No Passport, No Bank Account, No Bathroom?! Things Women Couldn’t Do In The 1920s

The 1920s granted several rights to women throughout the decade, such as the freedom to vote and own land. But many laws and regulations that seem commonplace nowadays were not offered to this generation. For instance, women could not work while pregnant until 1970s, or serve on juries until the 1960s. Accessible public restrooms, co-ed schools, and specific retail jobs were rarely a part of a woman’s world in the ’20s. When you explore all the rights held back from women post-WWI, you’ll newly appreciate how far society has come.

Lose your citizenship, or marry the love of your life? Which would you choose?

They Couldn’t Carry Their Own Passport Or Travel Alone

William Butler Yeats' passport women could not obtain passport in 1920
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While unmarried women could apply for a passport using their own name, married women could only receive a joint visa with their husbands. For example, the passport would only state “Mr. John Doe and his wife,” keeping the woman anonymous. This prevented women from traveling abroad on their own.

It was possible for married women to obtain their passports, but the process was usually cut short by headaches and rejections. Some women did speak up against this idea–Ruth Hale, for instance, lead a lifelong crusade to fight for women to use their maiden name on passports.

They Couldn’t Wear Skirts Or Shorts Above The Knee

illustration from the magazine Le Miroir des Modes 1920s fashion
Le Miroir des Modes / Getty Images

In the 1920s, women received more leeway in their clothing than their previous Victorian Era garments, mainly in sports and entertainment. Still, in many parts of the U.S., women still faced clothing restrictions. For instance, Utah legislators fined women who wore skits “higher than three inches above the ankle.”

Women could not wear heels higher than two inches in cities like Carmel, California. In low-income areas, if a woman only had one or two formal outfits, she was expected to wear them to church, and not outside of it. Only entertainers wore the short skirts that people see in photographs today.

They Couldn’t Keep Their Citizenship If They Married A Non-Citizen

Wedding of Princess Yolanda of Savoy and Count Carlo Calvi of Bergolo's wedding, Italy, April 9, 1923
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Between 1907 and 1922, women in the U.S. had a choice–marry the love of their life, or keep their American rights. Thanks to the Expatriation Act, women who married a non-citizen automatically lost their citizenship. The danger skyrocketed for these women around WWI. Since they were no longer American citizens, they had to register as enemy aliens.

According to Women’s Roles In 20th Century America, some people in high profile places tried to get around this law. Ulysses S. Grant’s daughter petitioned Congress to have her citizenship restored, but she was turned down.

Banned From Attending Co-Ed Schools, With Rare Exceptions

College Home Economics Class 1926
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By 1920, many young white women could attend female universities, often called “finishing schools” (implying that they finished their education and wouldn’t continue to get degrees). But co-education colleges that admitted both young men and women were incredibly rare at the time.

According to the National Women’s History Museum, most universities assumed that co-ed situations “endangered” women by risking their purity and “fragile nervous systems.” Some believed that close proximity to men would lessen female attraction to males. The few co-ed colleges available still segregated sexes in public spaces, such as libraries.

They Couldn’t Become Lawyers — Even If They Studied Law

llustration of a woman office worker taking notes, 1928 women could not become lawyers 1920s
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After women won their right to vote in August 1920, they could finally enter law school and theoretically work as a lawyer. The culture didn’t make things that simple, however. Most law firms refused to hire women, even though they were legally allowed to do so.

More often than not, companies hired female lawyers for office positions such as secretaries, stenographers, or librarians. In most cases, women could only practice law if they joined their father’s or husband’s firm, despite studying for years to become a lawyer.

Easily Access Public Restrooms

public restroom signs
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Although restrooms were gender segregated before 1920, it wasn’t until 1927 that buildings were required to include both men’s and women’s bathrooms. Because few women worked office jobs before WWI, buildings only focused on offering male restrooms, meaning that few work buildings had a female restroom.

