Like many New Yorkers, I grew up without an intimate relationship with an automobile. Some of the aunts and uncles had cars, so you might say that I had a sort of in-law relationship of the automotive variety.
And then there was Betsy, the chubby, used, navy blue Ford that was attached to our household very briefly.
I was so enamored of Betsy the moment I laid my eight-year-old eyes on her that my parents let me have the honor of naming her. Meant to ease my father’s lengthy work commute on public transportation, the car was with us for only a few months until illness took my father out of work, and Betsy was sold to someone who could not possibly have appreciated her.
I was and remain a staunch advocate for public transportation (which I think should be mostly free, but that’s another story). Still, I have always been fascinated by cars. In elementary school, I was the only one among my girlfriends who could identify a car by its silhouette or grillework. I was irritated at being slotted into home economics for junior high school shop class, not because I disliked sewing and cooking, but because the boys got to work with tools. We girls, on the other hand, learned how to make orange ambrosia, a task which consisted of slicing oranges and sprinkling them prettily with powdered sugar and coconut.
However, despite gendered shop classes, the plethora of jokes about women drivers, and the decades of advertising presenting women as automotive accessories rather than automobile owners, I was not alone in my enthusiasm. Even as generations of girls were consigned to orange ambrosia, the relationship between women and their cars was slyly recognized in popular culture — where Aretha cruised in her pink Cadillac, Janis yearned for a Mercedes-Benz, Reba wanted to ride around with you, and the little old lady from Pasadena tended her flowers when she wasn’t busy tearing up Colorado Boulevard in her super stock Dodge.
The connection between women and cars goes way back to the first days of the horseless carriage. In the summer of 1888, Bertha Benz, wife of German engineer Karl Benz, became the first person to complete a long-distance trip by automobile. With her two teenage sons accompanying her, she took off on 60-mile trip to visit her mother — without letting Karl know beforehand. Making needed repairs along the way, she arrived safely, and returned home using a different route a few days later, garnering massive publicity for her husband’s invention. Today, according to history.com, “Motorists can travel the 120-mile long Bertha Benz Memorial Route, which follows the path of her historic trip.”
As was the case with an another set of wheels — the bicycle — in the 1880s and 1890s, the car was seen by women’s rights proponents as a tool for opening the world to women. Susan B. Anthony wrote in 1896, “Bicycling has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I …rejoice every time I see a woman ride….It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.”
After about 1910, activists used cars in political rallies to project an image of purpose, responsibility and liberation, often decking out “suffrage cars” with banners and driving them in caravans to rallies around the country.
During that same period, the new medium of film portrayed women’s independence by showing real actresses driving real cars. The first “Women’s Motoring Club” was founded in 1909 and soon sponsored the first all-women’s auto race. From the beginning, women also had their hands in automotive technology. In 1903, American inventor Mary Anderson was granted a patent for windshield wipers. A few years later, silent film star Florence Lawrence developed the precursors to today’s brake lights and turn signals and, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, by 1923, over 175 patents were granted to women for inventions related to automobile equipment and accessories.
Still, suspicion of women’s mobility and freedom meant that anything having to do with the automobile — from advertising to employment in the industry — remained highly gendered for nearly a century. Now, however, women purchase 60 percent of all new cars, and 53 percent of used cars, and are estimated to influence 80 percent of buying decisions. A 2012 study from the University of Michigan reports that, while women were less than 40 percent of drivers in 1963, they are now over 50 percent. Cleary, the days are gone when matters automotive could be gendered “male.”
Of course, Americans’ love affair with the car has had terrible downsides. But the fouling of our air, the pollution of our landscapes with gargantuan billboards (so as not to be missed at higher driving speeds), the bifurcation of communities by officials enamored of massive highway projects, are the results of human engineering and policy decisions. If the suffragists of a century ago could envision the automobile as an instrument of responsibility, equality and self-reliance — rather than a badge of status and testosterone —I think it’s time that we went back to the future, automotively speaking.
(An earlier version of this article appeared in the New Haven Register.)
© Rhea Hirshman 2015