cover image Women Behind the Wheel: An Unexpected and Personal History of the Car

Women Behind the Wheel: An Unexpected and Personal History of the Car

Nancy A. Nichols. Pegasus, $28.95 (240p) ISBN 978-1-639-36559-3

Journalist Nichols (Lake Effect) offers a unique and captivating history of women and the automobile. Combing through decades of carmakers’ advertisements and marketing strategies, Nichols finds that not long after its invention in the 1880s, the automobile became “our most gendered technology”—both marketed directly to women (by 1929, “car companies overwhelmingly turned to fashion and style to stoke sales with [women] as their target audience”) and strongly equated to femininity (“The equivalency between the female body and the car body was drawn so early and so clearly that it was caricatured in a May 1920 Vanity Fair cartoon”). During the mid-20th-century growth of the suburbs, “the car enslaved women even as it liberated them,” according to Nichols, with cars becoming yet another tool for accomplishing housework. Today, niche marketing and identity interact in unpredictable ways—she points to Subaru’s popularity among lesbians as an example. Throughout, Nichols interweaves meticulous and intriguing research into engineering and advertising history with poignant reflections on how automobiles have played an outsize role in her own family: an uncle killed in a car accident, an alcoholic father who was a used car salesman, time spent driving herself and her son for cancer treatment. Marked by the author’s keen eye for detail and irony alike, this perceptive study will compel readers to reevaluate their own relationship with cars. (Mar.)