Don’t Ask To Go Back to the 20s: What Women Couldn’t Do



If I hear one more reference to “going back” to the Roaring ‘20s, a bid to have a flapper party, or a comment on how amazing the 1920s must have been, I might cry.
Yes, it’s amazing that we are well into 2020, and kicking off the ‘20s. I am THRILLED we are no longer in the awkward “teens” of the 2000s, but the 1920s weren’t great.

Sure, the booming economy!
(White) Women could vote!
Flappers and prohibition and the Harlem Renaissance!

And…a lot of not great stuff for women.
Before you jump on the “Let’s make 2020 JUST like the 1920s because how fun!” take a moment to check what women couldn’t do in the 1920s – and keep in mind that women of color were largely disenfranchised under Jim Crow until the 1960s. Some other reasons to make 2020 much better and different than 1920:

Want your name on a passport? Sorry – you were listed as “and wife” on a passport – and it was a joint passport.

Want to work at night or be a leader? 76% of states had laws limiting the number of hours women were allowed to work – which meant no overtime and no leadership. Think about working at night? That’s a hard no.

Are you pregnant or thinking about it? You could be fired, and often were because pregnancy got in the way of job productivity.

Want to serve your country? You could help with war efforts! You would be serving in noncombat, volunteer or civilian roles – translated: no benefits, no matter how much you work.

Sit on a jury? Not you, ma’am! At the end of the ‘20s, only 24 states allowed women to try their peers, and North Carolina wasn’t one of them. And forget about practicing law – even if you passed all of the exams, you weren’t allowed.

Want birth control? No way. Comstock laws of 1873 made it so women couldn’t even talk about birth control. An anti-birth control campaigner (Comstock) had a law signed that you couldn’t send contraceptive devices by mail – or distribute pamphlets with “obscene material” which included anything that was pro-birth control.

Do you want your own credit card? No way and not until 1974. You weren’t even allowed to apply for credit. Until the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, you couldn’t even open a bank account without your husband – or male relative’s – permission.
Thinking about reporting sexual harassment? Sorry, no go – it wasn’t recognized by the court until 1977 – and it was 1980 before sexual harassment was defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Are you interested in wearing a modern bathing suit? Watch out, law enforcement would patrol the beaches with measuring tape to make sure that your suit wasn’t too short and covered everything it needed to cover! (This particular weird thing wasn’t just a woman thing – men couldn’t be topless on the beach until 1937!)
How many of you are runners? You’re not running in a marathon until the 1970s – and yes, you read that right. The Amateur Athletic Union distributed information and “research” (read: false information) that claimed that long-distance running could cause infertility in women.
Looking for an Ivy League Education? Not at Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Columbia, Brown, Dartmouth…you could only go to the University of Pennsylvania, and on a case by case basis (since 1876) and Cornell (1870, and in special circumstances). Maybe worse news? Harvard told a woman in 1961 that “married women find it difficult to carry out worthwhile careers.”
Remember one or two of these the next time you declare you’d like to relive the 1920s – I’ll keep my running and credit card.


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