.
6. PLAY SOCCER (FOOTBALL)
When thousands of men marched off to World War I in 1915, the women left behind in England assumed their duties both professionally and recreationally. Women’s soccer (football) teams sprung up and became a public sensation, drawing crowds of up to 53,000 people. In 1921, however, the Football League governing body took the dubious advice of physicians and declared the game “unsuitable” for the female body. Female teams were banned from using male teams’ grounds until 1971.
7. WATCH THE OLYMPICS
The birth of the modern Olympic Games in 1896 gave way to increasing numbers of female athletes being allowed in competition. But the ancient Greeks had a different approach: In addition to being prohibited from participating, married women couldn’t even attend the event as spectators. To do so would be punishable by death. This aversion to female attendees in sports reappeared in 1930, when the British army banned them from watching matches due to the idea that pugilism is “not an edifying spectacle.” Not even a prizefighter’s wife could attend.
8. SMOKE IN PUBLIC PLACES
For men, smoking is a masculine, smoldering activity—the kind of thing cowboys do. For women—at least, as far as New York City was concerned—it was highly unbecoming. The city banned females from smoking in public businesses (like bars, hotels, or restaurants) in 1908. The traditional story is that after a woman ignorant of the new law was brought before a judge for daring to light up on a street and complained in the press about the absurd double standard, the ordinance was repealed. But according to the Museum of the City of New York, the law wasn’t repealed until 1927.
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