10 Things That American Women Could Not Do Before the 1970s

1960 womenIn the 1970s, Irish women could not own their own home or even go to a pub. They could not sit on a jury or refuse to have sex with their husbands. We learned all this in Irish Central’s charming post, “How things have changed – ten things that Irish women could not do in 1970s.” And that made us wonder, what were things like for women in America before the ’70s?

So while we still have a long way to go to secure total equality for women, let’s take a moment to celebrate how far we’ve come. Before the 1970s, an American woman could not:

1. Keep her job if she was pregnant.

Until the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978, women could be fired from their workplace for being pregnant.

2. Report cases of sexual harassment in the workplace.

The first time that a court recognized sexual harassment in the workplace was in 1977 and it wasn’t until 1980 that sexual harassment was officially defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

3. Be acknowledged in the Boston Marathon.

Women could not don their running shoes until 1972!

4. Get a credit card.

Until the Equal Credit Opportunity Act in 1974, women were not able to apply for credit. In 1975, the first women’s bank was opened.

5. Refuse to have sex with her husband.

The mid 70s saw most states recognize marital rape and in 1993 it became criminalized in all 50 states. Nevertheless, marital rape is still often treated differently to other forms of rape in some states even today.

6. Compete as a boxer in the Olympics.

It wasn’t until the 2012 London Olympics that women could compete in boxing in the Olympics. This was marked with the amazing victory by Britain’s Nicola Adams.

7. Get a divorce with some degree of ease.

Before the No Fault Divorce law in 1969, spouses had to show the faults of the other party, such as adultery, and could easily be overturned by recrimination.

8. Celebrate International Women’s Day.

In 1980 President Carter declared one week in March to be National Women’s History Week, including International Women’s Day on March 8th.

9. Have a legal abortion in most states.

The Roe v. Wade case in 1973 protected a woman’s right to abortion until viability.

10. Read Ms. Magazine!

Ms. was launched as a sample inset in New York Magazine in 1971.

Photo courtesy of thstrand via Creative Commons 2.0.


  1. The first woman appointed to the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor, was refused interviews for an attorney position by at least 40 law firms, because she was a woman. This was after she graduated 3rd in her class from Stanford Law University in 1951. She offered to work at California’s San Mateo County Offices for no salary and without an office, sharing space with a secretary, and eventually found employment there as a deputy county attorney,

    • Louis Parker says:

      The Republicans want to go back to a lot of these times, because they feel inferior to their own women. and don’t want to compete with her, they want all women to be subserviant to them,

      • Missi a woman tepublican says:

        Really because this FEMALE republican does not. I know the plight that is women sufferage. And teach it to every teenage female I have ever known regardless of party she may vote one day. Comments such as this one (because you are clueless) are offense, untrue, and a reflection of your intelligence. One word of fact that may surprise you….not every African American likes chicken.

        • …sufferage means the right to vote, not a struggle of any kind. If you actually knew the struggle of women including the fight for sufferage, you’d know that too.

      • Nonsense. Stop making Republicans the boogeymen.

        • If you listen to the things Republican men have to say about rape, birth control, health insurance, and abortion rights, you’ll see that they’ve made themselves the boogymen.

  2. In 1972, girls could finally wear pants to school in America. Sounds silly but to a 12 year old tomboy, the world finally accepted her.

    • I remember that well and was the same age. I grew up in the South and can’t imagine how girls in the North managed without long pants.

    • Deborah Jean Kosier Nickrand says:

      As a 13 year old tomboy, growing up on the westside of Cleveland– this was a great stride!!!!

    • Elaine Tanner says:

      In 1971 when the temperature went below “0” for several days, they allowed us to wear pants to school on those very cold days, not jeans mind you. Some of us decided that we would wear them to school when we wanted which was everyday, we were repeatedly sent home to change. As the story goes we did not return after we were released. They did get the message, like the the article said, in 1972 pants were allowed in my Ohio school as well. This is still how we make changes today, we stay focused and do not back down when confronted with issues that are unjust. Now we need to break that glass ceiling and all will be on the right path.

    • Cindy LeVeque says:

      I lived on a farm in a small town in OR. I remember that well. So happy to be able to wear pants to school.

