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8 Things Women Used to Be Banned From Doing

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Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

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 (in theory, anyway—as of 2012, women still paid half a percentage point more than men on credit card interest regardless of financial literacy [PDF]).  

2. SERVE ON A JURY

The jury in the Tichborne Trial, circa 1873
Herbert Watkins/Otto Herschan/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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

A close-up of contraceptive pills
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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

A woman smokes a cigarette.
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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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The POW Olympics of World War II
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism

With the outbreak of World War II prompting a somber and divisive mood across the globe, it seemed impossible civility could be introduced in time for the 1940 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan to be held.

So they weren’t. Neither were the 1944 Games, which were scheduled for London. But one Polish Prisoner of War camp was determined to keep the tradition alive. The Woldenberg Olympics were made up entirely of war captives who wanted—and needed—to feel a sense of camaraderie and normalcy in their most desperate hours.

In a 2004 NBC mini-documentary that aired during their broadcast of the Games, it was reported that Polish officers under German control in the Oflag II-C camp wanted to maintain their physical conditioning as a tribute to Polish athlete Janusz Kusocinski. Unlike another Polish POW camp that held unofficial Games under a veil of secrecy in 1940, the guards of Woldenberg allowed the ’44 event to proceed with the provision that no fencing, archery, javelin, or pole-vaulting competitions took place. (Perhaps the temptation to impale their captors would have proven too much for the men.)

Music, art, and sculptures were put on display. Detainees were also granted permission to make their own program and even commemorative postage stamps of the event courtesy of the camp’s homegrown “post office.” An Olympic flag was crafted out of spare bed sheets, which the German officers, in a show of contagious sportsman’s spirit, actually saluted.

The hand-made Olympic flag from Woldenberg.

Roughly 369 of the 7000 prisoners participated. Most of the men competed in multiple contests, which ranged from handball and basketball to chess. Boxing was included—but owing to the fragile state of prisoners, broken bones resulted in a premature end to the combat.

Almost simultaneously, another Polish POW camp in Gross Born (pop: 3000) was holding their own ceremony. Winners received medals made of cardboard. Both were Oflag sites, which were primarily for officers; it’s been speculated the Games were allowed because German forces had respect for prisoners who held military titles.

A gymnastics demonstration in the camp.

The grass-roots Olympics in both camps took place in July and August 1944. By January 1945, prisoners from each were evacuated. An unknown number perished during these “death marches,” but one of the flags remained in the possession of survivor Antoni Grzesik. The Lieutenant donated it to the Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism in 1974, where it joined a flag recovered from the 1940 Games. Both remain there today—symbols of a sporting life that kept hope alive for thousands of men who, for a brief time, could celebrate life instead of lamenting its loss.

Additional Sources: “The Olympic Idea Transcending War [PDF],” Olympic Review, 1996; “The Olympic Movement Remembered in the Polish Prisoner of War Camps in 1944 [PDF],” Journal of Olympic History, Spring 1995; "Olympics Behind Barbed Wire," Journal of Olympic History, March 2014.

 All images courtesy of Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism. 

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President John Tyler's Grandsons Are Still Alive
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Here's the most amazing thing you'll ever read about our 10th president:

John Tyler was born in 1790. He took office in 1841, after William Henry Harrison died. And he has two living grandchildren.

Not great-great-great-grandchildren. Their dad was Tyler’s son.

How is this possible?

The Tyler men have a habit of having kids very late in life. Lyon Gardiner Tyler, one of President Tyler’s 15 kids, was born in 1853. He fathered Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr. in 1924, and Harrison Ruffin Tyler in 1928.

We placed a somewhat awkward call to the Charles City County History Center in Virginia to check in on the Tylers.

After we shared this fact on Twitter in 2012, Dan Amira interviewed Harrison Tyler for New York Magazine. Lyon Tyler spoke to the Daughters of the American Revolution a while back. They were profiled by The Times of London. And Snopes is also in on the fact.

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