- Women at the Wheel: A Century of Buying, Driving, and Fixing Cars by Katherine J. Parkin
As every woman in America knows, automobile culture is highly gendered. Parkin's Women at the Wheel provides a lively commentary on the numerous experiences that shape that culture. Drawing on advertising, popular journalism, reports from related industries, and automobile marketing information, she charts a century's worth of examples of how women were pushed to the periphery of automobility. "Most women found their legitimacy as drivers compromised by a cultural expectation that placed men in the driver's seat and relegated women to the passenger side of the car whenever both were present. The cultural representations of men's control of cars served to dissuade women from assuming an identity as driver" (x).
Although Parkin provides many instances of this predicament, at times she seems a little too eager to shape the evidence. For example, she cites a 1930 study finding that 81 percent of rural boys drove whereas only 46 percent of rural girls did (3). However, the 46 percent for girls indicates a significant number, even if it is less than that of boys—which comes as no surprise. This observation points to one of the flaws of this useful and interesting book: It feels like a foregone conclusion; that men had more power in car culture is hardly a novel discovery. Another concern is the way that the book moves across the century in apparent [End Page 515] obliviousness to context. Parkin notes, however, that this is a deliberate strategy: "By focusing their analyses on changing trends, historians have underappreciated the permanencies of ideological power in American culture. Automobiles offer an opportunity to analyze the ways this power has been wielded to great effect. Principally looking for change over time in such attitudes obscures their longevity" (xx). This technique certainly illustrates the difficulties of eradicating long-entrenched assumptions, but it can also feel bewildering and frustrating in de-coupling popular culture from history.
Women at the Wheel benefits from a voluminous array of sources, which work together to offer a complete picture of the kinds of challenges that women drivers faced, though the book's lack of a sustained analysis of race and class in shaping women's access to the automobile, despite brief scattered references, is disappointing. Parkin has gathered material from the auto industry that presents suggested strategies for selling cars to women (or not), information from gasoline companies about the kinds of services and restrooms to provide, data from the aaa (American Automobile Association) about road services and security, and government regulations surrounding access to drivers' licenses. She also weaves in brief references to popular songs and movies.
But her emphasis on popular journalism and advertising fits well into the book's aim of portraying how cultural forces shaped women's access to cars. It also allows her to cherry-pick and spin some of her material. The numerous ads that she selects help her argument, but other ads could have challenged it. Parkin characterizes one of the most famous ads—a 1923 advertisement for the Jordan Playboy, titled "Somewhere West of Laramie" (61)—as an exception, which it is, but she misses an important message in it about women and cars. In their quest to sell more cars, automobile companies appealed to women on a wide scale, including ads that acknowledged female control. Although many advertisements appeared to favor a limitation on women's power, the very fact that women were buying and driving cars undermined that approach.
Furthermore, Parkin's interpretive conclusions often feel predictable. For this reason, the materials from less subjective sources—government documents and industry publications, for example—seem more persuasive and, ultimately, provide better support for the argument than do the sometimes tenuous claims that she makes about the ads. But the power of the book lies in its ability to bring its interdisciplinary material together to explore women's challenges buying, driving, and maintaining a car, within a culture of...