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Eat My Dust: Early Women Motorists (review)

From: Technology and Culture
Volume 51, Number 1, January 2010
pp. 265-266 | 10.1353/tech.0.0407

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Georgine Clarsen's Eat My Dust provides a useful and important contribution to a still underexplored field, extending Virginia Scharff's pathbreaking work in Taking the Wheel (1992). In considering British, U.S., and Australian women, Clarsen offers a transnational perspective to examine "the ways that women continued to play a key role in the processes that propelled cars into our social lives" (p. 1). By linking cars and women to specific moments in modern culture, she helps to ground modernity as constructed through both gender and automobility as well as reminding us that the physical demands of driving helped to refigure the female body. "Women's location at the margins of automobile technology," Clarsen contends, "caught in the dilemma of being simultaneously welcomed as consumers but disparaged as incompetent technological actors, provides a new register through which to understand how gendered differences were experienced, contested, and reworked in everyday interactions" (p. 7).

In some ways, the strengths of this study—the specific examples of women engaged in motoring or in the motoring trade—also constitute an underlying weakness: that the examples, fascinating as they are, don't always uphold the claims made in the introduction. Thus, while the individual chapters provide intriguing snapshots of women's participation in automobility, their very specificity limits the book's scope. But such specificity also has great value and reminds us that while some of the claims may be large, they are not without merit; Clarsen's historical research establishes that women on three continents played a significant role in automobile culture.

Clarsen sets up three main premises: that British women's access to automobility was partly enabled by a climate of loosening gender roles, that American women participated as consumers, and that Australian women's motoring functioned as a form of nation-building. To develop these premises, she begins by looking at British women garage workers and the Galloway car, built by women. As the 1920s gave way to the 1930s, she notes, these openings were largely shut down as "female androgyny was no longer in vogue and garage women could no longer claim to be at the forefront of stylish modernity" (p. 44).

The situation differed in the United States, where emphasis on consumerism, Clarsen argues, rendered car ownership "emblematic of an energetic and particularly American democratic national culture" (p. 64). In this context, "commodity consumption and female citizenship became closely entwined" (p. 65). Even transcontinental road trips were generally sponsored by automobile companies as publicity stunts, tying American exceptionalism to consumer culture. Clarsen continues with the suffrage movement and its ties to the motor car. "For both automobile manufacturers and suffragist organizations, consumption suggested a fresh site in which women were defined, and able to identify themselves as modern civic actors" (pp. 82–83).

In Australia, according to Clarsen, one needs to understand the colonial context and the hope that cars "could unify the continent into one nation" (p. 105). She cites the Alice Anderson Motor Service, a company that not only hired women chauffeurs but also sponsored training classes for women drivers, enabling women to gain access to technological expertise. She goes on to the practice of circumnavigating the continent, where women drivers "enacted a patrolling of the border and confirmed white society's full possession of the continent" (p. 120). These drives made "the ongoing transfer of land from Aboriginal possession into the hands of white settlers seem entirely proper and natural" (p. 139). The discussion of race, which continues in regard to women's driving through Africa, is one of the great strengths of the book. Race has been seriously underexplored in treatments of automobile history and culture; Clarsen breaks new ground and opens up a valuable inquiry for further exploration.

Ultimately, Eat My Dust deals more with the social aspects of automobility and automotive technology than the specific details of the technology itself, making it somewhat less useful to automobile historians than to those interested in technology and modernity. While well researched, it could have drawn more heavily on some of the sources listed as well as a few not listed: studies of both modernity and automobile culture, for example. But Eat My Dust stands as...