In much of the western world today, men and women are considered equal – at least from a legal perspective. In Britain, the Equality Act 2010 states that no one should be discriminated against because of their sex, although there have remained a few exceptions to the rules (the armed forces, for example, could refuse to employ or promote a woman in certain combat roles until fairly recently).


In British history, however, women weren’t given nearly the same opportunities as they are today. That women weren’t allowed to vote until the early 20th century is common knowledge, but it might also surprise you that women were exempt from many hobbies, job prospects and activities that we would consider perfectly ordinary today. We’ve rounded up a selection below – from the ban on women playing football in the 20th century to sitting in the Houses of Parliament…

Did you know that women were once banned from…


Playing football

During the First World War, with so many British men off fighting in Europe, women in Britain rose to the challenge of filling in for their male counterparts. This happened not just in the workplace, but also on the football pitch. As the war progressed, the women’s version of the ‘beautiful game’ – which had slowly been growing in the 19th century – kicked off big time.

Formalised into leagues, women’s football drew huge crowds, and the powerhouse team were undoubtedly Dick, Kerr’s Ladies. Their Boxing Day match in 1920 against St Helens was watched at Everton’s Goodison Park by 53,000 fans, with another 14,000 outside trying to cram in.

But the war had ended by then, and there was a desire among many men to put society back to the way it had always been – with women in the home and, in terms of sports, relegated. In December 1921, the Football Association banned women’s games on their grounds and forbade its members from acting as referees and linesmen. Women’s football was effectively hobbled.

In December 1921, the Football Association banned women’s football on their grounds and forbade its members from acting as referees and linesmen. Pictured is Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, whose Boxing Day match in 1920 against St Helen’s was watched at Everton’s Goodison Park by 53,000 fans. (Photo by Gircke/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

It was claimed that sport was unsuitable for women, with a (female) doctor stating it was “too much for a woman’s physical frame” and could harm fertility. As one team captain put it, the ban was simply “sex prejudice”. It would only be lifted in 1971, meaning women’s football had been off the team for decades, while in the meantime the men’s game only flourished.

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Inheriting and owning property

Primogeniture – the practice of passing down property and titles– has historically favoured men, with daughters only inheriting if there were no appropriate male descendants. In instances where a woman did possess money or property in her own right, this would be acceded to her husband upon the event of their marriage.

Did you know? 

Until fairly recently, a woman could only accede the British throne if she had no living brothers or surviving legitimate descendants of deceased brothers. In 2013, the Succession to the Crown Act was passed, meaning that royal sons no longer take precedence over their elder female siblings.

The author Jane Austen famously wrote: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Indeed, the consequences of primogeniture (and the desire to preserve estates through male heirs) serve as a plot device in many of her novels. When there are no sons to inherit a family fortune – as in the case of Mr Bennet in Pride and Prejudice and Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion – chaos ensues.

A wife in possession of a good fortune in Austen’s day faced a rather different prospect. Rather than preserving her family line through marriage, she would be made to transfer all her assets to her husband once wed. This was, at least, the case until the late 19th century. The Married Women’s Property Act 1870 was a revolutionary piece of legislation that allowed any money earned by a woman to be considered her own, regardless of her marital status. In 1922, an additional law came into place that allowed a husband and wife to inherit one another’s property in the event of one of their deaths, although it wasn’t until 1926 that women were allowed to inherit, own, and dispose of property in exactly the same terms as men.


Sitting in the House of Commons

Women in the United Kingdom first gained the right to vote in 1918, although suffrage was initially limited to those over the age of 30 who were either owners of property or married to owners of property. The law that made it possible – the 1918 Representation of the People Act – was nonetheless a landmark moment in women’s rights, not just because it enfranchised around 8.5m female voters, but also because it enabled women to sit in parliament for the first time. In December 1918, Countess Constance Markievicz became the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons – although as a member of Sinn Féin, she did not take her seat. As such, Nancy Astor holds the title of the first woman to ever sit in the House of Commons; she was elected as MP for Plymouth Sutton in December 1919.

Nancy Astor holds the title of the first woman to ever sit in the House of Commons; she was elected as MP for Plymouth Sutton in December 1919. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Working (when married)

Even if you don’t count childcare and domestic duties, many women throughout history have worked in some capacity and particularly those among the working classes. However there certainly were not the equal opportunities in the workplace that we might expect today – and even in countries that we would now consider socially liberal, women were prevented outright from holding certain positions.

In particular, it was considered improper for a woman to continue working in certain professions once she was married. This was called a marriage bar, and it was common in many western countries from the late 19th century to as recently as the 1970s. In the UK, marriage bars meant that married women couldn’t work for Foreign Service until 1973 and the British Geographical Survey until 1975. Teaching and working for the BBC were also professions that prohibited married women, although these bars were removed earlier – in 1944.

According to a 1946 article in The Spectator, arguments in favour of marriage bars at the time included the idea that “the employment of married women takes employment from those who need it more” and “married women are less reliable and less ‘mobile’ than unmarried”.


