- Driving Women: Fiction and Automobile Culture in Twentieth-Century America
The monumental role the automobile has played in creating the United States’ identity is matched only by the equally monumental role it has played in shaping individual Americans’ identities. “To be an American,” Deborah Clarke avers in her astute and thoroughly researched study, Driving Women: Fiction and Automobile Culture in Twentieth-Century America, “is to have a stake in automobility” (p. 4). Certainly, such influence is felt economically—car companies and their related industries account for about 5 percent of all private sector jobs in the country and more than 3.7 percent of its gross domestic product (p. 1). Culturally, as Clarke suggests, the impact has been just as acute and significant. Even more specifically, American literature offers an ideal proving ground to study the presence of women in automobile culture and the intricate relationships, as Clarke labels them, among “technology, mobility, gender, domesticity, and agency” so prominent in twentieth-century American culture (p. 3).
Deftly weaving together automotive history, sociological studies, advertising, and American literary texts—this is an excellent example of literature-based cultural studies—Clarke’s examination of fictional women behind the wheel begins with the real concern in the 1920s and 1930s that women drivers upset “yesterday’s order of things,” as Ray W. Sherman wrote in a 1927 issue of Motor (p. 10). Indeed, as Clarke details, the threat became real—women refigured maternity and reshaped female agency, they moved the domestic sphere from the home to the mobile home, and most recently, they have recast citizenship to be figured with wheels. Thus, the automobile is both the ideal vehicle to construct ideas about gender in twentieth-century America and to reflect how women’s lives during these technologically explosive decades changed. Clarke’s textual matter does [End Page 188] not rely simply on the voluminous historical material generated by the automobile industry and its historians but rather on the other primary texts of journalistic essays, advertising, children’s books, and literature created to narrate the stories of women behind the wheel.
Arranged in six chapters (with an introduction and epilogue), Driving Women explores the car’s relationship to women in areas such as the gender of automobile races, maternity, road trips, home and domesticity, and citizenship. That the car has long functioned as a “bridge” between bodies and technology is brought to especial attention in Clarke’s provocative reading of “automotive maternity” (pp. 72, 77). Drawing on car advertisements that replace a woman’s torso with an engine—a rendition of a “Detroit style” cyborg (p. 80)—Clarke asks: “If we’re born of technology, rather than of woman, then what’s the difference between men and women? Is maternity still a viable concept?” (p. 76). She answers with scrutiny of texts by Flannery O’Connor, Joan Didion, and Toni Morrison who, in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” Play It As It Lays, and Paradise, respectively, “explore the darker side of mothers and cars, and the fears and guilt associated with the automobile’s role in failed maternity” (p. 89).
If, however, the automobile has transformed female agency and maternity in ways both advantageous and destructive, as Clarke avers, the car and in particular, the mobile home, also have radically changed woman’s sphere of influence: the domestic space of home. In many instances, car ownership has given them a space to recover from social traumas of problematic family relationships, economic downturns, and in the late twentieth and now early twenty-first centuries, loss of citizenship. From the advent of the automobile in the United States, there always have been women drivers on the roads and in the pages of American culture. Although American women writers, as Clarke notes, “have forced automobile culture to acknowledge women’s presence,” American women themselves are, to invoke that ubiquitous backseat question, not there yet (p. 190). However, Clarke’s recognition of this rich history and her careful teasing apart of the complicated cultural...