Mothers and the Model T


In my last post, I started a series on the different ways men and women travel. The disparities are many, and go back a long way; after all, Eve and not Adam took the first family grocery-shopping trip, and Noah, not his anonymous wife, built and drove the first recorded vehicle.

In the days of the walking city, women (at least middle- and upper-class women) largely stayed close to home; walking long distances down filthy, chaotic, and dangerous streets was simply seen as unladylike.

The 19th century saw changes in the economy, in society and in culture which reinforced this. Thanks to industrialization, work, which throughout human history had largely been performed inside the home, moved out to physically separate worksites. At the same time, suburbanization, accelerated by transportation technologies like the horsecar and streetcar, located residences further and further from those workplaces.

As work and home spaces bifurcated, the world outside the home — the rough-and-tumble seat of public affairs, commerce, and recreation, as well as work — was seen more and more as male terrain. Home and hearth — clean, safe, and pure — were perceived as the woman’s world.

As the historian Clay McShane argues, these views were intensified by a deep sense of male insecurity brought about by the mass-production system, the deskilling of manufacturing, and the shift of men into less “manly” white-collar work. Men also felt threatened by increasing education and employment for women. These factors redoubled male efforts to wall off the space outside the home as their own. Men traveled to that domain. Women did not.

The introduction of the automobile promised to provide women with a means of mobility that could change this situation. But despite the adventures of early female auto pioneers like Emily Post, from the start the car was overwhelmingly a male preserve.

Men responded to creeping insecurity by attempting to claim mechanical and athletic prowess as their exclusive realm. Auto operation and maintenance were perceived as requiring both. Women were seen as too nervous, overcautious, slow, emotional, and physically weak to drive, despite early studies showing they had half the accident rate of men. These perceptions were reinforced by the male-dominated media.

Economic factors were important as well. In the early years cars were an expensive luxury. Few households owned two. In one-car homes access to the family auto fell to the male head of the household for his commute trip.

More women began to find their way into autos after the self-starter banished the hand-crank. However, even then the gains were surprisingly small. The barriers to women driving were not primarily physical; in fact, the hand crank actually did not require much strength. But operating it was perceived as unfeminine, in keeping with the other psychological, sociological, economic, and cultural taboos that kept women off the roads.

The bottom line is that in the first decades after the auto was introduced, women behind the wheel were quite a rarity. In 1909 only 9.1 percent of Maryland car owners were women; in New Hampshire in 1911 the figure was 4.8 percent. And probably many of these (presumably wealthy) women had male chauffeurs. In 1917 only 8 percent of Massachusetts drivers and 15 percent of the drivers in Los Angeles were women.

Women of the era were unlikely to even get licensed. A 1969 study found that even at that late date, only 20 percent of women who reached driving age before 1916 held a driver’s license, as opposed to 62 percent of men. Thus prejudices from the very first years of the automobile era powerfully impacted American travel behavior for decades.

When women did drive, they faced a peculiar set of obstacles. Ridicule was frequent, etiquette books laid down exacting rules on how to drive in a feminine manner (low speeds and chaperones were highly recommended), husbands often forbade their wives and daughters from driving, and there were even political movements to ban female driving altogether.

And if women in the driver’s seat caused controversy, women in the back seat did so too. The privacy and freedom of the auto caused hand-wringing due to the license it permitted to courting teens and young adults.

Women would, of course, begin to find their way behind the wheel in greater numbers. As transportation scholar Martin Wachs has chronicled, in the 1920’s auto manufacturers began to fear they were reaching a saturation point where every home owned at least one auto. To sell families second cars, marketing efforts were targeted at women. However, old stereotypes were slow to die; ads meant for female consumption focused on the superficial aspects of cars (color, styling, upholstery). Ads aimed at men focused on mechanical characteristics and performance.

When the second car did arrive it promised women freedom and the chance to escape the home, but much of this promise did not materialize. Cars were pitched as essential tools for motherhood and homemaking. New household maintenance and child-serving trips materialized, limiting the technology’s emancipatory potential.

Still, as we know, over time gender equality in transportation did grow. In concert with other changes in our society — women moving into the workplace, more female-headed households, the dissemination of birth control — women’s travel behavior has to a large degree converged with men’s. But by how much? And are the differences that remain disappearing? Why or why not? And should we care? More on this next time.


"walking long distances down filthy, chaotic, and dangerous streets was simply seen as unladylike"

And dangerous. Walking around the London of the 1700s could get a girl killed, and by Dickens' day, things weren't a great deal better.

And you've not driven an antique car. There's no power steering, and the hand crank did require a certain amount of upper body strength.

But you left out bicycles--the woman's first self-powered means to freedom.


