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Women at the Wheel

Women at the Wheel explores women's historical experience with automobiles. Katherine Parkin argues that in every regard, from learning to drive to repairing cars, from being a passenger to taking the wheel, women had a distinct experience with cars in American culture.

Women at the Wheel
A Century of Buying, Driving, and Fixing Cars

Katherine J. Parkin

2017 | 272 pages | Cloth $34.95
American History / Cultural Studies
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Table of Contents

Preface. Driving in Circles
Chapter 1. Learning to Drive
Chapter 2. Buying a Car
Chapter 3. Driving a Car
Chapter 4. Caring for a Car
Chapter 5. The Car and Identity
Epilogue. Nouveau Riche Pretenders

List of Abbreviations

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Driving in Circles

Living in the suburbs in the late 1950s, author Betty Friedan preserved her writing time by having a taxi transport her children to school. Friedan realized that driving did not free her from the yoke of domesticity she so famously exposed in her classic, The Feminine Mystique. Instead, she recognized that for most women the car was principally a tool in service of the type of never-ending domestic work expected of them. Not only did women not find liberation on the road, but they also found themselves targeted by spurious stereotypes of "women drivers." These myths, including a belief that women were excessively cautious, spatially inept, and fundamentally incompetent drivers, persisted with little change over the course of automobile history.

Yet at the same time, in spite of these negative associations, women needed cars. The country's shift to the suburbs, facilitated by the emergence and eventual dominance of the automobile, meant that women had to go out and get products and services once delivered to the home. While one historian contended that driving "represented liberation from the household," home economist Christine Frederick noted that moving to the countryside meant that in addition to all of the farm production she was responsible for, she also had to serve as a chauffeuse. Most women discovered that to facilitate everything from daily milk delivery to doctor's care, they needed to drive. Their work also included taking their husbands to the train or their jobs and their children to school and activities. Across the century, even those women with the means to drive did so almost entirely in service of their domestic responsibilities and identities.

Most twentieth-century white, middle-class, American women found their lives defined by domesticity, and the use of their car principally affirmed their gender identity. Friedan's decision to pay someone to drive her children to school reflects the insights she brought to bear on a nascent feminist movement. Few have questioned, as Friedan did, the value of having women spending hours behind the wheel chauffeuring their husbands to work and their children to school, practices, and lessons. Yet women discovered that driving mirrored their other domestic responsibilities, as it was structured around others' needs, it was rote, and it was never-ending. For millions of women, their experience with the car fundamentally differed from that of men. The car was for most men an assertion of masculine identity, predicated on power, control, and freedom. Even when men drove in more mundane circumstances, ferrying their families or driving to work, their ownership and default position behind the wheel of the car left them with more authority than women could generally assert.

Most women found their legitimacy as drivers compromised by a cultural expectation that placed men in the driver's seat and relegated women to the passenger side of the car whenever both were present. The cultural representations of men's control of cars served to dissuade women from assuming an identity as a driver. Women's historical association with the car, therefore, was primarily as a passenger or as a driver in service of their work as wives and mothers. The number of women who found independence when they slid behind the wheel was relatively small.

In part because of their customary role as passenger, some women also found themselves vulnerable to men who had control of an automobile and whisked them away from the watchful eyes of their families and communities. Moving beyond the front porch or the neighborhood created both opportunity and vulnerability for women. From their earliest experiences with cars, young women were taught to be wary of men, especially those offering rides or assistance. Cautioned about the risks of predators and the "devil wagon," most women, into the twenty-first century, had a much more circumscribed automotive experience than men.

One need only look at the language used to describe drivers. In the nineteenth century, a professional woman who challenged gender expectations and entered a male field received a gendered title, such as "doctress" or "lawyeress." As women took the wheel when automobiles emerged in the late 1890s, however, no new word emerged to describe them. With the introduction of mass production and the growing embrace of cars in the early 1900s, both men and women became known as "drivers." A gender-neutral identity was possible, but instead the language that emerged identified women with a gendered qualifier. They were "woman drivers," "lady drivers," or "female drivers," with a host of pernicious assumptions surrounding them. Conversely, we see no deployment of terms such as "man drivers," "gentleman drivers," or "male drivers." Even in countless newspaper and magazine accounts of men causing automobile accidents, the gender qualifier did not appear. While the novelty of women driving dissipated over time, the desire to delineate who was driving and demean women with these monikers persisted into the twenty-first century.