    • bekkispeeks says:

      I started school in 1947 in a small town in Indiana and and the little girls could wear blue jeans if they wanted to. it was no big deal, but our choice.

    • pigbitinmad says:

      Yes, I remember it and not one day went by when I didn’t complain about it. I almost thought the rule was overturned because of me!!

    • Bobbi mcdowell says:

      My catholic school didn’t allow girls to wear pants until 1984 and that was only in the winter.

      But in general, women’s equality struggles are so stifled under the flag of ‘look at that female doctor lawyer’. As if a few examples of success are the end of the story.
      Maya Angelou wrote about the blacks being the last to know about the Great Depression because all they knew was poverty. It is the same for women.
      Coming from a poor white family, I’ve seen sexism perpetuated to the point of devastation-my grandmother would condemn women who didn’t work yet condemn working women who expected their husbands to do housework. One of my mother’s common phrases is to degrade any given behavior ‘______ like a girl’. Another example is the overemphasis on relationship status with a male. The fear of not being assigned to a male is so great that my cousins were encouraged to get a boyfriend in elementary school but lectured for becing pregnant as a teen. I have been interrogated in regards to my adult relationships:’Is he going to marry you?’-notice they don’t ask ‘will you marry him?’ -as if I am but a nonsensical figure in some market trade.
      With this information you shouldn’t be surprised that we have overwhelming mental health issues, poverty and resulting state assistance in our family. The men freely call their women ‘cunt’ and ‘bitch’ -gender derogatives. These behaviors are dismissed by the mothers and the grandmothers.
      There is little improvement from my
      grandmother’s generation to mine.
      So how does one effect change in my poor sphere? I speak out and am heard, but also reviled by them-only referenced later as ‘stuck up’ or ‘acting better than others’.

  3. Joyce Holady says:

    You state above that women could not get credit cards until 1974, I got my first Sears card in 1959. By 1969, I had a MasterCard, a gas card, a Penneys card, plus maybe more. I was unmarried

    • Was you husband a co-signer? That is how my mom got her cards…. needed a man to co-sign back thenl. Or maybe your dad? Brother?

    • Danoota says:

      Some women forget that what they had was at the largesse of a male.

    • If you were married, credit card in husbands name. I took a $500 loan in 1973, had to have my husband co sign even though I was working as an engineer. In 1970’s married woman’s income not counted toward mortgage calculations.

      • Crystal H. says:

        Wow, thanks for sharing. That is disturbing, but enlightening.

        • When my Dad passed away my working Mom couldn’t get credit because all the cards had been in his name or her name but written as Mrs Husband’s Name. She didn’t exist as a financial person.

          I got my first credit card in 1972 as part of a student account. No one had to sign for me so women, at least single women, could get cards then.

    • Elaine Tanner says:

      When the law changed to allow an 18 year old to vote in 1972, I challenged the credit system and was able to get a credit card in my name without a cosigner. Later on I had a hard time buying a car conventionally so I had to pay a higher interest but was able to take care of business. W have come a long way.

    • bekkispeeks says:

      Rules were different for unmarried women. I found out after my divorce that I had more legal rights and was treated as a person rather than an appendage of my husband.

  4. Smart Gyrl says:

    From 1967 to 1969, I was a Flight Attendent, (in those days we were called Stewardesses), with American Airlines. When I got married in 1969, I had to resign from my job because the Airlines of the day did not allow women to be married if they were Stewardesses. Pilots could be married, but not Stewardesses. That changed in 1972, I believe, when the Flight Attendants Union struck for that privelege. When I tell that to my daughters and granddaughters today, they can’t believe it.

  5. Nanci Whitley says:

    I was selling real estate in 1972 and an unmarried woman could not get a mortgage. A married woman could only get a mortgage qualifying with her income if she was a nurse or teacher and had a drs. and husband’s note that she was using birth control.

    • My mother told me she wasn’t able to buy a home in the early 70s too. Was it because she was denied credit or simply wasn’t “allowed” to purhase real estate?

  6. Kathy Egan says:

    Nanci, where was that? My mom bought her first house in 1955, all on her own., before she was married. She was a pharmacist.

    • Danoota says:

      Did she take out a mortgage or pay cash? Cash has always talked. If she got a mortgage I would ask if she had someone co-sign for her.

