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100 Years Ago, Women Tried (and Failed) to Create a Gender-Neutral Workforce

What a new generation of feminists can learn from their mistakes

Dana Vitalosova
Dana Vitalosova

Since transgender ideology got both feet in the door of our society, many feminists have been asking: what’s wrong with women who go along with the erasure of their own sex? Why can’t intelligent, educated females with non-stereotypical careers see through the patriarchal ruse? To name names, how could historian Mary Beard, professor Judith Butler, author Ijeoma Oluo and others throw women under the bus?

As for millennia, we have been forcibly cut off from knowing our own history, women are forced to re-invent feminism every generation. Taking clues from interwar USA (1918 - 1939), we see the reason women today have abandoned feminism, or endorsed other women’s claims they’re not female at all, might lie in The Professional Neutral.

Nancy F. Cott’s illuminating 1987 book, The Grounding of Modern Feminism, shows how this has happened before. During the First Wave, when feminists achieved success in their fight for women’s entry into traditionally male-only professions (medicine, law, academia, journalism, etc.), the newcomers were encouraged to forget that they were women.

Already in the 1880s, one of the few female lawyers in the US argued with others:

“Do not take sex into the practice… Don’t be ‘lady lawyers.’ Simply be lawyers, and recognize no distinction-no existence of any distinction between yourselves and the other members of the bar [men].”

Ignoring one’s own sex was supposed to bring liberation and acclaim: “This will be your surest way to that forgetfulness of self which will give you freedom to achieve success.”

While at the end of the 19th century potential female professionals still disputed whether or not their careers should be about helping the whole of womanhood in a feminist sense, in the interwar era, such arguments practically disappeared.

Instead, feminism fell out of fashion. As Cott mentions, the general spirit of the interwar times, expressed here by Doris Fleischmann, a pioneer in the public relations field, was decidedly post-feminist:

“It is not so long since the feminist movement broke down the barriers that kept women from occupational fields which men had regarded as exclusively their own. Today there are few pursuits which women do not follow with more or less success. The opportunities are almost unlimited.”

Instead of feminism, women of the interwar era were converted to see the professional ethos as a way to liberation. Meant to be based on scientific principles, women upheld the hope that, under professionalism, “individual merit would be judged according to objective and verifiable standards,” ensuring sex-neutrality, and impersonality, therefore fairness, of the system.

From the point of view of today, we could say that the 19th century’s invention of professionalism successfully neutralized the feminist enemy. For instance, in the 1920s, Margaret Kemper Adams warned women that feminism would impede them in their career. “The rabid feminist or anti-feminist, whether man or woman,” she claimed, “will not be a useful member of a professional group, and will come to seem more than a little archaic.”

“Don’t be ‘lady lawyers.’ Simply be lawyers.”


Of course, The Professional Neutral, being a patriarchal myth, didn’t bring women liberation. Taking female doctors as an example, when their numbers peaked in the late 19th century, according to Cott they constituted only around 14 to 19 percent of all US physicians. And even such low numbers would go further down. In Boston, the proportion of female physicians fell from 18.2% in 1900 to 8.7%; in Minneapolis from 19.3% in 1900 to 7% in 1930, and other major cities saw a similar trend.

Academia experienced an analogous peak followed by a decline in women’s participation, although the fall came a few years later than in the field of medicine. According to Cott:

“In the 1910s the proportion of women among faculty members rose especially sharply, increasing by about one-third to almost 30 percent of the whole. But after the late 1920s all the numerical indices of women’s progress in academia leveled or dropped off, including the proportion of college students who were female, the proportion of PhDs, and the proportion of faculty members.”

The relatively small numbers of women in the professions compared to men were not the only indication of The Professional Neutral being a sham. Once some women were able to enter their desired occupations, instead of sex-neutrality they faced sex-discrimination. Despite such breaches of promise, the majority of women professionals could not or would not see that The Professional Neutral was a lie.

Instead, they chose to deny, work harder, blame themselves, use magical thinking, or hope for a better future.

In terms of denial, Cott mentions “newspaperwomen” as particularly prone to this strategy. When asked about sex discrimination in a 1918 survey, only 12 out of 51 respondents were willing to answer a question comparing men’s and women’s chances to “get the big story.”

“One editorial writer for Boston Record replied to the question whether newspapermen discriminated against their female colleagues, ‘certainly not. Newspaper men are usually over the average of intelligence. Nowadays that sort of question is absurd.’”

More easily overlooked in journalism, the ladder ranking system of academia made the lack of women’s professional progress quantifiable, and therefore, clearer. In Cott’s words:

“A study by the American Association of University Professors’ Committee W in 1920 showed that only 4% of full professorships in coeducational institutions were held by women, and if the field of home economics were excluded, women held less than 3%.”

Such clarity put denial out of many female academics’ portfolios. Unwilling to question The Professional Neutral, some went the way of self-sacrifice. As Cott says:

“Even those professional women who admitted or protested that sex discrimination was rife, tended to accept the burden of proof on themselves, maintaining that redoubling their efforts, working hard, and downplaying rather than emphasizing the fact that they were female, their professional achievements might outshine their sex.”