Contemporaries of the first women to drive cars generally did not consider their actions significant, or even positive. More than a dozen men laid claim to being the inventor of the American automobile, dating to 1893, and countless more sought acknowledgment as the first to break driving records for speed and distance. Before the emergence of the women's movement in the 1960s and 1970s, however, few women celebrated their vehicular accomplishments as the first American woman to drive a car, be licensed, or drive long distances. While some have imagined the role of cars as transformative, in truth cars only offered women "a wider range of possibility in their everyday lives."

Indeed, it was a man who made one of the earliest claims of a woman behind the wheel. Automobile inventor and manufacturer Elwood Haynes proclaimed that his secretary, Mary Landon, had been the first woman ever to drive, in 1899. Businessmen like Haynes needed to grow the number of drivers nationally; into the 1920s, only a small percentage of women drove.

His story line was clear: Driving is so easy and safe that even women have historically done it, and he either resurrected or created a story about Landon's adventure. Highlighting Landon in 1928, though, also revealed how short-lived her automotive independence was, as she no longer drove and had not even owned a car for twenty years.

Driver's licenses also helped establish the identities of early women drivers. Life magazine ran an article in 1952 on the woman they claimed had been the first to be licensed in Washington, D.C., Anne Rainsford French. The author praised French's independence motoring a steam car in 1900 but noted that she stopped driving in 1903 when she married. After living without a car for ten years, when the couple did finally acquire one, French's husband proclaimed to her and their children, "Driving is a man's business. Women shouldn't get soiled by machinery." The article, ostensibly written to demonstrate that French was a woman of accomplishment, concluded that in response to her husband's contention that cars were only for men, the capitol's first licensed female driver replied meekly, "Yes, Walter." Even in a popular national magazine's article on the significance of early women drivers, the underlying message to readers was that women should not identify with the car as a source of pride or freedom.

This type of backhanded acclaim pervaded the attention accorded to early women drivers. As Kokomo, Indiana, residents celebrated their centennial in 1965, they revived the claim that Mary Landon was the first woman driver. A newspaper article celebrating her history and participation in the festivities, however, still concluded that the explanation for her revolutionary turn behind the wheel stemmed from the fact that she was "tricked into it" by Haynes. Even as the local media granted Landon recognition and thought her story newsworthy, they simultaneously characterized her as "duped into driving."

As with Landon, it was only on the fifty-year anniversary of Alice Ramsey's pioneering 1909 cross-country adventure that people began to credit her, as well. The trip from New York to San Francisco had also been a promotional affair for the Maxwell-Briscoe car company. Traveling with three female companions, a young friend and her husband's two sisters, Ramsey drove nearly 4,000 miles, heralding the ease with which even a woman could handle the car and its reliability over thousands of miles and difficult terrain. The 1909 journey of "Mrs. John R. Ramsey," a married, wealthy woman, generated only a handful of small notices appearing in local papers en route and a few longer pieces celebrating the launch and Ramsey's triumphant arrival on the West Coast. Ramsey's more extensive media coverage began in the late twentieth century when the visually driven media relished the wonderful pictures of Ramsey in her duster, accompanied by brief stories that heralded a pioneer whose husband did not like to drive and acknowledged that she had left behind her year-old son to undertake the trip. Accounts of the trip still maintained a fiction about her single-handed ability to manage repairs and navigation, relying principally on her own 1961 account of her trip, written more than fifty years after the fact.

Newspaper and magazine articles, and even obituaries in the 1960s and 1970s, touted the accomplishments of early female drivers, perhaps inspired by the feminist movement that was asking of history, "What was her story?" In addition to highlighting national figures, local papers began to feature the first women to drive, maybe not in the country or across the country, but certainly in their town or city. The 1961 obituary of Frances Senteney Carey, for example, proclaimed that she "was the first woman to drive an automobile in Hutchinson, Kansas." These later twentieth-century accounts uncovered women's early embrace of the automobile and positioned them as progressive and accomplished. Second-wave celebrants touted women's heroism in asserting their equality in this new arena.