  7. Danoota says:

    I wasn’t until the early ’80s that health insurance companies had to pay pre-natal and maternity costs for children born “out of wedlock”.

  8. Gabriella F says:

    Natasha Turner blew my mind when she gave a list of 10 things that women could not do before the 70’s but it was nice to see how far we have come since then. Women were oppressed, disrespected and restricted only 40 years ago, which is not a huge number. Life has really changed and for women, I believe its changed for the better. These days, many feminists including myself believe they need more and more rights, which I completely agree with, but to see how times have changed and how much we have overcome is really refreshing and quite lovely. One thing I was not aware of was that women were not allowed to “refuse to have sex with her husband,” which is so disturbing and degrading. It is great to know that a woman today can say “NO!”

  9. In America, 2013, our Congress voted against a bill to criminalize employers who paid women Less for doing the Exact Same job as a man! It is still not a crime to discriminate against women in the workplace. Appalling

  10. It is unbelievable to see how “America the land of the free” was towards women in its past. Women did not even have the right to get a divorce. if you ask me, marriage is a beautiful thing, but all beautiful things come to an end. Some of the things have reasons, others do not. But to have to have a reason to get a divorce is crazy, i think a lot of the divorce have to do with the fact that the women were obligated to have sex, truly disturbing.

  11. Jessica L. says:

    Some of these things that are listed on here aren’t too surprising. Women really weren’t allowed to do much of anything before women started fighting for their rights. The only one that did sort of surprise me was that women could be fired form their job if they were pregnant. I think that that sucks that they were punished just because they wanted to start a family.

  12. Elizabeth C. says:

    It is amazing how far we have some. We tend to forget what we started out with. The saying “children should be seen and not heard” was brought to mind because that was how it was with women. Women did not have a voice-they were thought of as property so by looking at what we started as to how we are now makes me extremely grateful for what I have been privileged to having. We take so many things for granted.

  13. Its these kinds of articles that really make the youth of today sound and look so bratty. Look at what women had to go through for just a little bit of their rights in this country. Getting fired for being pregnant, not being able to claim sexual harassment. It was like you were damned for being a woman back then. Nowadays young girls just take all this history for granted. It would be really great if Women’s Studies could be more widely taught in schools. These are all landmark issues that deserve to be acknowledged. Especially since these issues are not things that were overcome centuries ago or even one century ago, this period was within a life span of time.

    • I think the only women in history I ever heard about was Rosa Parks! But, if they taught children about what women had to go through, or black history regularly (outside of black history month..etc) It would offend and frighten all of the little boys in school–and we can’t have that. How would little boys grow into ego stroking men that think there is no such thing as white male privilege? #institutionalized racism/sexism

    • That doesn’t make us bratty, that makes us see that there is room for improvement. I will not settle with the way I am living right now. I will not settle that my male co- worker who just started is already making 40% more than what I am making and I have been working here for 3 years and I went to college and got my degree. I am grateful for all that has been done, but there is so much more to do that y’all don’t see…

  14. Reading this article demonstrates the growth of our society in modern times. This growth is owed to education, empowerment and the start of an idea. Although we have come a long way, it is still important to recognize that we still have a long way to go. It’s still crazy to me to see how little women, had rights to, because now they are seen as such simple things, such as owning a credit card. With continuous education, empowerment and newer ideas we will be able to achieve more.

  15. Tatiana Kohanzad says:

    Although we still have a long way to go, it is good to take a moment to realize how far we have come and give credibility to the women that have helped us get to this point, along the way. It is jaw-dropping to read of some of the things that women were not allowed to before the 1970’s and it makes me so grateful to the people that have helped reform our society to what it is today. These women were oppressed and weren’t able to even do many standard things. It is just sad to see. It also shows what women today take advantage of, as we sometimes believe that women have always had the same rights. We need to not take these rights for granted and become more appreciative for what the women in our history has done for us.