Such strategy of over-qualification resulted in almost 72 percent of female scientists obtaining doctorates in 1921, compared to 58 percent of the men.

Passing on denial and overwork, other women chose the strategy of self-blame. In a decidedly “Lean-In” manner, a law “fraternity” (sorority) representative claimed in 1928, “Women’s chief problem is within themselves.” She added:

“They may possess the training and ability to make decisions in connection with their work, whether professional or business, and yet they will not, as a general rule, take the responsibility of making such decisions, and instead of acting on these questions or problems independently and receiving proper recognition, they take their suggestions to their superiors for approval.”

Beside woman-blaming, this lawyer also displayed magical thinking, another common strategy interwar women used to deal with the false promise of sex-neutrality:

“If they [the women] will only ignore that prejudice, discuss their work and hopes of progress in it with their masculine associates on the assumption that no possible prejudice exists in their particular line of work, they frequently will discover that their masculine associates forget it too.”

In other words, by a change of thinking, the women were supposed to telepathically change their male colleagues’ minds as well.

In a combination of self-sacrifice, magical thinking, and another strategy - hope for a better future, Elizabeth Kemper Adams, in her 1921 study of women professional workers, claimed that women could overcome discrimination

“by displaying professional competence and tenacity of a high order and by refusing to accept either privileges or disabilities on the ground of sex. In the long run, they will succeed in proportion to the extent to which they meet professional standards as workers and citizens and not as women.”

The misguided hope that The Professional Neutral system, like a seed, just needs time to take before it bears its fruit, could also be found in the words of Doris Fleischman. She believed men would recognize the error of their anti-woman thinking when professional women persuaded them of their worth “through intelligent handling of problems, and not by slaying the dragon of anti-feminism.”

“The woman lawyer of 1950 will be regarded solely in her professional capacity.”


In a statement that now sounds tragicomic, Judge Jean Hortense Norris prophesied in the 1920s that in 25 years no woman would face sex-discrimination at work: “the woman lawyer of 1950 will be regarded solely in her professional capacity.”

As we can see, to survive in the male-led professional world, women in the interwar USA used similar strategies to females all over the world today. Even “forgetting one’s sex” was on the menu. You could argue that the advice was not meant literally. And, that contrary to the present “utopia,” at least our ancestors didn’t actually believe they were not women. Turns out you would be wrong.

Pauli Murray

Pauli Murray (1910 – 1985), a mixed-race activist, feminist, lawyer, poet, and author who later in life became episcopal priest, believed for at least 30 years of her life that she was male.

Pauli grew up a “tomboy,” hanging out with boys and refusing to do “women’s chores.” According to Rosalind Rosenberg in her book Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray, she preferred chopping wood to sewing and cooking. Such gender non-conformity was, later in her life, followed by occasional “cross dressing,” the desire for a non-stereotypically female career, and being sexually attracted to women.

However, when Pauli Murray realized she liked women and was repulsed by sex with men, she remained adamant she couldn’t be homosexual. Her reasons? She was attracted to very feminine women, liked to wear pants, disliked going to bars, and yearned for a monogamous relationship.

Having no internet to sway her, she became persuaded she was male in a library. After spending some time reading books by anthropologists and sexologists who claimed sex was a spectrum, she started to believe she might be a “pseudo-hermaphrodite.” This term, coined by sexologist Havelock Ellis, described “people who might appear to be female and yet possess testes secreted within their bodies.” Despite the fact that physicians looked for male glands hidden in her body and didn’t find any, Murray couldn’t let go of the idea.

“She did not think that the professors ignored her deliberately. Her lighter voice, she believed was the culprit.”


Additionally, by reading books on sex hormones, she concluded that by ingesting testosterone, she could “become more male.” However, in the interwar USA, she couldn’t find an endocrinologist who would prescribe her the hormones.

Murray’s reasons to desire a “transition” sound similar to those of women today. Besides preferring to have been born a “pseudo-hermaphrodite” to being a lesbian, another reason Pauli Murray wished to take male hormones was to get a deep, manly voice. When she joined Howard Law School in the 1930s, she was the only woman at the institution. As such, she often found herself ignored by the lecturers. “No matter how well prepared she might be or how often she raised her hand, the professors rarely called on her,” writes Rosalind Rosenberg in Murray’s biography.

Just as other female professionals of that time, the experience of sex-discrimination didn’t make Pauli Murray question the validity of The Professional Neutral. According to Rosenberg:

“She did not think that the professors ignored her deliberately. Her lighter voice, she believed was the culprit. In the back and forth of the classroom, ‘the men’s deeper voices’ obliterated ‘my lighter voice, and my classmates seemed to take it for granted that I had nothing to contribute.’”

Denied going the way of changing her body, Murray chose the strategy of overwork and despite all the obstacles, soon found herself at the head of the class. Later in life, she gave up on the idea of being a man altogether and on January 8, 1977 was ordained to the priesthood as the first woman in the Episcopal Church. She is now celebrated as Saint Pauli Murray on July 1st, the date of her death in 1985.

