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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.