- Women at the Wheel: A Century of Buying, Driving, and Fixing Cars by Katherine J. Parkin
Katherine Parkin opens this readable history with feminist author Betty Friedan. Driving played a prominent role in the author's life but also in her germinal text, The Feminine Mystique. Friedan asserted that for women the car meant one more technology that extended their endless work in the home. By the 1950s, many suburban mothers added chauffeuring to their [End Page 981] long list of chores. They did this, Parkin reminds us, amid the swirl of negative myths and stereotypes about incompetent women drivers. The reader gets the picture quickly, that women were expected to drive but were not respected as drivers. Parkin argues that "most women … did not find dignity and independence in driving. Any attempts to develop their automotive acumen and disrupt the prejudice against them challenged cultural definitions of women's gender and sexual identity" (p. xiv). She goes on to note that "women have often been behind the wheel, but when it comes to directing the cultural conversation, men have done the driving" (p. xv).
Parkin supports this argument over five thematic chapters that trace women's relationship to the car. They move cleverly from "Learning to Drive" through buying, driving, and maintaining the automobile. The final chapter tackles the larger and sometimes unwieldly topic of identity. There is also an epilogue titled "Nouveau Riche Pretenders." All of the chapters argue that the gendered nature of driving changed little from the mass adoption of the automobile through our present time.
Woman at the Wheel adds depth to well-known stories and brings a fresh perspective to the table. For instance, I appreciated her careful discussion of women and the problems of acquiring a driver's license. From listing their ages to changing their names upon marriage and divorce, women have had distinctive experiences and often a lot of headaches with licensing. Although feminists fought to apply for driver's licenses in their own names in the 1970s, the U.S. Supreme Court maintained that women must apply for their license with their married names. It wasn't until the late twentieth and early years of the twenty-first century that common practice and state law changed to allow women to keep their names.
The analysis shines when Parkin tackles the business of selling cars, particularly the ambivalence of the industry in selling to women. The author digs into the business of marketing to women with skill, precision, and terrific anecdotes. She also upends notions that automobile companies catered to women as the primary consumer. Rather she contends, "despite sporadic, targeted efforts, the most surprising decision automotive businesses made across the century was to largely ignore women as consumers" (p. 30). For instance, Parkin rereads the exceptional Jordan car ad from 1923, "Somewhere West of Laramie." Placed within a larger universe of ads aimed at women, the author finds not automotive independence but rather mundane narratives about how the car enabled the "everyday workings of their home, work, and community" (p. 62). Parkin takes a careful look at how advertisers imagined women drivers. Parkin asserts that they always saw women drivers as different from men. In particular, she notes, "across the century, automotive companies contended that women had no technological expertise and were not 'real' consumers" (p. 32). Perhaps because they thought of women as inferior but necessary, companies often used male engineers to act out what women might need. Late into the [End Page 982] twentieth century, male engineers did nutty things like don press-on fingernails to test the interior functions of the car (p. 59).
In the later chapters on driving and maintaining cars, things do not improve for women. These arenas of expertise became places where a host of authorities upheld a gendered hierarchy of knowledge that favored men and disparaged women. Car maintenance for women was routinely equated with other feminized responsibilities such as house work and child care. Given that women had to...