Working women had to hike to another building to find a ladies’ room. In some cases, companies even barred women from jobs on the grounds of having no toilets available for use.

Would you even try to get a job if it were as hard for you as it was for women in the 20’s?

Women Had To Stop Working Once They Were Pregnant

pregnant flapper 1929 women could not work while pregnant 1920s
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Women who showed pregnancy regularly got laid off from their jobs because many employers believed that pregnancy would downgrade their work performance. As a result, many women struggled to conceal their pregnancy. The loose flapper fashions of the 1920s became more popular for their ability to hide the changing body.

Ads for maternity clothing even marketed clothes as “entirely free from embarrassment of a noticeable appearance during a trying period.” Women did not receive legal protections for working while pregnant or working while also being a parent until 1978.

They Didn’t Receive Military Benefits, Or Even Military Pay

women working factory making TNT shells during WWI women military benefits female jobs 1920s
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While most men went off to fight in WWI, women filled work roles in clerical work, communication, and nursing for the U.S. Army. But despite their long hours, they worked for the military as a civilian on a contract or volunteer basis. Not only did they not receive payment for their work, but they also lost their jobs immediately after the war ended.

In 1948, the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act allowed women to enlist and receive payment in the U.S. Army. But this wasn’t until after WWII, meaning that women worked through both world wars with little pay.

Jobs That Were “Hazardous To Their Behavior” Were Banned

Women working in packaging department, Sanremo 1926
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Although more women flooded the workforce during and after WWI, so-called “protective laws” denied them specific jobs that the state or employer deemed as harmful to their morals or health. These laws included positions such as taxi drivers, bowling alley workers, baggage handlers, and pool hall employees.

Historian Catherine Gourley believes that “Most likely, the reason for this law was that mostly men… frequented these places and were thought to negatively influence women’s behavior.” Regulations varied by state, with Ohio and Michigan imposing some of the more strict regulations.

Did you know that women had restricted legal rights even in a bar?

Women Couldn’t Serve Jury Duty

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Jury duty is a benefit of modern democracy–an advantage that most women in the 1920s could not enjoy. Despite earning voting rights, women still could not attend or participate in jury duty. Legal scholars point out that women could legally join a jury in Colorado, Idaho, California, and Utah by 1920. Even so, these laws often weren’t enforced.

Over fifty years later, in 1975, the Supreme Court finally allowed (white) women to serve on juries. Until then, jury service remained a state, rather than a federal, right. Missouri was the most extended holdout, keeping women out of the court until 1968.

They Weren’t Allowed To Buy Their Own Drinks

clinking with a customer, in December 1929 in Paris, France women bar rights could not buy their own drinks 1920s
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Until 1982, women could legally be refused service if they attempted to pay at a bar or pub with their own money. In some areas, women could legally be forbidden the right to drink while unaccompanied.

If women ever wanted to visit bars, they had to go in a group. Even then, they couldn’t buy drinks unless a man paid for them. Oddly, in 1960’s Illinois, the roles would flip–women age 18 could go into bars and buy drinks, while men that age could not.

The harsh reason that women married so young coming up…

They Couldn’t File For Divorce

couple in bed - 22.12.2010 women divorce rights 1920s
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“No-fault” divorce, which includes divorce on equal terms, first surprised the nation in 1969, California. Until then, divorce required someone’s “fault” to be legalized. The most relaxed divorce laws at the time, instated in Indiana, allowed divorce on the grounds of “adultery, impotency, abandonment, cruel treatment, drunkenness, and commission of crimes.”

Even so, the judge would not accept the divorce if they viewed the problem as solvable, or believed both spouses were at fault. Both having fault meant that they “planned” the divorce, which basically condoned the marriage the continue as it did. Women who did manage divorce received the derogatory nickname “fire alarm.”

