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Automobile in American Life and Society


Gender and the Automobile in the United States
by Margaret Walsh


Placing Gender and Automobiles into Perspective

Gender is now fully recognized as a vibrant and important category of historical analysis, for the different circumstances of the sexes have made women and men experience and understand events in different ways. While early definitions and usage of gender frequently made the word synonymous with the relationship between the female and male sexes, with the examination of women and men as gendered persons, and with the discussion of the social construction of both femininity and femaleness and masculinity and manhood.

The study of the history of transportation, travel, and mobility has similarly undergone a shift in recent years. Traditionally dominated by historians’ fascination with railroads and the availability of railroad corporate archives, attention has turned to twentieth-century modes of passenger and freight movement, namely the automobile, the truck, the bus, and the airplane. These modes of motorized transport have offered major opportunities for understanding how and why Americans take not only mobility, but also rapid mobility, for granted. The internal combustion engine has transformed what would have been a major venture of travelling at a slow pace to the nearest large town or to some weekend holiday retreat, into an everyday occurrence. In particular, the automobile has revolutionized personal lifestyles and has become a basic and indispensable part of being an American.

Although historians of twentieth-century transport and travel have made some progress in identifying and examining the automobile’s growing impact on American life, the majority of their findings have remained production oriented and male-dominated. Written primarily by men for a male audience, and focusing on industrial production, technology, and machinery, their work explained more about moving assembly lines, corporate management, technological improvements, and even labor relations than they did about the automobile as a machine for changing lifestyles and interpersonal relationships. The new histories that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, however, emphasized the importance of anonymous Americans and the automobile’s cultural influence and impact. From this work, gender has emerged as a major tool of social, economic, and cultural analysis.

Most of the gendered approaches to understanding the importance and the role of the automobile have focused on the years before World War II. Although the vehicle had been mass-produced in the second decade of the century, it was only popularly consumed in the 1920s, primarily by the middle classes. At the start of the 1930s, only one in 5.5 Americans owned either a new or a second-hand car, and although Americans did not give up their autos during the Depression of the 1930s, there were fewer opportunities for new consumers to buy into personal motor mobility. Historical perceptions about gendered responses to and use of the automobile have thus been shaped by the one-car-per-family mindset and the belief that women and men still conformed to the Victorian “cult of domesticity.” American intervention in World War II can be considered a turning point, although origins of new trends are visible prior to 1941. The war years liberated women from restrictive home ties, albeit on a partial or temporary basis, but then the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s promoted the belief in the equality of the sexes. More importantly, defense spending during the war and then government spending after the war stimulated a major economic boom from 1948 to 1973. Affluence underwrote mass consumerism, and automobiles were at the top of most families’ shopping lists. Aspiring families aimed to own two cars, and the modern American lifestyle, based on mass personal automobility, regardless of sex, was born. It was everyone’s right to drive a car.

Gender and Automobility: The Pioneering and Early Years

The automobile was from its birth a vehicle that provided personal mobility. It offered movement on an individual level much more effectively than did its predecessor the bicycle or its contemporary the motorcycle, and it gave more choice than did public forms of motorized or steam-powered surface transport like the railroad, the bus, and the electric streetcar. Its appeal, after its early and somewhat mistrustful reception as a plaything for the rich, a sporting toy for the adventurous, and (in rural America) a “devil wagon” that frightened livestock and rutted roads, was very wide. As one farmwoman in the 1920s told an inspector from the United States Department of Agriculture who inquired why her family had bought a car rather than putting indoor plumbing into their home, “You can’t go to town in a bathtub.” Doubtless this woman, like those interviewed for Robert S. and Helen M. Lynd’s renowned studies of the Midwestern community of Muncie, Indiana, otherwise known as Middletown (1929) and Middletown in Transition (1937), exaggerated the value of the vehicle, but there is no doubt that the automobile did have transforming social and economic characteristics.

The earliest examples of these transforming qualities were demonstrated initially in towns and cities, where roads were more likely to be hard-topped, gasoline and spare parts were widely available, and a core group of interested and wealthy sponsors who considered themselves “go-getters” was present. Women as well as men belonged to these circles. They were numerically in the minority, as Clay McShane has suggested, and men often ridiculed their driving. Despite male attempts to limit or prohibit female drivers, famous women motorists, like writers Emily Post and Edith Wharton, and women’s automobile contributions during the World War I years were only the most notable indicators of the existence of a core of urban and suburban women for whom driving was useful, necessary, or adventurous in the early years of the twentieth century.

