January 21, 1908: 10 Laws That Repressed Women

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A Brief History

On January 21, 1908, the New York City Board of Alderman passed the Sullivan Ordinance, a law that banned women from smoking in any public establishment.  Mayor George McLellan Jr. vetoed the ordinance 2 weeks later, and only one woman was fined $5 for disobeying the law.  When she refused to pay the fine, she was arrested, but released the next day.

Digging Deeper

Laws targeting women separately from men, including those that demean or belittle the public stature of women are nothing new, and unfortunately are far from unknown today.  Here we list 10 Laws That Repressed Women, either current or in the past, with no significance to the order listed.

10. Ban on Women Voting. 

Cultures that ban women voting go back for centuries, and only in the 19th Century did women start to get limited voting rights.  The first European nation granting women’s suffrage was Finland as part of the Russian Empire (1907), followed by Norway (1913).  The 20th Century saw a massive movement toward allowing women to vote, and British women got their right to vote in 1918 (partial, total in 1928) and in the US women were granted suffrage in 1920.  Traditional Islamic nations generally treat women as less than full citizens, and Saudi Arabia allowed women to vote for the first time in 2015.  Today, Vatican City is the only place women are totally denied the right to vote.

9.  Ban on Woman Getting Credit. 

Until 1974, American single women could be refused the issuance of a credit card or loan, and married women often required permission from their husband to be granted credit.  (Hey, that is not so long ago!)  (Note: Harvard did not admit women until 1977 and Princeton and Yale did not allow female students until 1969, possibly because they could not get student loans!)

8.  Anti-Miscegenation Laws. 

Laws banning marriage and sexual contact between people of different races have been common and existed in the US as recently as the 1960’s, struck down by Loving v. Virginia 1967.  Nazi Germany and South Africa readily come to mind when discussing these racial purity laws, which by definition limited who a woman was allowed to love or marry.  In the past, Asian dynasties had similar laws against race mixing, and in Egypt today Egyptians are forbidden from marrying an Israeli Jew.  Saudi Arabia today forbids women from marrying a man outside of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and nationalities.  European nations sometimes had laws against marrying colonial natives.  (Of course, these laws often restricted men as well as women.)

7.  China’s 1 Child Law. 

In a serious attempt to stem the ridiculous growth in population, the Chinese government in 1979 enacted the 1 child rule.  This law resulted in the abortion of millions of female fetuses and the infanticide of millions of female new-borns, as families preferred to have a boy as their only child.  An over abundance of boys and a shortage of girls resulted.  In 2015 this policy was modified so that a married couple that were both only children would be allowed to have up to 2 children.

6.  Islamic Subjugation of Women.

In countries that follow the teachings of Islam in their national laws, women are not considered the equal of men.  In court testimony, it takes 2 women to equal the testimony of 1 man, and the Quran states that men are a “degree above” their wives, and further that most inhabitants of Hell are women.  In the Quran, women deserve half the inheritance of their brother, men can have 4 wives (but women only 1 husband), men are allowed sexual access to their slaves, and men are allowed to beat their wives.  Men are allowed to divorce their wives simply by saying so 3 times, and the man keeps custody of the children.  The absolute bottom of this anti-woman pit is the practice of “honor killings” where a girl or woman is put to death by her own family as punishment for sexual indiscretions and other offenses, including being raped!  Lest you think only Islam discriminates against women, in the US it was not until 1973 that women could serve on juries in all 50 states!

5.  Ban on Women Driving Cars. 

Although there is no passage in the Quran that states women should not drive cars and trucks, Saudi Arabia, the keeper of the Holy Places of Islam, is the only country in the world that does not allow women to drive.

4.  Ban on Women on stage. 

For some idiotic reason, ancient Greek, Japanese, and Shakespearean plays used to be performed only by male actors, with the female roles played by men dressed as women.  Wow, this had to make sex scenes awkward!

3.  Ban on Women in Combat. 

Many countries (most) have historically kept women out of direct combat, and it was not until 1976 (the class of 1980) that American women could attend a US Military Service Academy.  In 2013 this ban in the US was modified where it is now not uncommon to find women in combat roles, notably as pilots and on warships.  In 2015, Defense Secretary Carter announced women could serve in each and every military specialty in US armed forces, and that these women could serve in direct combat, but with the proviso that the women qualify to the same mental and physical standards of the men.  The US Marine Corps notably fought this decision, as 93% of the USMC is male and the percentage of combat arms is higher than other services.  The US still has no provision for drafting females in time of war, although the topic is currently being debated.

2.  Anti-Contraception Laws and Mores. 

The Catholic Church is known for outlawing contraception on the basis that sexual intercourse should be for reproduction only, and wherever their influence is great, access to birth control is limited or outlawed.  In some places, just IUD’s or oral contraceptives are limited, and some places do not allow the so called “Plan B” or “Morning After Pill.”  (IUD and Plan B are seen as a form of abortion.)  Even today in the US Christian conservatives are attempting to limit access of women to contraception, including by forbidding the government or private companies from being forced to provide insurance payments for contraceptives.  We generally think of the 3rd World nations that limit access to birth control, but as in the US, some industrialized nations also fight access to such measures (notably Ireland).  At least 222 million women in the world have no access to birth control, and many millions more have limited access.  Access to contraception without a husband’s permission was ruled the law of the US in 1965.  Laying off pregnant women was legal in the US until 1978.

1.  Anti-Abortion Laws. 

Probably the most contentious of laws specifically governing women today, most nations had in the past outlawed abortion, leading to back alley illegal abortions that were unsafe and unsanitary, and the unwanted pregnancies led to unwanted children, limiting the flexibility of women to lead their lives in the manner of their choosing.  Additionally, such bans also led to the birth of defective babies that further saddled their mother (and father at times) with restrictions and at times threatened the health of the mother to be.  In the US, the Supreme Court decided in Roe v. Wade 1973 that access to legal abortion was a right for American women.  This decision has never been accepted by many Americans that to this day attempt to stifle access to abortions at every opportunity, creating a hot button political issue.  Today, six (Catholic) nations still do not allow abortions under any circumstances (Vatican City, Nicaragua, Malta, Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Chile).  About a fourth of all nations still have highly restrictive abortion laws.

Question for students (and subscribers): What other anti-woman laws can you think of?  What laws that treat women different from men should still be enforced (if any)?  Feel free to tell us your opinions in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see The New York Times.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.