Working (the night shift)

In accordance with the Employment of Women, Young Persons, and Children Act 1920, working overnight was once illegal for women in Britain.

That women were barred from the night shift might seem surprising today, but in the early to mid-20th century people considered the ban to be progressive. According to Maurice Edelman, MP for Coventry North, the act was “designed to protect women, among others, from the gross exploitation which so many of them had had to endure during the Industrial Revolution”.

Edelman was speaking in a debate about Factory Night Work held in December 1969, in which the question of women working overnight was raised. “I hope nobody will imagine that to protect women from exploitation by limiting their right to work in inferior conditions in any way impinges on the principle of equal pay or equality of opportunity,” he explained. “No civilised person would want women to work underground in pits.”

The Trade Union Congress – who were also strongly against the idea of women working at night – suggested that women should be shielded from the perceived evils of night work because many of them were married and effectively working a multitude of jobs (keeping a house and husband as well as looking after children). Nowadays, both genders can partake in the night shift, although those between the ages of 16 and 17 are not allowed to work between midnight and 4am.


Being served in a pub

Until 1982, it was legal for the proprietor of a British pub to refuse service to a woman – and not because she’d had enough alcohol already, but simply because of her sex. Some pubs were entirely ‘men-only’, but even those that were not exclusively male generally wouldn’t allow female customers to go in alone. Instead, they would sit in a dedicated snug – a separate room with frosted windows – to wait to be served or for drinks to be brought to them by their male companions.

It was the Industrial Revolution that changed the dynamic of pubs, which historically had been more inclusive

It was the Industrial Revolution that changed the dynamic of pubs, which historically had been more inclusive. With multitudes of working men pouring out of the factories, mills and mines, it was deemed necessary for them to have their own watering holes. This established such an unwelcoming precedent that the sight of a woman standing at a bar usually came to mean she was a prostitute.

The landmark change wouldn’t come until the early 1980s. A solicitor named Tess Gill and journalist, Anna Coote, were banned from El Vino on Fleet Street, London, just for standing up alongside their male colleagues, rather than sitting at the back. They decided enough was enough, took their case to the Court of Appeal and won, calling time on the sexist practice.


Competing in the Olympics

The original Olympic Games in ancient Greece were all-male affairs and the introduction of the modern Games in 1896, held in Athens, saw no difference. Its organiser, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, had previously declared that the participation of women would be “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and incorrect” – although fortunately this was an attitude that did not prevail.

Perhaps Coubertin had a change of heart, as women were permitted to take part at the very next games in Paris four years later – albeit in a limited capacity. Of the 997 athletes present at the 1900 Olympics, just 22 were women. They competed in five sports: tennis, sailing, croquet, equestrian and golf.

Women’s involvement in the Olympics has steadily increased throughout the 20th century, although there are still a handful of sports in which there are still no female athletes (decathlon, Greco-Roman wrestling, and one-person dinghy (heavyweight). Since 1991, all new sports joining the programme are obliged to include women’s events, but it wasn’t until London 2012 that every participating country fielded female athletes for the first time.


Running the Boston Marathon

In 1967, Kathrine Switzer officially entered the Boston Marathon, one of the most significant events in the long-distance running calendar (and the oldest annual marathon in the world). This would be an unremarkable incident today, but at the time women were banned from running the race. Even Switzer’s coach, Arnie Briggs, thought the distance too far for a “fragile woman” to complete, although he did concede that she would be a decent candidate for the task.

To circumvent the archaic ban, Switzer used her initials rather than her first name on her entry race form to appear ambiguous about her sex. She was entered into the race under the number 261 and finished the marathon in four hours and 20 minutes. This would be considered a respectable time for many runners – but is perhaps even more impressive considering the race’s manager, Jock Semple, at one point attempted to physically remove Switzer’s race number during the run. Women continued to be banned from running the Boston marathon for a further five years.

An iconic figure in running history, Kathrine Switzer is the first woman to have officially run the Boston Marathon. (Photo by Getty Images)

One year previously, Roberta ‘Bobbi’ Gibb had become the first woman to complete the entire Boston marathon in an unofficial capacity – much to the chagrin of race director Will Cloney, who had refused her request to register for the run. His reasoning was that women were physically incapable of running 26 miles, which was ­an odd assessment considering many women were on record at this point as having completed the distance.

Violet Piercy of Great Britain was the first woman to be officially timed in the Olympic marathon

Violet Piercy of Great Britain, for example, was the first woman to be officially timed in the marathon, running the distance in three hours 40 minutes in a race on 3 October 1926.

Gibb decided to run the race anyway, showing up in Boston without a race number and achieving a respectable time of three hours 21 minutes (beating two thirds of her fellow male runners). "I hadn't intended to make a feminist statement," she later said. "I was running against the distance [not the men] and I was measuring myself with my own potential."


Rachel Dinning is a digital section editor at HistoryExtra


Rachel Dinning, Premium Content Editor at HistoryExtra
Rachel DinningPremium Content Editor

Rachel Dinning is the Premium Content Editor at HistoryExtra, website of BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed.