Feminism F.A.Q.s: What Have Women Been Told They Can’t Do?

by | August 19, 2012
filed under Feminism

Feminism FAQs Title Screen

by Jarrah Hodge

Doing my video on the myth of feminist bra burning inspired me to take on another topic or two around women’s history. This video looks at just a few of the things women have been told they can’t do, through actual legal prohibitions (e.g. voting) or social norms (riding bicycles). It also lists a few of the things women are still told they “can’t do” today.

It was a bit tricky writing the film deciding whether to include women in other countries, since the time was limited and I never really planned to specify except for specifically mentioning driving prohibitions in Saudi Arabia. In the end most of the content is drawn from the history of Western women in order to combat the argument that women in the West no longer experience discrimination, but I do include some worldwide examples in the second list in the video.

Read the transcript after the jump with links to sources. If a source isn’t linked to it means it’s considered to be common knowledge (first list) or I found it by Googling “women can’t” or “women aren’t allowed to” and then seeing what came up (second list, tended to turn up results like this “joke” list).

I’ll also note a few things on the first list of historical “can’ts” also apply to the present-day, at least outside of North America. Inclusion on the first list isn’t meant to imply these are issues that no longer exist anywhere (for example, women still clearly experience issues trying to breastfeed in public, even in places where it’s totally legal).

Hi, I’m Jarrah Hodge. Welcome to Feminism F.A.Q.s, where I answer questions and clear up myths about feminism. Today, a bit of a history lesson as we talk about some things women have been told they can’t do.

Ride bicycles. The rising popularity of bicycles in the 1890s came at the same time and was tied in with women’s dress reform and it caused quite a stir. In addition to concern that riding bicycles was not appropriate for women and might cause sexual arousal, doctors also warned that it could render women infertile and cause “bicycle face” – described as permanent facial disfigurement caused by the strain of learning to ride.

Vote. Leading up to getting the right to vote, suffragettes fought against people who believed, like one Member of Parliament in Victoria, Australia that:

“The great majority of women – and they are none the worse for it – are incapable of logical reasoning, and no one who is incapable of that should have any voice whatever in shaping the political destinies of a country.’”

Get a credit card. Yup. Even into the 1960s if you wanted to get a credit card or sign a lease for an apartment you’d have to have your father or husband there to co-sign it.

Run a marathon. In 1967 Katherine Switzer became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as a numbered entry. But she’d had to lie about her name to do it and officials tried to forcibly remove her from the race. She completed the race but it wasn’t until 1972 that women were officially allowed to compete.

Here’s a few more…

(Scrolling text)

But women can do anything today, right? Well there have certainly been advances, but there’s still attitudes out there saying there are things women can’t do. Here are some more recent examples.

Write books as well as a man. In 2011 Nobel Prize winning author V.S. Naipaul said that he considered no woman author his equal. He claimed women’s writing is characterized by “sentimentality, a narrow view of the world”.

Drive. And I’m not just talking about countries where it’s actually illegal for women to drive, like Saudi Arabia. For example, AskMen.com has an article called “The Top 10 Reasons Women Can’t Drive”.

It includes, “Because Women Have No Interest in Cars” – They actually argue – although I admit it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek – that there’s a driving gene that women do not possess. Never mind that the stats actually show that women actually tend to be the safer drivers. Just sayin’.

There’s a few more present-day things women are told they “can’t do”:

(scrolling text)

Have you ever been told you couldn’t do something because you’re a woman? Comment below!


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  • Anne Powles

    Well,said. Many of these things have been forgotten. My mother, a teacher in the 40s had to give up work as a school teacher when she married (although her mother before her continued in that profession until she had children).

    I had no trouble in the 60 s leasing property or having credit cards without male signatories. (I had a professional job at the time).

    I have to say Mia culpa at getting nice young men to open bottles and jars at times!

  • Only boys can climb trees!

  • Pat McCarthy

    I was told countless times that I couldn’t be a professional chef – A dear friend and I were the first women in the training program for the Chef De Cuisine Association Apprentice Program at Oakland University. I was the first woman working in many professional kitchens outside the pantry (cold food was OK for women to make, but not the hot line where you could actually make it up the chain into management.) It is nice to see the big changes in the industry since my day. I like to hope the thrown dishes I dodged and the vile names I was called was worth it so younger women don’t have to face what greeted me in many kitchens. By the way, my advice to women who do face archaic attitudes in restaurant work? Have the biggest knife in the kitchen. I used a Gerber Professional Series chefs knife that was HUGE. Just picking it up was enough to back off some of the jerks. Watching me trim a roast or cut steaks with it was enough to send the rest to the other side of the kitchen.

    • captaindash

      I find it so bizarre that there are so few women chefs since women do the vast, vast majority of cooking in the world. Then again, if you’re used to doing it at home, why the hell would you want to go do it for work too? I know house painters who have had things that needed painting at home left neglected for years, and an accountant who can’t hold on to her personal receipts to save her life.

  • Amanda

    I was raised in a Southern Baptist home. I read the Bible and prayed for hours every day. By the time I was 16, I knew more about the Bible and theology than almost all the men I knew. I wanted to go to seminary and study theology, and I would imagine myself up at a pulpit, preaching. Unfortunately, I was told by my pastor and others “1 Timothy 2:12”, but that I would be a great children’s minister. Sucks for the church because I totally would have kicked ass at theologizing. Now, I am studying philosophy at a top university, and unfortunately, the men-women ratio is not much better. Even though there are still many people with conscious and unconscious biases who maintain that women are not as rational as men, at least it is not written into the doctrine so explicitly.

  • Lani Roberts

    I was told I couldn’t be a philosophy professor, but I did it for 23 years.

    • jarrahpenguin

      Thanks to everyone for sharing these things – it’s really interesting to hear all the attitudes and barriers that get put out there that people have been able to overcome.

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