Most women, however, did not find dignity and independence in driving. Any attempts to develop their automotive acumen and disrupt the prejudice against them challenged cultural definitions of women's gender and sexual identity. The evidence suggests that the only kind of woman believed to be good at driving or repairing a car would be one without a man. The phenomenon of women taking the wheel could have been empowering, as many proved their mettle as drivers and mechanics, but in spite of occasional celebratory reflections, the broadest, most frequent response to women driving has been mockery and dismissal. For most women, characterized as terrible drivers, harping passengers, and naïve mechanics, the car represented not freedom and power but only the likelihood of ridicule. The emergence of the car, therefore, led to an expectation across the century that women would buy cars, drive them, and fix them, but not be good at any of it. Even as the car became an increasingly important part of American life, women found themselves isolated on the fringes of this national obsession.

Automobiles became a defining aspect of American culture and identity, and the many stereotypes that existed adapted to drivers and passengers. Just as the public and the police made reflexive conclusions about cars and drivers based on race, so too has the nation made parallel assumptions based on gender. A quick glance informed attitudes about the motivations and aptitudes of those at the wheel.

Women have often been behind the wheel, but when it comes to directing the cultural conversation, men have done the driving. This story of American automotive history reveals a long-standing pattern of according men respect and women disdain. When it came to automobiles, people continuously evaluated cars and drivers on the basis of their gender. One of the earliest assumptions came with the early contest for supremacy waged among inventors of steam, electric, and gasoline cars.

The conceit that women only drove electric cars persisted even though historians have only a loose grasp on how many people of either sex drove, and even less on what kind of car, in the first decades of the twentieth century. Historian Clay McShane found in his analysis of early 1900s car registrations that "women owners preferred more powerful, heavier cars." While historian Virginia Scharff contended that advertisements in the first two decades of the century targeted electric cars to women, it is not evident that women predominated in driving electric cars or that women forsook steam or gasoline cars. The suggestion that men only drove gas cars and women only drove electric cars inaugurated a mythical belief in gendered automotive preferences.

While various automobile models vied for dominance in the early years, including the long-forgotten steam cars, Henry Ford's introduction of the gas-powered Model T in 1908 led to a staggering rate of adoption in the United States. In 1900, there were about 8,000 registered automobiles. Historian James D. Norris discovered that, by as early as 1910, the automobile had moved beyond a "passing fad or an expensive plaything for the rich." By 1923, more than half of the nearly 23.5 million American families owned an automobile, far more than paid federal income tax or owned a telephone. According to historian Margaret Walsh, "Those who owned these vehicles were likely to be white and middle-class. Only small percentages of minority families owned cars." In the middle of the Depression, in 1935-36, 15 percent of African American families had a car, as compared to 59 percent of white families.

Still, understanding that the American driver was most likely to be white and have reached the middle class does not reveal women's relationship to the number of cars produced, automobile registrations, number of licensed drivers, or what analysts call VMT, Vehicle Miles Traveled. Walsh points to women's embrace of the car, noting their pleasure in it and asserting its importance to them. In a 1920 interview, one woman explained her family's decision to buy a car before installing indoor plumbing: "Why, you can't go to town in a bathtub." While we know, too, that African Americans drove, including women like cosmetics entrepreneur Madame C. J. Walker, who used the car to both acquire and showcase their wealth, their relatively small numbers left a historical record with little trace of their role in shaping the automobile experience.

While it is nearly impossible to know how many women were car owners and drivers, the historical record suggests miniscule numbers that grew slowly across the first half of the twentieth century. Breaking down the larger population into likely owners is revealing. According to a 1921 report in the Automotive Manufacturer, only 5 percent of native-born, white men of voting age owned a car in 1912. Even by 1920, only 42 percent of those Americans imagined to have had a car, wealthy, white adult men, apparently did so. Analyzing these numbers, informed by women's relatively smaller population, compounded by their reduced social and financial power, it becomes clear that driving a car persisted as being an exceptional activity for women. A 1920 article in the Literary Digest found 15,000 women licensed to drive in New Jersey. With a total population greater than three million, this made women drivers a mere half a percent of all drivers in New Jersey in 1920. While the author extrapolated to imagine about 300,000 female drivers nationwide, the social map of the United States—with many western states such as Wyoming and Nevada boasting populations with 10, 15, and 20 percent more men than women, and with much more rural, unpaved terrain—does not support this conclusion. Still, increasing suburbanization, greater affordability and accessibility of the car, and women's growing public responsibilities all led to increasing numbers of women drivers, and by 1963, the ratio of male-to-female licensed drivers stood at 60:40. The numbers then accelerated rapidly, with the number of women drivers growing 39 percent between 1980 and 2000. By 2012, there were more women than men licensed as drivers in the United States for the first time.

