Who doesn’t love to watch a great car chase at the movies or to hear the loud roar of engines speeding down a track? I must because the tension actually turns my knuckles white. I like to imagine sitting behind a tight steering wheel and leaning into the curves and bends on the roadway. I look for openings and defensive blocks against challengers trying to overtake me. Unfortunately, my secret desire is limited to video-gaming on Super Mario Kart, even though I am thrilled to soar past the virtual checkered finish line.
My desire to know more about the history of women and cars started after a visit to a British race track several years ago. I wandered through an impressive paddock of antique race cars on display and a fellow car enthusiast told me about a woman named Helle Nice who raced cars in the 1920’s. Affectionately dubbed the “Bugatti Queen”, Helle was an exotic dancer turned race car driver who drove in the French Grand Prix in 1929, two years after it was first introduced.
Helle challenged social conventions for women on and off the track as a racer. I will share her story in an upcoming “Bugatti Queen” article in the series, “The Queens.” But it was learning about Helle that prompted me to ask how women and cars are related. Cars are a gateway to freedom and they certainly gave Helle a life free from the confines of traditional women living in the 20’s and 30’s. But for many women, freedom is something most of us take for granted.
Except for the expense of owning and maintaining it, a car provides the freedom to travel, to work, and to escape. I cherish this privilege knowing many women can’t afford cars or they live in areas of the world where religion and customs prevent them from driving. Saudi Arabia is the obvious example as the only country where women can’t drive because of deeply held cultural beliefs. This ultra conservative culture also stops them from opening bank accounts and traveling abroad without a chaperone.
In many ways, prevailing social attitudes and stereotypes about women and their freedoms can be directly linked to women’s driving history. This has nothing to do with car design, and everything to do with how society values women; even though reactions by car designers are a good sign that they are finally listening to women’s preferences.
The Historical Case for Women in the Driver’s Seat
You can imagine the earliest attempts by women to drive cars were ridiculed. Initially, men said we could not handle the “rigors” of driving, whether that meant mental acuity, strength needed to operate the car and steering wheel or understanding the machinations of working of a car. This didn’t stop women but it was a combination of things like popular news stories about the adventures of driving that encouraged women to drive.
Books like Curt McConnell’s, “A Reliable Car and A Woman Who Knows It: The First Coast-to-Coast Auto Trips by Women” stimulated imaginations and women around the world who watched other women take these transcontinental car journeys between 1899-1908.These “pioneer car journeys” across North America pictured both men and women driving cars.
Car advocates and well-known writers like Emily Post and Edith Wharton regaled these stories, helping to suggest that women should claim their freedom. The added push from larger social changes – women’s contributions to the war efforts and women gaining the right to vote – eventually made driving more gender neutral even though car companies continued to advertise only to men.
For women who took to improved and expanded roads and highways, driving became a popular status symbol for the upwardly mobile and social etiquette. With this came earnest but ridiculous manuals for women drivers. They addressed the expectations for keeping a “lady-like” temperament on the road and other concerns like what to know about insurance and being stopped by the police.
I purchased a small used book in Dublin this year that was written in 1928 and detailed old school wisdom for women drivers. “The Woman Owner-Driver: The Complete Guide for Lady Motorists” by the Honorable Mrs. Victor Bruce put “lady motorists” in a class of their own. It details the “gentle art” of driving in traffic, how to deal with “physical jerks” and “some little points about the law!” Obviously, women needed extra guidance for their gentle nature to survive the trials of driving and the harrowing dangers on the road.
Over time, car manufacturers developed equally interesting marketing campaigns that echoed the “gentle” nature of women and their value in society. The interior of this Dodge 1955 La Femme or “Pink Ladies Car” featured a pink- colored tapestry of roses trimmed in pale pink vinyl.
Each car purchase included a soft, pink, calfskin purse (with matching lipstick case, make-up compact, and cigarette lighter). A pink raincoat, bonnet and umbrella, hidden in a back seat compartment, completed the ensemble. Thank God! How could we ever drive without a place for our beauty products and who wouldn’t want a rain bonnet to match the car color and decor?
It’s funny now but Dodge didn’t laugh when the production and sales of La Femme bombed. What were they thinking? The advent of the 60’s and 70’s feminist movement was around the corner and proved a rude awakening across many industries. I suspect the backlash to the increased number of women drivers led to stereotypes labeling women as poor drivers and a desire to keep women in the home and off the roads. Women don’t want to drive patronizing eye-candy vehicles and they certainly have lower car insurance rates for a reason; women are more than three times less likely to incur road accidents than men.
There is perhaps one exception to the no pink car rule though, for reasons that have nothing to do with insulting women’s intelligence. The iconic cosmetics queen, Mary Kay, introduced the career car concept in the late 60’s as a marker of financial success. Mary Kay Cosmetics used the pink car as a status symbol for success by encouraging women to work hard in sales. If they achieved top sales levels, they could earn a pink Cadillac car as a reward.
Owning the Driver’s Seat
More than ever, cars remain status symbols in today’s society but what do they say now about today’s woman? Because our earning and purchasing power in North America is greater than men’s, and we make a whopping 85% of car buying decisions, you’d think women would be at the top of the car chain. But we’ve yet to achieve equal status in society, so our value is still less than a man’s when it comes to pay parity and equal rights. We all know this slips further if you are a woman of color.
In this way, despite all the gains, our unequal status in society is still reflected in the car industry. There are more female drivers on the road than men, and the car industry is taking notes, but manufacturers continue to struggle with the best way to meet the female demand and our buying power. You’d think we’d be heavyweights influencing car design especially since we carry the bulk of child rearing and elder care tends to be a woman’s responsibility.
To some extent this is happening as safety – the number one concern for women drivers – is a large consideration for car manufacturers. I believe they want to understand women’s preferences but remain cautious and confused. They don’t want cars to be labeled as feminine for fear of losing male buyers. Yet, is this sensitivity to men and the “feminine” concern insulting to women? It’s a real problem for car companies wanting to capitalize on the increased purchasing power of women without patronizing women and ostracizing men.
By all accounts, car companies are going for the middle and widening brand appeal. General Motor’s recent appointment of Mary Barra – their first female CEO – is also a sure sign that women belong in the executive decision-making process and that car industry giants need to pay attention. Shifting away from industry stereotypes and chauvinism is a good start if cars represent freedom and independence.
I want to drive a car that reflects my design preferences and meets my needs. It’s that simple. It’s not a crazy demand that’s about being a woman or a man or any other gender classification in modern society. Stereotypical confines from the past must make way for the future for me to enjoy a car with a powerful engine and a ride safe enough for my family.