More American women learned about the possibilities of the automobile from the publicity offered by newspaper coverage of the pioneering transcontinental car journeys that took place between 1899 and 1908. These early drivers and their passengers of both sexes demonstrated that it was possible for the emerging automotive technology to be useful as well as challenging. They simultaneously deflated the car’s critics. These pioneering crossings, however, were made possible by meticulous planning, aided by the telephone, the telegraph, the railroad, and a dealer network ensuring that supplies of gasoline, spare parts, and even relay drivers were nearby when needed. Those who lived in rather than travelled through the countryside soon learned that the automobile was a seasonal vehicle, to be “laid up” on blocks, at least in the winter, because of road conditions. Photographs of impassable country roads frequent the pages of individual state governments’ transportation reports in the 1920s and 1930s. The automobile, regardless of who was driving, was a good weather vehicle for the practical reasons that it got stuck, even though early models sat high off the road to avoid surface hazards.

Road hazards were indeed a problem or an adventure depending on one’s perspectives. So both would-be motorists and motorists of both sexes pressured their local and state authorities to improve the roads. The federal government had been aware of the desirability of developing roads and had discussed funding for highways prior to World War I, but the war itself made that support more urgent, if only for defense or military reasons. The 1920s witnessed an increase in regular federal funding for roads, and that was in turn vastly expanded by relief and stabilization programs during the New Deal in the 1930s. But more importantly, state and local governments responded to motor lobbies and instituted road user taxes for improvements and set up highway agencies to manage their roads. The end result of these efforts was visible in the improvement to and extension of surfaced and good quality surfaced roads. By 1930 some 23% of the national total mileage was surfaced and some 3%, which was concentrated in the systems managed by state agencies, was surfaced to high quality. By 1938 there had been a notable improvement in this situation, with about 37% of the total mileage surfaced and 5% well surfaced. The basic infrastructure supporting automobility in the years before World War II was making progress, but it was less robust than registration of motorcars suggest.

So how did American motorists respond to the limitations and the possibilities of automobility in the early twentieth century? There is no doubt that more Americans wanted to own and actually bought automobiles in the years after World War I because they could see the potential for geographical mobility. Registration of automobiles increased from 6.7 million in 1919 to 23.1 million a decade later. Despite the severe economic registrations rose to 26.2 million in 1939 after dipping downwards to 21.5 million in 1934 before rising to 26.2 million in 1939. Those who owned these vehicles were likely to be white and middle-class. Only small percentages of minority families owned cars. With the growing numbers of sales of second-hand vehicles in the late 1920s, some blue-collar workers were also able to buy into automobility, but their continuing ownership was tied to their ability to stay employed.

In white families, both rural and urban, women gained and enjoyed some access to the motor vehicle. Men continued to consider that they should be granted priority because they were the wage-owners and the head of the household, but this did not mean that women were solely passengers, dependent on their partner to chauffeur them to their desired destinations. Women, like men, could see the advantages of freer movement. As the motor industry geared itself up to increased sales and then to status sales with styling, colors, and most importantly technological improvements to such basics as engines, steering, suspension, brakes, and more easily changeable tires, women knew that they could handle a car like they could “master” household technology or farm machinery. For many women the desire to be mobile overcame the possibility of running into difficulties or damaging the family’s “pride and joy.” Their partners or fathers might wish to restrain their automobility, but banning wives and daughters and sisters from driving was difficult if the women wanted to drive and made a concerted effort to learn.

So did women want to drive as much as did men? They certainly wanted the mobility offered by motorized transportation, whether as passengers or as drivers. Surveys of car usage in the 1920s suggest that travel was for both pleasure and business and that on the weekend automobile journeys were longer and more frequent than during the week. Detailed work on leisure, recreation, and vacations suggest that auto-owning American families took to the roads, despite their surfaces, for visits to local scenic spots, to relatives or friends, to new forms of amusement like the movies, or to go on shopping trips to larger urban centers. More adventurous motorists became long-distance tourists seeking out famous beauty spots or just touring in general. In doing so and finding the social infrastructure wanting, they became autocampers. Moving from “gypsying” or stopping to cook simple meals over campfires and sleeping in tents by the roadside to more formally organised campgrounds with cabins or even to staying in pioneer “motels,” these families were not male-only groups. Females shared the joys and the tribulations of travelling in family cars, and they contributed directly and indirectly to the increasing awareness of auto manufacturers, the newly emerging auto servicing industry, and society in general that a new level of mobility for all Americans was developing. Automobiles could no longer be assumed to be, if they ever had been, exclusively male property. They were family vehicles and were used as such.

