In Women Behind the Wheel (Pegasus, Mar.), journalist Nichols provides a women’s history of the automobile.
You describe women seeing the car as an extension of their domestic and workplace spheres in a way that men don’t.
Very early on, women started to accessorize and make their cars into places that were useful for them. There are early pictures of women hanging bassinets from the rooftops of cars, of women creating essentially cribs in the backseat. Now it’s a very sophisticated market. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on accessories for cars: seat covers, organizers. This kind of dual use was certainly my experience. When my son played soccer, I would bring my work with me and, like a lot of women, I would work in the car. When you’re ferrying kids around, there’s a lot of downtime. (Though I do realize this is not every woman’s experience.) The minivan was the first vehicle where women really owned that duality in their car’s overall design. Women wanted those doors that slid because, in a regular car, if the doors open and you’re in the front seat, you can’t see the kid. But if the door slides, you never lose sight of your kid.
What other ways has the car been both liberatory and challenging for women?
Something I recall from being a young girl is that women who didn’t drive, waited. They waited for their husband to come home from work. They waited for their sons to come and get them. You might wait 40 minutes for someone to come get you. Today I have the ability to do many more things that I don’t know if I could without the car. You can drive your kid to day care, you can go to the office, you can run to the grocery store. These are not things that were easily accomplished by women who didn’t drive. But the car did open women up to negative consequences, besides the new dual responsibilities and the same ones everyone faces, like the environmental problems. These include the possibility of sexual violence in the car.
What’s one more surprising way gender intersects with car history?
A now more widely talked about negative externality of cars is how much land is devoted to them. Roads, garages—how much actual earth it all takes up. Historically, in order to build, say, a shopping mall, you have been required to include a set number of parking spaces. I found examples of how those spaces were made much bigger than necessary, taking up more land, because the builders felt women couldn’t park well.