No Living With A Boyfriend Before Marriage

Man writes 'I LOVE U' in the sand for his sweetheart, 1920-60.
Science & Society Picture Library / SSPL / Getty Images

While women could date publicly in the 1920s, living with their boyfriend before marriage was illegal at worst and considered taboo at best. Most states outlawed cohabitation (living together before marriage) at the time. As a result, people married young. In 1920, a large percentage of women over age 15 were married.

Throughout the twentieth century, states gradually repealed these laws on the basis that psychology supports cohabitation before marriage. Interestingly, Mississippi and Michigan still implement laws against cohabitation today.

Yes, even volunteer-based activities had regulations set on women.

No Late Night Shifts, Even As A Waitress

Women Being Served In Cafe circa 1920 women job restrictions 1920s
George Rinhart / Corbis via Getty Images

To “protect women” from supposed health hazards and rough men, some states outlawed women working at night. Usually, this meant that no shifts were allowed between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. This may seem obsolete concerning desk jobs, but for waitresses and entertainers, this meant they received fewer hours and less pay.

Of course, not all employees followed this law. In 1924, waitress Anna Smith received a fine for working night shifts at Joseph Radice & Company and challenged the fee in court. While Smith and her boss lost the case, the state of New York did grant exceptions for entertainers and bathroom attendants.

Women Couldn’t Participate In The Boston Marathon

Katherine Swizer running the Boston Marathon while men try to stop her womens rights
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Women could run with men in the Boston Marathon but were not “officially” acknowledged as runners until 1972. In that sense, their run would not be timed or logged, making their participation almost useless. Most women were not expected to run the entire marathon.

The Boston Marathon first ran in 1867, and it wasn’t until 100 years later that the first woman finished the race with a race number. This was Katherine Switzer, who registered as “K. V. Switzer”, and finished with a time of 3:10:26. She later said that she actually felt “pretty lousy” about the time she landed.

Dare to learn the harsh truths about women’s autonomous rights…

They Couldn’t Sue Or Report Others For Sexual Harassment

Sybil Thorndike 1920, English actress playing the role of Medea in Euripides' tragedy womens rights sexual harassment 1920s
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Sex discrimination in the workplace didn’t face punishment until 1964 when Title VII passed. Even then, the courts didn’t efficiently define sexual harassment until 1980. As a result, female workers often received unfair treatment. Some positions even set requirements on a woman’s dress and weight.

Even at home, marital rape wasn’t criminalized until 1993. A woman in the 1920s had few places to go should men bully her, as she legally could not fight back.

They Couldn’t Obtain Or Even Talk About Birth Control

Implanon contraceptive womens birth control rights access 1920s
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Thanks to the Comstock Laws of 1873, women could not gain legal access to birth control. Not only that, the laws dictated that no one could send or discuss any contraceptive device or “erotica” through the mail. This included pamphlets containing “obscene material” such as pro-birth control or safe sex education.

In 1916, Margaret Sanger aimed to break the misinformation culture by opening a birth control clinic in Brooklyn, New York. She was promptly arrested, and the clinic shut down, dragging out the fight for birth control well into the twenty-first century.

Want to know where women could keep their own money? Not in their personal accounts.

They Were Refused When Trying To Open Their Own Bank Account

1920s American Banking Poster womens rights credit card bank account
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Until the 1970s, banks could legally decline a woman’s request to open a bank account if she was unmarried. Married women could only receive a credit card if their husband co-signed. This made it difficult for even working women to spend their own hard-earned money.

Denying bank accounts for women finally ended with the Equal Credit Opportunity Act in 1974, outlawing discrimination based on gender and marital status. Before then, most people assumed that women didn’t need a credit card to work as a housewife.

Banned From Owning Or Inheriting Property

Newer Jerusalem and suburbs 1920, Jerusalem women not own property 1920s
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At the beginning of the ’20s, women could not buy or inherit property as men could. If their husband or father died, they could not receive the property even if it were left in his will. Fortunately, The Law of Property Act in 1922 made it legal for both a husband and a wife to inherit each other’s property.