Across the automotive age, images and stories of women and cars filled internal industry newsletters, automotive periodicals, and popular media. What may have seemed a universal experience is revealed to have been a distinctive one for women. From their earliest efforts to learn to drive to their attempts to secure driver's licenses, women generally found taking control of cars to be fraught with aspersions of their competency and appearance. Automobile companies used magazines and advertisements to shape the discourse. In the process, they played two opposing roles, seeking both to legitimate women as car enthusiasts and to reify men as "natural" drivers.

The next step for women, after learning to drive and securing their licenses, was to acquire a car to drive. Most automotive companies expressed continual surprise when they discovered evidence of women's economic power, and they consistently approached women as a narrowly defined, monolithic market they could ignore. This reveals an inherent contradiction: Although automobile companies did occasionally seek out female consumers, their fundamental inclination was to ignore them. This pattern is perhaps easiest to understand at the point of purchase. Women buying an automobile did so in a decidedly male space and, into the twenty-first century, faced a consistently uninterested reaction from the salesmen. While other industries that sought female customers invested money in women's media, car companies were reluctant to do so. Only designating paltry advertising budgets of 3 percent or less and creating intimidating, sexist showrooms hampered the already limited number of marketing approaches the automotive industry believed key to winning women's business.

Many auto enthusiasts and companies then and now condescended to women by crediting them with making cars more comfortable and practical, but, in truth, throughout the car's evolution people always sought to improve the car. From the complex, wide-ranging efforts to create the car itself, to the continuing endeavor to make the best car possible, there has been a constant quest for improvement. Windshield wipers, heaters, turn signals, and seat belts emerged, not because women demanded it but because competition for consumers of both sexes inspired it. As exceptions became the rule, more innovative features developed to further improve the automotive experience. Often initially attributed to women, once unique, significant technological developments quickly became de rigueur for a modern automobile.

Driving a car was perhaps the most visible way that someone was identified as a "woman driver." Women faced the reality that although driving a car could offer freedom, real and perceived vulnerability also shaped their driving experience. From the day-to-day concerns of seeking out gasoline stations with "Rest Rooms" to the prospect of facing sexual violence in cars, women's experiences behind the wheel shaped their national experience as drivers. Beyond their individual driving experiences, women also faced the perennial question, asked from the earliest days of automobility: Who were the better drivers, women or men? This question permeated the debate and helped perpetuate the myth of men's superiority. Unlike other racial and ethnic assertions of inferiority that became gauche and self-evidently false, it remained acceptable, for more than one hundred years, to persist in asking the gendered question of who was better. Moreover, the question principally served to continually assert that men were superior drivers, in spite of evidence to the contrary.

While we might imagine maintaining a car historically to have been men's work, women in the first decades of the twentieth century quickly found themselves responsible for their family's car care. Solicitous companies assured women that taking care of a car was just like taking care of a child, with the presumption that this type of knowledge was "natural." In general, though, the small number of women who mastered their own cars' mechanical makeup discovered that they risked their femininity. For most women, tasked with selecting a garage to perform the work and knowing what services and costs were appropriate, they discovered that they were rarely afforded respect even in their quest to find others to care for the car.

Although the culture featured a number of stereotypes regarding women and cars, one of the most enduring associations concerned identity. Americans considered the car to be female, regularly referring to the automobile as a "her" and "she," adorning the car with feminine markers, and sometimes naming it. The car's female identity, then, gave rise to a number of unexpected outcomes, including the love and even lust that men, in particular, felt for their cars. With both women and cars having bodies, car talk often blurred the lines between the two.

In spite of the many changes in women's lives, the historical evidence reveals a significant continuity of cultural and behavioral impulses regarding American women's experience with cars. Patriarchal attitudes and assumptions of male superiority continue to dominate our understanding of the car and inform our study of history. By focusing their analyses on changing trends, historians have underappreciated the permanencies of ideological power in American culture. Automobiles offer an opportunity to analyze the ways this power has been wielded to great effect. Principally looking for change over time in such attitudes obscures their longevity. Asking different questions about women's experiences offers insights into what it was like for women at the wheel.

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