"However, old stereotypes were slow to die; ads meant for female consumption focused on the superficial aspects of cars (color, styling, upholstery). Ads aimed at men focused on mechanical characteristics and performance."

Women have obviously gained so much more freedom and equality since then, unfortunately those old stereotypes still aren't dead. If you want to experience it first hand, just try to buy a car as a single woman. I went to about three different dealerships, and at every single one, all the dealer could talk about was the color, the trunk space, and the keyless entry. Not a single mention of an engine spec, power steering, brakes, cornering, or anything having to do with anything under the hood.


Wouldn't the physicality of riding bicycles, or especially driving horses, have contributed to the stereotypes that drivers should be men? Seems to me the stereotype of a male driver would have come from driving horses being unladylike, not from walking the streets being unladylike.


@Deborah, #2

I think you may be reading too much into your car-buying experience. I went shopping for a new car with my girlfriend, and all they told us was color, trunk space, and keyless entry. We had to practically force them to tell us whether particular models had antilock brakes, and half the time they had to look it up for themselves. Honestly, though, we didn't care about any other technical detail. For her it was color and keyless entry, for me it was color and mp3 player! So much for the technical inclination of males... my service station asked me once what kind of engine my car had, and it was all I could do not to say, "the kind that goes vrrrroom?"


Where's Adam?. Is he checking tyres, fuel and water?


In the 1960s in my small town in Colorado, my grandmother chided me for walking with my mother down the main street in our town. "All of my friends wondered if you're walking in search of men." Grandma and I went for walks together, but for some reason (probably our ages at the time), our morals weren't questioned. I'll be that statistics were different in rural areas where women drove as frequently as men. Even today, if I want to see a movie in a theater, I have to drive 120 miles round trip.

Ian Kemmish

How was it possible to see clerical work "less manly" at a stage in the industrial revolution before women had started leaving home to work?

Who was doing the clerical work? Martians?

science minded American woman traveler

Keeping in mind of course that we are talking here about America. I was on the isle of Capri about 25 years ago.. Sitting at one outdoor cafe table, a married roman woman architect, there on vacation with her chaperone. At another table was a 50-60 ish old fellow, married (but on vacation) by himself. I happened to be with my mom-- It was then that I learned about a new drink- the Americano-- Compari and Vermouth.

Haven't thought about this for a while- but writing about it reminds me of how much I enjoy traveling. I have often traveled alone.When I was in my 20's, I forced myself to do it- Knew that was the way that I could go anywhere. Being the cautious person that I am, I traveled first class as far as hotels-- as was a bit concerned about my well-being. Not too many women traveling alone back then and I was fortunate to have a family that could afford it or paid for it myself when I could.. But even when I traveled with others, we women had to be careful. I was on a ship with my cousin around the Greek Islands, the head of state cam on board and pretty much took it over-- so that it would take him and his entourage wherever. they carried guns and one of the body guards sent me a note-- I never read it and threw it out-- But I can guess what he had in mind. In hindsight, I should have just read it-- as this story would be a bit more interesting. Too scared.

As far as cars are concerned. I just bought a new car. I told them what I wanted and did not want i.e., color wise, cushioning and also as far as technological add ons or leave outs. When it came to special lights for fog-- we pursued the question a bit (as safety was a concern) and moved on. In that sense, I guess one could said i combined the best of the perspectives of both worlds the man's and the woman's. However, I don't think that I fully succeeded when I read the previous blogs. So my thought is there are generational differences and subtle changes (obvious and not so obvious).


science minded American woman traveler

I should add that some time after that, a female friend introduced me to karate etc. I tried one class and must admit that it felt good to be learning how to phyisically protect my self. Never pursued it further-- though if younger, I would have. Was just talking about that Jennifer Lopez movie the other day in class-- it definately is a powerful film as far as sending a message to women who are or feel vulnerable..


Hand cranking an engine didn't require much strength? Well, not unless you had to do it again and again and again to get the beast started. That crank could also kick you badly enough to put some fear in you.
My grandmother never learned to drive. Not because she wasn't encouraged, or thought it unfeminine. My mother never learned to drive a stick shift. Not because she didn't have plenty of people willing to teach her.
Just another infomercial article, that enlightens not at all.


Recommended reading:

Tales of a Female Nomad: Living at Large in the World

by Rita Golden Gelman

I have no connection to this book or author, but it is an interesting story of a woman travelling and living alone all around the world.