Even with this act, women could not hold or dispose of property as men could. These women would have to wait another four years when the legislation finally passed that allowed women to own land with the same rights as men.

They Couldn’t Enjoy Anything Other Than House Work

Portrait of Tallulah Brockman Bankhead American Actress 1927
The Tatler / Getty Images

Studies from the 1920’s exhibit that women spent an average of 35 hours on household work per week, even on top of any other job they held. Even with the amount of hard work and little help, women were expected to embrace the housewife life as a path to self-fulfillment.

Advice columns from the time advised women to feel lucky enough to have fancy electric household equipment that made their jobs easier. Even women’s magazines idolized stories of women forfeiting their paying jobs to return to full-time housewife.

Think modern stigma of contraceptives is bad? It used to be worse.

Women Could Not Challenge Marital Rape

A young woman modelling a fur-trimmed coat and a cloche hat, 12th June 1928
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Whereas some places in England had marital rape laws dating back to the seventeenth century, it was not criminalized in all U.S. states until 1993. Before the 1970s, marital rape remained exempt from ordinary rape–meaning that it did not exist as a crime for these women.

During divorce cases, marital did not count as a “fault” that would justify divorce. The women suffering through this treatment had little help or sympathy for their tragic position.

They Could Not Receive Emergency Contraceptives

Mother to be with stroller at baby shower, ca. 1924
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Emergency contraceptives, commonly known as “Plan B,” did not make an appearance in U.S. until the 1960s. Women in the 1920s had no other option after rape or unwanted pregnancy, since most could not find reliable abortions either, since that didn’t become legal until 1973.

Even when they first appeared, doctors had to prescribe that as “medicinal healing” for rape. This posed a huge problem for women needing the contraceptive, as you have to take them within the first couple days after intercourse.

Same with work pay…it used to be much worse.

They Could Not Achieve An Ivy League Education

The commencement or graduation of seniors at Banard College circa 1920
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While Ivy League colleges did exist in the 1920s, only two allowed women to apply. These were Cornell University starting in 1870, and the University of Pennsylvania in 1876. However, these colleges stuck to segregated houses and classrooms much as the other co-ed universities at the time.

Other Ivy Leagues did not follow suit until the late 1960s. Most women were not encouraged to attend co-ed schools anyway, instead opting for an unfinished degree at a “finishing school.”

Women Received Even Less Pay Than They Do Today

Workers at the Roberto Ferrari hosiery manufacturers plant
L’Illustrazione Italiana/Getty Images

Despite the Equal Pay Act of 1963, most women today make 77 cents to every man’s dollar. In the 1920s, however, it was worse. These women made 59 cents for every man’s dollar up until 1963. So not only did they work few hours under harsh conditions, but they received little pay for their work as well.

From 1969 to 2014, women have only made 18 cents more than women in the 1920s. That’s a one-third cent increase per year over 53 years.

They Had Little Power In Politics

British suffragette leaders Margaret Mackworth, 2nd Viscountess Rhondda (1883 - 1958, left) and Emmeline Pankhurst (1858 - 1928) during the Equal Political Rights Demonstration
Photo by MacGregor/Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Suffrage Movement worked hard to establish women’s right to vote in 1920. Surprisingly, though, many women didn’t want to vote. Even fewer women made it onto local, state, and national politics committees. With so little representation, women held little power in government decisions.

North Carolina opponents of women voting argued that “women are not the equal of men mentally.” This mentality seemed to run through the state, since many women were discouraged from attending college, which they would need in order to sit on political boards.

If you thought that most women had electricity in the ’20s, you were wrong.

Few Women Were Actually Encouraged To Work

Woman at sewing mill
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Throughout the 1920s, only 15% of white women and 30% of black women held paying jobs. Although work for women did expand during this era, few took advantage of it. This likely results from the social standard that wives should take care of the home while their husbands worked jobs, especially in rural areas.

