Student & Teacher Resources

Gender and Automobility in the United States

    1. Questions for Reading
    2. Questions for Discussion
    3. Making Connections
    4. Questions for Writing
    5. Questions for Research

I. Questions for Reading

1. Walsh opens her Introduction with a discussion of how historians have approached the study of transportation, travel, and mobility. What place have women and gender had in these historians’ work?

2. In the early decades of automobile use, men often ridiculed women drivers or sought to prevent or limit their driving. What factors, according to Walsh, contributed to women overcoming this male resistance?

3. Did women buy cars in the early decades of the twentieth century? How did the Depression of the 1930s affect car ownership and use?

4. Why did Americans drive less during the World War II years? Why did it take several years after the end of the WWII for the auto industry to meet the pent-up demand for cars?

5. How did Americans’ driving patterns change after World War II? What actions taken by the federal government contributed to this change? Did the driving patterns of men and women differ in this period?

6. Walsh notes that two other significant developments in American car culture during the 1950s and 60s were family vacations and the rise of the teenage driver. What does Walsh say about each of these phenomena?

7. Walsh says that today there are no significant differences between men and women in terms of access to cars and usage of them. “Diversity among women drivers rather than differences between the sexes,” writes Walsh, “has now become fundamental to understanding female automobility.” What factors have caused women’s access to and usage of cars to become similar to men’s? What are the differences among women drivers that Walsh sees as important?

8. What is “trip-chaining” and why are women more likely to engage in it than men?

9. In what ways do the driving patterns and access to cars of Hispanic, African-American, and older women differ from those of white women under 65?

10. How does women’s use of the automobile for leisure and vacation travel since 1970 compare to men’s?

11. Historians, Walsh says, have concluded that “women’s access to auto factory work opened slowly and with difficulty.” Summarize the evolution of women’s access to autowork from the 1930s through the 1970s, and explain what factors have limited that access.

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II. Questions for Discussion

1. Walsh briefly discusses the teenage car culture that developed in the 1950s. What role does the car play in the lives of teens now? How does today’s teen car culture compare to that of the 1950s?

2. Quoting an observer who asserts that “the suburban family [is] essentially run by children,” Walsh argues that the driving needs and driving patterns of suburban families are shaped by the need to transport children to school, activities, doctors, friends, etc. In your experience, is this true?

3. Is the fact that women since 1970 have generally had the same level of access to cars, and driven them the same number of miles, as men a sign of social progress for women?

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III. Making Connections

1. Walsh notes that in the early years of the automobile age, many people believed that women should drive electric cars rather than gasoline-powered ones. Why, according to Virginia Scharff in “Femininity and the Electric Car,” was the electric regarded as more suitable for women, and why was that view ultimately rejected, by women and men alike?

2. David Gartman and other writers frequently refer to the significance of the Ford Model T in making automobiles available to the masses rather than just to the rich. How does Walsh qualify this view?

3. Walsh argues that in the 1920s automakers began to tailor some of their advertising to women, and that General Motors’ introduction of the annual model change in 1927 and its discussion of the “two-car family” in 1929 were meant to appeal to women. Compare Walsh’s comments with David Gartman’s discussion of the rise of styling in the 1920s and 30s in “Tough Guys and Pretty Boys.” Would Gartman agree with Walsh?

4. Both Martin Melosi and Thomas Sugrue, like Walsh, discuss the process of suburbanization in the decades following World War II, up through the recent creation of the “edge cities” so different from traditional suburbs. How does Walsh’s discussion, focusing as it does on women, differ from theirs?

5. How does Walsh’s account of women autoworkers in “Gender on the Line” compare to Stephen Meyer’s discussions of gender issues in auto plants, particularly in the “Men at Work,” “The Rise of the Unions,” and “The ‘Blue-Collar Blues’” sections of his “Degradation of Work” essay?

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IV. Questions for Writing

1. Walsh claims that automobile advertisements changed after World War I: “descriptions of mechanical parts and small sketches of cars” in earlier ads gave way to “large color pictures featuring women as passengers or drivers and minimizing auto technology.” Look at the various car ads from 1900 to about 1935 that appear in the essays by Walsh and Virginia Scharff. Do these ads support Walsh’s claim?

2. Interview a group of friends or classmates about their use of the automobile for vacation travel, and consider your own family’s case as well. Present and analyze your results. What does the information you collected suggest about the automobile’s role in vacation travel for Americans today? Has anything changed from the 1950s and 60s?

3. Interview a woman—a relative, classmate, friend, or co-worker—about her driving patterns. Present and analyze what you learn. Do her driving patterns follow the trend that Walsh describes for her life situation?

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V. Questions for Research

1. Walsh discusses the importance of famous women drivers like Emily Post, Edith Wharton, and those who made well-publicized transcontinental journeys in the early decades of the twentieth century. Investigate one or more of these women drivers and, if possible, the news coverage accorded them. What was significant about these women as drivers, and what effects did their driving have on attitudes to women taking the wheel? Alternatively, investigate the role of the automobile in the campaign for women’s rights, and especially women’s suffrage (the right to vote) in these same decades.

2. Walsh doesn’t discuss women as designers of cars, but we know from David Gartman’s Tough Guys and Pretty Boys” that gender issues have surrounded the profession of auto designer (or stylist) from the beginning. Learn more about the history of women in auto design. Read some of the oral histories of auto designers on this website, particularly those of Suzanne Vanderbilt, Willemina Vandermolen, Bill Mitchell, and George Walker. What do these oral histories reveal about such issues as the role of women in auto design, attitudes towards women as designers, discrimination against women designers, stereotypes about women, the auto industry’s view of women as buyers and drivers of cars, etc.?

3. The period from 1945 into the 1960s has traditionally been seen as years of decline for women workers in the auto industry: men returning from World War II went back to work on the assembly lines, and the women who had replaced them during the war years returned home to raise families. Walsh notes, however, that recent historians have challenged this view, arguing that working women “developed a new consciousness in the two decades after the war.” Learn more about the role of women in the UAW in these decades. In what specific ways has the traditional view been modified?

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For other Resources on Gender see:

Gender and Automobility in the United States

Femininity and the Electric Car



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