The Present

If the future Saint Pauli Murray and other ambitious women of the interwar era had had access to hormones and surgeries, I believe that, just as women in the present, many would have preferred body alteration to the indignity of sex-discrimination.

It is mostly due to the progress in technology that women of today have added to our strategies of dealing with the falsely sex-neutral society the means of medical intervention.

In terms of the interwar tools mentioned above, women of today still use them, while some of these strategies have expanded to include subcategories. Therefore, using magical thinking can now mean you self-identify as a non-woman (e.g. non-binary) and expect it will, miraculously, make people blind to your sex.

Self-blame, in turn, has in recent times expanded to include blaming your mental illness. A woman using this approach could therefore believe her lack of professional success is due to her diagnosis of depression, anxiety, PTSD, ADHD, Asperger’s, etc. Additionally, diagnoses can be used to avoid unfavorable working conditions, for example by claiming: “I can’t work in an open office because of my ADHD.”

Just to be clear, I do NOT say that we make our mental illnesses up to avoid work. On the contrary: I believe many of us use our real diagnoses to avoid truly unfavorable conditions. Just as with other strategies, we grab for them, mostly subconsciously, as in patriarchy it is more acceptable for a woman to say “I have ADHD” than assert her will or say she has needs.

A Neutral Skin

The version of patriarchy women deal with at present is just a variation on the same old system. Neither The Professional Neutral nor The Sex-Neutral has ever been thoroughly debunked. Instead, the myth of neutrality is now being etched into women’s skins. Looking at the distressing field of “non-binary cosmetic surgery,” we can see how a “neutral woman” is constructed.

Female clients of a Californian clinic can choose their perfect post double-mastectomy look. They have the liberty to decide whether non-binaryness means having nipples grafted to their “new chest” or discarding their old nipples in their entirety. Additionally, they have the freedom of choice to say what shape of a post-mastectomy scar appeals to their neutral selves. Curiously, it is a man who gets to define the “ideal non-binary chest,” which, according to Dr. Mosser, a surgeon at this clinic, looks disturbingly close to the one of a male East-Asian child.

When magical thinking centered on non-binaryness fails, whether it includes throwing away nipples or not, a woman of today can still go the way of full medical intervention.

“Now that I am a man, people listen to me when I talk.”


Although (or because) it is physically mutilating, the strategy of disguising as a male seems to be the only one truly working to battle sex-discrimination, as attested by women who successfully pretend they are men with the help of hormones and/or surgeries (“trans men”).

Consider these statements by such females in a 2020 survey by the European Commission:

“[On returning to work after transitioning] during the very first meeting I went to as a male employee instead of a female one, when it was my turn to talk, I started to talk and the whole room got quiet. I literally turned around and looked behind me to see what all of these people were looking at and listening to, because I’d never experienced before the feeling of being looked at and listened to in a meeting.”
“Now that I am a man, people listen to me when I talk. In particular when they do not know that I am trans. It is a very sexist thing. I always try to use this position to valorise female colleagues, etc. I am not harassed anymore in the street; I can get angry without being told that I am hysterical […]”

Further, the authors of the study describe other trans-identified females’ experiences:

“One trans man shared his [sic] realisation that he had formerly been held back in his career by sexism. He described how he ‘instantly started making more money’ and ‘leaped forward five years in experience’ in the eyes of others following his transition.

Similarly, another trans man experienced ‘the type of discrimination that girls face in a man’s world’ in the workplace before transitioning, but now is viewed as more capable by his colleagues and is paid more.”

In keeping with The Gender Neutral times, authors of the European Commission’s study (called Legal Gender Recognition in the EU), do not connect the dots between sexism and women’s desire to disguise themselves as men. As professionals, they avoid the question of sex-discrimination or feminism as the plague. After all, those “trans men” are definitely, certainly, not female. And if their sex is neutralized, sex-discrimination is neutralized as well.

In fact, the only discrimination a neutral (“neuter”) woman can experience is connected to abstract symbols, e.g. signs on toilet doors or language. Thus, when a female is called “darling,” or “babe” at work, she objects because such speech fails to reflect her Gender Neutrality (“misgenders'' her), not because it’s sexist.

Convenient, right? Contrary to the interwar era, when feminism was neutralized, the patriarchal arch-enemies, women, are now being neutralized as well. And, as patriarchs now full well, without human females, there can be no feminism.

This brings us back to the initial question: Why are many prominent women professionals going along with this erasure?

For those women among the few to have succeeded in the falsely neutral professional world, there are many reasons to believe in the veracity of the system. Although, in fact, a token, you can claim the cause of your prominence is “you’re just that good.” And, as we’ve seen above, there’s just a step from believing in The Sex-Neutral to worshipping The Gender Neutral.

After all, as Saint Pauli Murray preached on the day of her ordination:

“Now I was empowered to minister the sacrament of One [Jesus] in whom there is no north or south, no black or white, no male or female – only the spirit of love and reconciliation drawing us all toward the goal of human wholeness.”

Thus, in becoming One with Jesus, Pauli Murray finally found the embrace of The Sex-Neutral she has always been denied.

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Dana Vitalosova

Writer, editor, proofreader based in Slovakia.