9 Shocking Things Women Couldn't Do Until Recently

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Close to a year ago now, we lost a fierce champion of women’s rights, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. During that devastating time, her impressive accomplishments were thrust into the spotlight. And, that also meant many of us were learning for the first time just how many things American women were unable to do until recently. It’s horrifying to learn how many of the basic rights I take for granted were not available to women in this country until close to modern times. Some of the things that surprised me the most include:

Open a Checking Account or Have a Credit Card

Until 1974, when the Equal Credit Opportunity Act was passed, most banks would not allow women to open their own checking accounts or get credit cards without their husband’s permission. Single women could sometimes have their fathers or another male in their life cosign, but otherwise they were out of luck. In the event they were approved for a credit card, some banks discounted women’s wages by as much as 50% when calculating their credit card limits. The Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974 was passed to prohibit credit discrimination on the basis of gender. 

Obtain a Mortgage or Business Loan 

Until the 1970s, women were unable to obtain a mortgage or business loan without a male cosigner. Between 1971 and 1976, laws that codified men as breadwinners as well as beneficiaries and women as dependents were declared unconstitutional. Of course, marriages lasted longer back then; women had nowhere to go and little means of supporting themselves

Obtain an Ivy League Education

Many Ivy League universities did not allow women to matriculate until recently, way too recently. Of course, some Ivy League colleges accepted female students in specific circumstances or in separate female colleges, but these institutions were not officially coeducational until a few decades ago. One of the first, Princeton, adopted coeducation in the fall of 1969. Harvard allowed women to take classes as early as the 1900s, but it wasn’t until 1975 that the university merged its admissions with Radcliffe College (the two institutions merged entirely in 1999). It was not until 1977 that Harvard officially adopted sex-blind admissions. In 1891, women were able to begin attending Brown University’s female college, but the school itself did not become coeducational until 1971. Dartmouth followed suit by turning coeducational the following year in 1972. Columbia, the last holdout, decided to adopt coeducation in 1981 beginning in the fall of 1983. How could women even compete in the same spaces as men if they were not allowed equal opportunities for higher education? 

Have Legal Recourse Against Workplace Sexual Harassment

Barnes v. Train, in 1974, is known as the first sexual harassment case. However, it took until 1977 for the U.S. Court of Appeals to find in favor of the woman, Paulette Barnes, in that case. It was found that she had been mistreated, with her supervisor sexually harassing her in her place of work. Sure, back in 1964, Article V11 of the Civil Rights Act laid the groundwork for discrimination cases. It also established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. However, it took until 1980 for the EEOC to determine that sexual harassment was a form of sex discrimination. And, as we have seen in recent years with the #MeToo movement, women still face sexual harassment in the workplace at way too high a rate.

Fight on the Front Lines 

Prior to 1973, women were only allowed in the military as nurses or support staff. They were not accepted into service academies until 1976. However, it was not until 2013 that the Pentagon finally rescinded the rule that prohibited women from serving in combat units. In 2015, the then-secretary of defense ordered the military to open all combat jobs to women — with zero exceptions. I remember when this was announced. My father and I debated about it and he mentioned that he thought male combatants would be more likely to get hurt trying to protect their female peers. I believe this argument is flawed because a) anyone who is brave enough to volunteer to serve in the front lines should be allowed to and be given the proper respect, and b) women should not be punished for the mistakes/backward thinking of their male peers. It’s not a woman’s fault if you can’t see her as a fellow soldier and you neglect your orders and/or training as a result. It is not the women who should be penalized for male negligence. 

Serve on a Jury

Women were not allowed to serve on juries for quite a while as they were seen as the center of homelife. They were also not seen as being capable of handling the grisly nature of certain crimes, and were deemed too sensitive to be objective. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 gave women the right to serve on federal juries, but it took until 1973 for all 50 states to pass similar legislation and 1975 for a Supreme Court ruling to uphold that states must treat men and women equally in respect to jury service. While I dislike being called in for jury duty, I demand my right to be inconvenienced by it.

Obtain the Birth Control Pill

In 1957, the birth control pill was approved to treat severe menstrual distress by the FDA. It was not until 1960 that the pill was approved for use as a contraceptive. Even then, it was illegal in some states. And, it could only be prescribed for the purposes of family planning to married women. It was not made widely available to unmarried women until 1972. Even now, the birth control pill remains a hot-button issue. As recently as 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that employers with religious objections can decline to provide contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act. Many of us remember Sandra Fluke’s testimony to Congress back in 2012 on the importance of requiring insurance plans to cover birth control during a discussion on whether medical insurance should have a contraception mandate. Fluke was characterized as a “slut” and a “prostitute” by a popular conservative radio host, all for advocating for insurance coverage of the pill, not just for contraception, but for the treatment of conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and other hormonal disorders. As someone who suffers from PCOS, I have required the birth control pill for almost half my life in order to be able to carry out normal, everyday activities without intense pain, my hair falling out, and my face filling with boils — and that’s only a few of the symptoms. The idea that my employer or university can deny me access to the pill, something multiple doctors have determined is necessary for my health and well-being, is ludicrous. Many of us do not have the luxury of being able to find another job or university. 

Women Could Legally Be Fired for Getting Pregnant

Prior to the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, it was legal to fire a woman for getting pregnant or to refuse to hire a pregnant woman. The act proclaims that women who are pregnant or have been affected by pregnancy or childbirth must be treated equally for all employment-related purposes. In addition, the act states that employers cannot refuse to hire a pregnant woman as long as she is able to perform the major functions of the job.Women still face pregnancy and children-related discrimination today. We are paid less than our male counterparts and can be seen as risky hires if we have families, as it is often assumed we will be taking on the majority of household and child-rearing responsibilities. That’s like saying men have the right to have biological families while women do not, simply because women typically have to take on the biological burden of pregnancy. 

Decide Not to Have Sex With Their Husbands

This one is especially disturbing. It was not until 1986 that the Federal Sexual Abuse Act criminalized marital rape on all federal lands. However, it took until 1993 for all 50 states to view marital rape as a crime, according to their sexual offense codes. The battle has not yet been won, considering that as recently as 1996, only 16 states had repealed all of their exemptions to marital rape, while 33 states had only partially repealed their exemptions. 

While women’s rights have come a long way, we are not out of the woods yet. Women still face plenty of discrimination in all areas of our lives. It is up to us to fight for women’s rights as well as for the rights of other marginalized communities. The opportunity to live a full, happy, protected life should be available to all. 

Tags: Education, Women's History

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Written By

Allie Nelson

Allie is a TV producer and writer with credits on Netflix, NBC, CBS, FOX, CNN, TBS, E!, & HGTV. See Full Bio

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