Women who needed to find a job in a pinch could land a position in textile mills or factories. However, since women could no hold their own bank account at the time, most money went to their husbands. They had little reason to go find a job.

Many Women Didn’t Have Electricity

'Three Women on the Road', after 1927.
Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Because electricity was discovered and employed around 1873, many modern people assumed that all people in the 1920s could access electricity. But women in rural areas still could not use electricity, and that continued in some states until the 1940s.

The lack of electricity made work such as keeping food fresh, drying clothes, cooking, and cleaning water harder and more time-consuming to perform. Despite men’s claims at the time that “women have it easier due to technology,” this was not the truth for many women in U.S.

Even automobiles weren’t as accessible to women as most people believe.

Black Women Had Less Opportunities Than White Women

Contralto Opera singer Marian Anderson, (1902-1993).
Getty Images

While black women could work in the 1920s, many companies refused to hire them. This made it harder for the many black women who needed to work, because black men at the time often received less pay. Spaces including bathrooms, offices, and churches remained segregated.

Even fewer black women were admitted to colleges, although a few managed to land the education they needed. In states such as Alabama, black women would be violently accosted if they attempted to vote.

They Were Discouraged From Any Path Outside Of Marriage

Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon, 1900 –2002. Future Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother. Wife of King George VI and the mother of Queen Elizabeth II. Seen here with her baby daughter princess Elizabeth in 1926.
Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

The reason more women didn’t tackle increasing employment and education is because they were discouraged from it. Magazines, movies, ads, and older generations convinced many women that marriage lead to economic security and social status. As a result, most women married by age 20, and had kids by age 22.

The “flapper” became a rebellious image in the 1920s that many women admired. However, most women at the time did not live the flapper life, as they had to have enough money for that lifestyle while single.

Not All Women Could Drive

circa 1920: Women standing by a convertible car
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Although automobiles became commonplace in the ’20s, many men attempted to prohibit women from driving. Many considered women to be too weak and sensitive to steer the smelly, noisy automobiles. Manufacturers, going off the “separate spheres” mentality of the Victorian Age, advertised that men could drive gas cars while women could only drive electric cars.

This divide closed as the decade approached the 1930s. Newspapers began cataloging transcontinental car journeys, and movies depicted many women driving. The federal government also improved road conditions throughout the 1920s, allowing more women to drive confidently.

Women could still exercise though, right? Well…

They Were Not Considered A Person, Legally

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images

Women in the Roaring Twenties were not considered a person under the eyes of the law. Although they could vote and hold office in some spheres, they were perceived as incapable of acting or thinking in a way that a man could. WWI changed these notions slightly, but not enough to change many laws.

As a result of the legal standing, few women fought for equal rights in these situations. Their words were brushed off as not holding weight, making direct retaliation futile.

Only A Couple Sports Were Available

Three women in a low hurdles race at Universal City, California
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Women could not participate in any sport during the ’20s. They could only participate in games that were “ladylike,” which included few contact sports. At the College of Wooster, women could only partake in the “Big Six” sports: hiking, hockey, swimming, track, basketball, and tennis.

Medical records dating back to Aristotle asserted that women were dominated by the energy allotted by their reproductive organs, so only a few forms of sport could keep them healthy. As a result, some viewed athletic women as “desexed” and less likely to bear children.

Sometimes women’s jobs weren’t even jobs after all.

Some Women Were Still Domestic Servants

Maid giving the pit bull for a walk - 1925
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Domestic servitude, or working within your employer’s household, did not often include pay. Wages for domestic servants were not regulated or monitored, so many women worked undervalued and underpaid jobs. Immigrants often had to take these jobs before they married, especially if they still struggling to speak English.

In 1920s America, women in cities either were a domestic servant or hired one. The hired women would work as maids or nannies or to the children, before heading home to complete their own housework.