  16. It’s crazy to see how oppressed women were before the 1970’s. Being born into the time period that I have been born into, it was mind-blowing to see how difficult it was to do things back then that are more common and done with ease now. This article shows me the great accomplishments that the women’s rights advocates have achieved and how much they have succeeded in getting the equal right’s that the women deserve. To see the big improvements made in just 40 years is a great triumph. The development of women’s rights is great to see, but I feel like there is more to come and more to be made because women are still not looked at as equals to men. The oppression and disrespect towards women back then and even in some cases today, is crazy to see. Reading that women could not refuse to have sex with their husbands and cannot report cases of sexual harassment shows that women back then are treated as property and not given the respect that they deserve. And this oppression faced towards women back then has had a huge influence in the women today feeling that they are expected to have sex with their husbands sometimes and they are too scared to report incidents of sexual harassment.

  17. Daniella S. says:

    I was astonished while reading Natasha Turners article on the 10 Things That American Women Could Not do Before the 1970s. Thinking about the things some women were forced/ expected to do while being stuck in a forced marriage was extreme. Women were being oppressed and forced to accommodate their husband’s needs without having any say or a voice in their marriage. Today, there are similar situations that go on in which women feel helpless and stripped from their rights but still decide to stay in the relationship that they are in because they are scared to leave and feel like they are the ones at fault. Many women tend to blame themselves when they are being abused and not treated with the respect they should be treated with. It’s crazy to think how this was going on only 40 years ago and where women stand in society today.

  18. Jacqueline C says:

    None of these obstacles really comes as a shock, except for the fact that it was actually pretty recent that htey were overcome. I am just embarrassed and ashamed of having not known about Presdient Carter’s declaring of the International Women’s Day, let laone WEEK. We have a whole entire week devoted to us and who knew? Who knows now?! I’m so ashmed for not knowing this, its incredible. I am sure more than many others do not know either or it wouldn’t have been included in this post1 I will definetly share!

  19. Women weren’t allowed to run in the Olympic Marathon until 1984……………..

  20. I remember all of these things listed. In 1973 I played on a city organized baseball team. We were undefeted. I was a shortstop and left fielder. My Dad was so proud of me! Then it came time to okay in the end of summer tournament and I was told I wasn’t allowed to play because I was a girl. Can I just tell you how P.O.’d my Dad was at the city?! In 1980 I joined my local volunteer fire department with becoming a paramedic as my goal in life. I was liked and accepted by the guys at my station, but NOT so much by the 6 other stations in town. I was a “token”, a joke, and not taken seriously at all. I had to work 10 times harder than the men (for 4 years I was the only woman among 150 volunteers and 60 Fulltimer’s) just to prove that I could do as good of job as they could. 34 years later, I’m still paid less than the men that do my same job. As long as men run this world, we will never be treated equally.

  21. I initially misread this title and (wrongly) assumed I would already be familiar with 10 things women couldn’t do prior to 1970. I guess I thought it would list the obvious like women couldn’t vote until 1920 and things like that. Then I realized it was things that American women could not do until the 70’s. Never did I realize how ridiculous, and recent, some of these things were. Even though I wasn’t born until the mid-80’s, I do realize how incredibly recent the 70’s were and it’s appalling to me that some of these issues even existed. What reason could anyone even give for not allowing women to run in the Boston Marathon? The reasons for any of these are all stupid and ridiculous to start, but I can’t even think of a reason that anyone could possibly give to justify that. Also, it is terrifying to think that women really had no recourse in regards to sexual harassment at work, marital rape, or losing your job due to pregnancy. It really makes your realize how powerless a women could’ve been rendered prior to this.
    Additionally, I find it comical that Carter deemed a whole week in March to Women’s History. Were we supposed to be grateful for that? I guess we weren’t even important enough to him to get the whole month. Great Article, thanks!

  22. Rachel Moreh says:

    After I read this article I started to think..what would the world be like if women were still restricted from certain natural rights. The power was directly in the hands of men in those times, clearly being a dominating Patriarichal society. An example of how women were seen as subservient beings for men was the restriction of not being able to say no to your husband if he wanted to have sex. These restrictions for women are shocking to read about, however it isn’t hard to believe this was acceptable in society ,as women are still being discriminated against in the workplace environment, abused in relationships ,and unaknowledged for their accomplishments in todays world. These laws were acceptable very recent in history, and this just shows how much further we as a society must grow in order to treat one another as equals.

