Why women were banned from marathons, wearing trousers and having credit cards

We explore gender-suppressing policies from the past

Kathy Switzer was roughed up for running the Boston Mararthon in 1967, a time when women were banned from participating in races. Photo: Paul J Connell /The Boston Globe via Getty Images
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Afnan Almarglani recently became the first Saudi Arabian woman to hold an autocross and safe driving skills trainer licence, four years after King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud lifted a decades-old ban on women driving in the kingdom.

For many, the idea of women not being able to drive well into the 21st century might seem archaic, but the not-too-distant past was riddled with even more bizarre levels of female suppression, including being prevented from owning a credit card.

Here are five things that, at one time or another, women were banned from doing.

Wearing trousers

While the humble trouser dates back to 10th century BC China — where it was worn for function, rather than fashion — by the 1800s, women were forbidden from “dressing like a man”.

In France, the law was modified in 1892 and 1909, when exceptions were made that allowed trouser-wearing for women riding horses and then bicycles. However, it was only as recently as 2013 that women in France were legally allowed to wear trousers at all. While the 200-year-old ban wasn’t strictly policed in recent decades, it still existed. However, the country continues to police female fashion, with a 2016 burkini ban enforced at public pools around the country.

The notion of women wearing fabric between their legs has long been considered scandalous, with many activists attempting to make a stand. In the mid-1800s, Amelia Bloomer advocated women be allowed to wear Turkish-style pantaloons (aka bloomers), but she was subjected to ridicule in the press and harassment on the street. In 1919, Luisa Capetillo became the first woman in Puerto Rico to be jailed for wearing a pair of trousers in public.

Patriarchal fashion rules loosened somewhat during the two world wars, with women working in factories allowed to wear overalls. However, after the First World War, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel pioneered women’s trousers beyond industrial work.

She declared her own war on the corset, skirts and frills, and offered clothing with an androgynous-chic aesthetic. This was adopted by the social elite, including actresses Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn. In 1939, Vogue featured its first spread of women wearing trousers.

It still took another 30 years for perceptions to be altered, though. In 1966, Algeria-born Yves Saint Laurent showcased the famous Le Smoking suit in his debut couture collection. The tailored black tuxedo came complete with a pair of cigarette pants.

The outfit divided fashion critics because it marked the first time a couturier had presented trousers as eveningwear, and at a time when women were still being refused entry into many venues for wearing them.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that socialites started to adopt the look on a regular basis. Bianca Jagger famously wore a white pantsuit for her wedding to Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger. Soon after, thanks to the success of Le Smoking plus a Helmut Newton Vogue shoot, the trouser suit became a symbol of power dressing.

Owning a credit card

We take for granted that we live in a largely cashless society. We can pay for groceries with a simple tap of credit cards (not to mention our smartphones or smartwatches), but this was a luxury women could only have fantasised about until the 1960s.

While women were often in charge of household budgets, they held little financial power over their housekeeping money. In the 1970s, wives in the US and UK could only get access to a credit card if it were co-signed by their husband. Single or divorced women still needed a man to co-sign their applications.

All this changed in the US in 1974, when the Equal Credit Opportunity Act made it unlawful for any creditor to discriminate against an applicant based on race, colour, religion, national origin, marital status or, indeed, gender. A year later, in the UK, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 outlawed discrimination against women seeking to obtain goods, facilities or services, including loans or credit.

Running a marathon

Who run the world? Girls! Well, actually, not before the 1970s, thanks to stubborn US governing bodies.

The Amateur Athletic Union, an organisation founded to “promote physical fitness”, banned women from competing in marathons after incorrectly claiming that long-distance running could cause infertility.

Undeterred, in 1966, after having her race entry denied with a note claiming women were not physically capable of running a marathon, Roberta Gibb ran the Boston Marathon. She hid behind a bush at the start of the race before taking part as an unregistered runner.

A year later, Kathrine Switzer was granted entry to the Boston Marathon after registering as a gender neutral-sounding KV Switzer. However, three kilometres into the race, an official infamously grabbed her in an attempt to physically throw her out. She managed to finish the race, and went on to run again in 1968 and 1969. However, it wasn’t until 1972 that women were officially allowed to participate in the Boston Marathon. Switzer returned in 1975 to get a personal best of 2 hours 51 minutes.

By the mid-1970s, running began to be recognised as a popular sport among women, but it was still not enough to convince the Olympics to hold a women’s marathon competition. Enter Switzer again. After much campaigning and a hard-working partnership with Avon, she is now considered instrumental in getting the women's marathon recognised as an official discipline at the 1984 Olympics.

Watching the Olympics

Speaking of the Olympics, women could go to their deaths for watching the Olympics in ancient Greece. The games, which were originally staged as far back as 776 BC, banned married women from attending the event as spectators.

The rebirth of the modern Olympic Games in 1896 gave way to an increasing number of female athletes and spectators. However, in 1930 an aversion to female attendees reappeared when the British army banned women from watching boxing matches. A report in the Ottawa Citizen stated authorities had decided boxing “was not an edifying spectacle for women”. They were particularly dismissive of more vocal spouses, stating: “Wives who are often keen and critical spectators are thus prevented from seeing their husbands compete." Fortunately, the ban was not repeated, and in 2012, women were not only watching but also taking part as women’s boxing was added to the Olympic programme. In fact, the 2012 Games in London became the first in which women competed in all the sports categories.

Driving a car

Ever wondered who the first woman was to drive a car over a long distance? It was Bertha Benz in 1888, who took her husband’s car — without permission, of course — and drove 106 kilometres from Mannheim to Pforzheim in Germany. Her husband was Carl Benz, and the Patent Motor Car he built was the world’s first. Bertha went on to become a renowned German automotive pioneer.

While there was little discrimination preventing women from holding a driving licence in most parts of the world, this was not the case in Saudi Arabia, where a ban was in place from 1957. This was eventually lifted on June 24, 2018, as part of the government's wider Vision 2030 plans, which set out to create economic strength, improve society and build a more sustainable future.

Updated: July 14, 2022, 12:42 PM