Women’s Makeup Practically Disappeared

Portrait of Annie Croft (1896-1995), English actress
The Tatler/Getty Images

New makeup styles and fads bombarded media in the 1920s. The shift, however, had an unexpected result. Before then, most makeup was sold by small companies usually run by women. When makeup became more popular, these small companies were replaced with larger corporations, often run by men.

In certain spheres, especially rural areas, women were not allowed to wear makeup by their family. However, movies and marketing popularized the “painted” look. One popular one included a “healthy tan,” where women would powder themselves to look suntanned during the day and then take it off by nighttime.

No, the historical flapper was not as common or as esteemed as many believe.

Wear The Right Bathing Suit, Or Get Arrested

Bill Norton, Bathing Beach
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In the 1920s, the idea of swimming at the beach was still relatively new, especially for women. Although swimsuits were made short enough to swim, police officers would roam the beaches to double-check the length themselves. If they measured too much space between the bathing suit and the knee, the woman would be charged a $10 fine ($123 today) or be arrested.

In addition, swimsuit manufacturers presumed that women needed to stay warm in the water, so they made most bathing suits out of wool. The most popular bathing suit looks included the swim dress and swim shorts.

The Flapper Path Was Discouraged, Not Encouraged

English actor Donald Sinden and cast members from the musical '42nd Street' outside the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, 9th November 1984.
D. Morrison/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The flapper is the most iconic representation of the Roaring Twenties. This figure inspired many women at the time, as she showed off her legs, made money while single, and dared to lead independent lives. However, few women took on the role–mainly because it was demonized in the media.

At the time, the flapper was perceived as immoral, and further reasoning to distrust women. Some men used the image the of a flapper as an argument against women in politics, believing that shallow figures should not be entrusted to vote.

Women had little to no care while giving birth, because it wasn’t required by law.

They Didn’t Have Electoral Equality

Women line up to vote for the first time in New York after the passage of the 19th Amendment 1920
Underwood Archives/Getty Images

Most people know that women could vote by 1920, but few know that in the UK, women did not legally achieve electoral equality until 1928. Electoral equality means that every vote carries the same weight in the election process. Although women could vote, their votes could legally count for less than a man’s vote could.

The Act in 1928 also gave women over age 21 the right to vote, as opposed to only women over age 30. Today, politicians and votes still struggle with electoral equality, but at least it’s legally enforced to some extent.

They Did Not Receive Maternity Care (For A While)

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Group portrait of an unidentified woman with a baby girl on her lap and a young boy beside beside them, early twentieth century. (Photo by Anthony Barboza/Getty Images)

The ’20s began with varying healthcare for new mothers. Maternal and infant benefits remained at a state level. The Children’s Bureau reports that 80% of new mothers did not received any medical advice or trained care before 1921.

The Sheppard-Towner Act fortunately required maternal and infant care on a federal level. If any woman gave birth before the law passed in 1921, her baby had a 1/10 chance of dying in infancy. Conditions were worse for rural women, when doctors sometimes wouldn’t even arrive until after labor.

The Government Could Seize Prescribed Contraceptives

Third-generation contraceptive pills are displayed
PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images

Before the 1930s, the federal government could legally seize contraceptives even if a doctor prescribed them. Tariff laws prohibited birth control in accordance to the Comstock Act, and those within the country could legally be confiscated if government officials suspected illegal activity.

As a result, even women who managed to receive a prescription for contraceptives in or out of country could eventually lose rights to it. This rule finally reversed with the U.S. v. One Package Supreme Court case of 1936.

Women Could Not Vote Using Their Maiden Name

Lady Elizabeth Bowes Lyon on her way to her wedding
Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

Voting women often preferred to enter their full maiden name in the election process, because organizations often knew these women by that name. However, this wasn’t legal in the U.S. until 1961. Similar to passports, women could only vote under their husband’s surname.

Even nowadays, women face problems with voting through their maiden name, as state governments can accuse them of fraud. This becomes a hassle for women who wish to keep their maiden name after marriage.