  23. …and in another 40 years, people will be reading an article about 10 things American women couldn’t do before 2010. Hopefully included on the list will be:
    – Hold the majority in government (It’s not law restricting this, but it would be a great change)
    – Complete medical control over their bodies and reproductive systems
    – keep their last name without guilt, ridicule, etc.
    – have undisputed equality in employment wages/salaries
    – have a stay-at-home husband who doesn’t have to be “that 1 father who is part of the PTA and carpool group”.
    – wear comfortable clothes that are also found in magazines to be stylish (heels, tight clothing, and layers of makeup are far from casual/comfortable)

  24. I was not permitted to go to college in 1974 because I was female (by my parents). Marched for the Equal Rights Amendment in Washington DC in 1977. We *still* don’t have the ERA.

    • My college roommate’s parents paid for her brother’s 4 years at Oklahoma State University. They paid for 1 semester for her so that she could “find a husband”. It was 1975.

  25. APatientGod says:

    I think many young women today would do well to remember how far women’s right have come in less than 100 years. They take a lot for granted.
    Just remember, when the next man-made or natural disaster knocks out our infrastructure, you will be begging men to save you and provide for you.
    Men have created a comfortable modern world for women to thrive and succeed in.
    Do not take this for granted.
    Do not be ungrateful to the men who fought your wars and protected you from monsters.
    Show respect to good men, and you will get the respect reciprocated.
    The world owes you nothing.

    • Sod off.

    • Kaiser says:

      “A comfortable modern world for women to thrive and succeed in” that’s why a lot of women are blamed for being raped. That’s why there’s still child marriage. That’s why women are still “spoils of war” ,I don’t think you know what you’re talking about.

    • The next time a human-made or natural disaster knocks out our infrastructure, women will be working alongside the men to rebuild it and providing for ourselves, thank you.
      The wars are not “our wars”. They’re created by men. And women provide for themselves just fine when men have been off fighting those wars. Also, have you noticed? Women can now fight those wars too. There are no such things as monsters.
      Our modern world is so comfortable that a women is still sexually assaulted by a man every 23 seconds, that we are still deemed second-class citizens in work, pay and family relationships, that children and women are forced into unwanted marriages all over the world. Thanks.
      That’s not the sort of comfortable world I want to live in.
      The world owes women nothing, but likewise it owes men nothing. Each individual should get off their backsides and fend for themselves.
      As far as being a patient god is concerned – you’re not. You’re an Ass and you’re talking out of it.

  26. A good friend was required to have her husband’s written permission to obtain a desperately needed hysterectomy in Texas in the 1960s.

    • I had to get my husband’s permission to get a tubal banding in 1979. My husband was unemployed and putting us in debt with his spending, we already had 2 kids, and I was the main support of the family (working in a male-dominated field and having to work harder to prove myself plus putting up with harassment from male co-workers). All I needed was another child in my life! But do you think my (male) doctor would let ME make the decision on my own? Heavens, NO! Husband had to sign the paperwork.

  27. You can still get fired for being pregnant it happens all the time. FMLA only covers like 42% of people. The pregnancy discrimination laws don’t cover complications or anything and leave accommodations up to the employer to decide if they are reasonable. It’s a joke!

  28. A few clarifications are in order here. Not ALL women worked to end the discrimination, a very few did and were villified by their fellow citizens as feminazis, wanting to be men, and accused of hating women. I was raised in a traditional family with an extended family of unmarried and very hardworking mend women who were role models. When you hear phrases like “you are just lucky to have a job” remember back to when that meant you might have to sleep with the boss to keep it. Be vigilant.

  29. Here is a little known fact. Prior to 1920 when women got the right to vote, if an American woman married a foreign man, she lost her American citizenship.

  30. In 1980, I walked into a car dealership and had difficulty even getting waited on. When the salesman finally waited on me I was told to go home and come back with my husband!

  31. I received an AAS degree in Instrumentation, which is male dominated, and never got a job in the field. I was told that men do not women in the field. All the men that I went to school with received jobs in the field but I did not. I was even chewed out about going to Texas State Technical College because they do not teach women what they need to know. That was totally strange to me since I was in the same classes as men and made better grades. If black people think they have problems talk to women, it is worse.

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