Lawrence Zeitlin

It wasn't just engine cranking and steering that required physical strength. Tires were unreliable, roads rough, and an extended journey would recall for two or three tire changes involving jacking up the car and lifting heavy wheels. Cars often had to be pushed out of mud holes if no convenient farmer and team of horses was nearby. Engine spark advance had to be set manually, not physically difficult, to be sure, but still requiring a knowledge of mechanics. No wonder that the job of truck driver was regarded as a skilled profession in Europe prior to WW2. But while women didn't often drive the fire breathing gasoline buggies, they did drive the much more civilized electric city cars like the Detroit Electric, the ancestor of today's Prius and Volt. Everything old is new again!

Eileen Wyatt

As represented here, McShane's argued connection between men "walling off the home" and women's not driving misses the fact that the automobile was largely a toy -- not an essential means of transportation -- until after WWII. Except in rural areas, its functions were duplicated by mass transportation. Since women were typically in lower-paid jobs, it made sense that urban, employed women would rely on the streetcar or similar, rather than putting themselves to the trouble and expense of maintaining a capricious and unnecessary personal vehicle. By no means would this choice have confined women to the home!


Why pollute a perfectly good historical analysis with stupid stereotypes of earlier times? The first two paragraphs of this post belong in Reader's Digest or something.

Before the mid 19th Century, European and American women -- especially the 95% who were not upper class -- walked through their villages, towns, and cities all the time. Some areas of London may have been dangerous at some times, but many women lived and worked there.

Merchant women walked to market fairs in their area, or traveled further to buy and sell. Richer women often walked or rode long distances to visit their families or go on pilgrimages to Canterbury, or Lourdes. Likewise, Early American women traveled when they could, though often limited by distance and opportunity.

So basically: Biblical references are weird and inappropriate, the pre-Victorian history note is just wrong, and the US is not the world.

I'm sure that the historian Clay McShane was not the source of those first two paragraphs, and wish you hadn't felt you had to add it.


Moms Hugs

The R.E.O. was the first automobile driven by my grandmother, daughter of Midwest farm pioneers. In 1912 Grandma was 16 when her father took her in a horse-drawn buggy to buy a new "iron horse" & bought a new R.E.O.

After paying for it, he left her with the dealer to teach her how to drive. She was to drive it home to the farm before nightfall, then teach her father & brother how to drive it. Grandma was barely 4'11" tall - a tiny, but very smart woman all of her life.

The R.E.O. had a glass windshield but the rest of the windows only had curtains. It was made by Ronald E. Olds & would later be called the Oldsmobile. Grandma learned to operate a farm as well & drove a lot of Oldsmobiles over the next 60 years.

Moms Hugs

Anyone driving East/West through Nebraska should stop at Kearney & go through The Great Platte River Road Museum that arches over I-80. You get to experience the history of transportation across this great continent from prairie schooners to convertibles at outdoor movie theaters. (

Western transportation is also showcased at the Pioneer Museum in Minden (SE of Kearney), the largest railroad yard in North Platte (west of Kearney), and Strategic Air Command Museum (SAC, near Omaha).


@Deborah #2
Chances are they didn't talk about power steering, power brakes etc, because you can't buy a car without those things these days, I checked Kia, GM, Ford, Honda, Hyundai, & Volkswagon. All cars have more than 100hp so power isn't an issue. The only thing that matters to most people these days are the colour, trunk size and whether they can make hands free calls with their iPhones.

jjm 63

Transportation planners are becoming aware of women as an "indicator species," a measure of the health of bicycling infrastructure, much as a butterfly or fish may be an indicator of the health of an ecosystem.

In countries that have a culture of bicycle use and infrastructure to suit, women are about half of all cyclists. According to Scientific American, "In the Netherlands, where 27 percent of all trips are made by bike, 55 percent of all riders are women. In Germany 12 percent of all trips are on bikes, 49 percent of which are made by women." (

In the US, twice as many men ride as women. Men are less sensitive to perceived risk.

So, yes, gender differences may be disappearing, but if we want to build a more equitable transportation system that is less dependent on petroleum, a lot of work has yet to be done.


K. Borchers

Well, the first person to make an overland tour in an automobile was a woman:

Once she had shown it was feasible, timid men would follow her example - though they would often get stranded in the countryside, because they wouldn't have a hairpin handy to clean a clogged fuel line when early cars would have one of their frequent breakdowns!


I don't understand where some of these conclusions come from. "Male insecurity"? So we are to assume that sexual discrimination began with industrialization? I can't prove it, but I'm sure that men entertained a similar divide from women prior to Victorian England, with the man taking responsibility for the family horse, or cow, or livestock, and the woman in charge of the home. Should we assume men did not claim mechanical and athletic prowess as their domain in the year 1500? Has the male brain changed substantially since then? Did women in the medieval age profess a love for figuring out how mechanical things work? Do they have a love for this now? Did men enjoy running the home, and were they more capable at this than their wives? I doubt it. I find the conclusions in Clay McShanes work (as discussed in this post) ridiculous.