11 Things Women Couldn't Do In The 1920s
Sneaking into speakeasies, becoming working women, and winning the right to vote—looking back, the Roaring Twenties seem to have been a great time for women's advancement, but women still faced heavy restrictions in day-to-day life. These 11 social and legal no-nos plagued women of the 1920s, though many fought the system and eventually won expanded rights.
1. HAVE THEIR OWN NAME PRINTED ON A PASSPORT
Requesting a passport in the 1920s was a pretty straightforward process—if you were a man. For female travelers, passport applications could be rejected based on the name they used or because their husband was already issued a passport. Unmarried women could apply using their maiden name, but married women were issued a joint passport with their husbands, where in place of their name, the passport granted travel privileges to "wife of" (followed by the husband's name). Married women who requested separate passports could receive them, but were often met with rejections or headaches if trying to use their maiden name, since passports were automatically issued with their husband's surname.
2. WEAR WHATEVER THEY WANTED
Even though 1920s fashion history is dominated by the flapper style—featuring knee-length hemlines, shift-style garments, and bobbed haircuts—women in many parts of the country still faced stifling clothing restrictions. In Virginia, a legislative bill (which failed to pass) attempted to prohibit women from wearing "shirtwaists or evening gowns which displayed more than three inches of her throat," while Utah legislators worked to fine women whose skirts were "higher than three inches above the ankle." And in cities like Carmel, California, women couldn't wear heels taller than two inches without a permit from the city in an attempt to stifle tripping and falling related lawsuits.
3. HAVE CERTAIN KINDS OF JOBS
Women entered the workforce in large numbers during World War I, and the return to peacetime in the 1920s didn't slow the growth of women's employment. But, workplace restrictions did make it difficult for women to find jobs outside of the home. So-called "protective laws" cropped up throughout the country, regulating how, when, and where women could work. Some states, such as Michigan, penned loose laws that banned dangerous work for women, while in Ohio, women were prohibited from jobs where men could "negatively influence women’s behavior," such as being taxi drivers, pool hall workers, or bowling alley employees.
4. KEEP THEIR CITIZENSHIP IF MARRYING A NON-CITIZEN
Finding the right partner and getting married is tricky enough, but for women who married a non-American between 1907 and 1922, it came with some additional disadvantages. Thanks to the Expatriation Act, women who married non-citizens lost their U.S. citizenship automatically. While some women didn't notice a difference immediately, it became a sticking point when World War I rolled around. Since they were no longer American citizens, these women were forced to "register as enemy aliens," according to Linda Kerber, a gender and legal history professor at the University of Iowa. In 1922, the Cable Act passed, allowing women to retain their citizenship regardless of their betrothed’s citizenship—so long as he met the requirements for potential U.S. citizenship, too.
5. USE THEIR LAW DEGREES TO THE FULLEST
Winning the right to vote opened the door to more than just political action for women in the 1920s; many could finally go on to become admitted to the bar and legally allowed to practice law. But, just because women were taking on court battles doesn't mean they had booming legal careers. Many law firms refused to hire women (and legally could do so), or hired female lawyers for office positions such as law librarians, secretaries, or stenographers. For many female lawyers, joining their father's or husband's practice was the only way they'd be able to argue cases in court.
6. WORK THE NIGHT SHIFT
As another way to "protect women" from supposed rough men and health hazards, some states implemented laws prohibiting women from working late at night. New York did just that, with laws forbidding women to work as waitresses between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. But that doesn't mean female employees followed the law. In 1924, Anna Smith, a Buffalo waitress working for Joseph Radice & Company, took on the state's law after her employer was fined for her late night shifts. While Smith and the restaurant owner lost their case, New York law did grant exceptions for entertainers and bathroom attendants.
7. TAKE A QUICK BATHROOM BREAK
While public restrooms were designated "men's" or "women's" before the 1920s, it wasn't until 1927 that bathrooms became officially gender segregated thanks to the nation's first building code. Unfortunately, restroom requirements from the time period were male-focused, since most women of the time still worked within the home, meaning fewer women's restrooms were required during construction. Fewer bathrooms resulted in women trekking farther to find the ladies' room, and in some cases, even being barred admission to schools or jobs based on the lack of toilets available for their use.
8. HOLD A JOB WHILE PREGNANT
Because legal protections for working moms and pregnant women didn't exist until 1978, women of the 1920s regularly faced unemployment after finding themselves "in the family way." Many employers considered pregnancy to be a detriment to job productivity, and fired women long before their due date. Some working women went to lengths of concealing their pregnancies, using the decade's loose flapper fashions to hide their changing bodies. Ads for maternity clothing even advertised styles to help women be "entirely free from embarrassment of a noticeable appearance during a trying period."
9. ENLIST OR RECEIVE BENEFITS FOR MILITARY WORK
During World War I, women helped with war efforts by serving in non-combat roles, such as nursing, communications, or clerical work. But, despite the long hours and duties, much of that work was on a volunteer basis or a civilian contract, meaning women couldn't earn any military or veterans' benefits for their efforts. Following the end of the Great War, women were cut from their volunteer positions thanks to military rules that banned women from volunteering or enlisting during peace times. It wasn't until the Women's Armed Services Integration Act in 1948 that women could enlist at any time and receive similar rights and benefits to male veterans.
10. HATE HOUSEWORK
Electric household tools and equipment helped free women of the 1920s from some domestic duties, while reducing the time spent on cleaning, cooking, and taking care of their homes. Even with home technology improvements, studies from the decade suggested women spent 35 hours per week or more on household work. But even with a little help, women of the '20s were expected to embrace their household work as a path to self-fulfillment. Advice columns and housekeeping experts of the time often suggested that women who were lucky enough to have fancy appliances but still hated housework "suffered from 'personal maladjustment,'" and women's magazines regularly championed women's stories of giving up careers or personal achievements for a return to 100 percent domesticity.
11. SERVE ON A JURY
Despite having the legal right to vote as of August 18, 1920, it would take decades for all women to be able to vote, much less serve on a jury. By the end of the Roaring Twenties, only 24 states permitted women to determine the innocence (or guilt) of their peers. While the remaining states began allowing women to serve in the following decades, Mississippi was the last holdout, keeping women out of jury pools until 1968.