Did women drive these family vehicles or did they buy cars themselves? There was much speculation about women’s capacity for mastering auto technology, even about their feeling comfortable alone or with their children while on the road. Negative stereotypes about women’s early automotive behavior abound, but Virginia Scharff firmly put to rest the notion that women were incapable of and temperamentally unsuited to driving cars in the pioneer years of motoring up to the Depression years of the 1930s. Although many men early considered that women should be restricted to the cleaner and slower electric car, which was capable of only 50 miles without complex recharging and was unable to manage steep hills, women soon demanded equal access to the more sturdy and challenging gasoline-fueled vehicle. And besides, who but the rich could afford the luxury of his-and-her vehicles in years that were notable for attempts to market the automobile beyond the elite?

Rural women, in particular, welcomed the possibility of relieving their isolation by driving into town to shop, to sell their farm produce, or to attend farm clubs. Being more familiar with teams and buggies, they were less daunted by the prospect of driving than their urban counterparts, who were more used to walking or taking public transit. They may not have relished the task of hand-cranking the engine, but they were not stymied by this task. Moreover, not only they, but also the males in the family, welcomed the innovation and diffusion of the self-starter, which became more widespread in the 1920s, as did closed rather than open-topped cars. They did not necessarily find easy or independent access to the automobile, as that was still assumed to be the male’s prerogative. In a survey conducted of rural young people in Missouri in 1937, 35% of farm girls drove cars in comparison to 72% of farm boys, but another 37% of farm girls wanted to learn how to drive. Here the significant point to note is the interest and ability of the girls rather than the dominance of the boys. Girls or women who could drive were able to run farm errands and to gain personal access when men were working on the farm. It seems that by 1940 most young and middle–aged farm women who were interested in mobility could and did drive the family car.

Did women buy automobiles? Only wealthy women were able to afford their own vehicles, but many women participated in the purchase of the vehicle. Historians have paid much attention to the marketing of automobiles by their manufacturers and how in the 1920s these men or at least their sales agents realized that they needed to make their vehicles attractive to the female consumer. The nature of the advertisements changed from the earlier pre-World War I descriptions of mechanical parts and small sketches of cars to large color pictures featuring women as passengers or drivers and minimizing auto technology. Moreover, cars needed to be comfortable as well as functional. When General Motors adopted the notion of annual styling in 1927 and then talked about a two-car family in 1929, they only confirmed that they were convinced of the efficacy of appealing to women. Even the long-distance bus companies tried to convince families that the bus could become their second car.

Mobility was infectious, and once gained, whether as a shopping trip to buy groceries, as a means of going to church more easily, or as an escape from parents’ watchful eyes, it was never forgotten and difficult to deny. The automobility of Americans during the depressed 1930s was a huge testimony to the appeal of the motor vehicle. Robert and Helen Lynd marvelled at how depression-proof was car ownership in Middletown’s county during the tough years of the early 1930s. Americans may have curtailed some of their driving and ridden in progressively older vehicles, but they unashamedly continued to ride, suggesting that the automobile was becoming regarded as an essential to many families. Warren Belasco has further noted that middle-class Americans continued their driving expenditures in the first half of the 1930s and were mobile up the recession of 1938. Hotels and early motels may have suffered economically as tourists turned to cheaper and more convenient autocamps or cabin camps, but Americans were still travelling. Indeed the 1935 Census of Business counted 9,848 “tourist camps,” often in the South and the West, and the number of gasoline service stations nearly doubled from 121,513 in 1929 to 241,358 a decade later.

Gender and Automobility: Consumerism and the Great Economic Boom

Many historians consider the 1920s to be the decade that ushered in “modern times” in terms of materialism and consumerism, new cultural and moral values, rational science, and improved transportation and communications, all stimulating national standards and new rhythms of everyday life. Certainly the contrast between the New Era of the 1920s and the Progressive Reform years of the twentieth century up to 1917 was striking. And this is indeed true for the automobile and motoring in the two periods. But taking automobility to denote the availability and use of the automobile and its diffusion and importance as a social and cultural artefact, then the move from popular experience and enjoyment to mass consumption and impact did not take place until the affluence of the years after World War II enabled most groups and classes to partake in the real rather than imaginary world of easier personal road travel. Encouraged by the mass media and helped by better access to finance, many more citizens then rushed to consume goods and services. Indeed by the 1960s auto consumption had become a way of life that Americans increasingly exported to the western world and then around the globe.

The ambition to own automobiles had been established in the 1920s and was put on hold during the depressed 1930s. American involvement in World War II made travel by personal car much more difficult. The federal government rationed gasoline and tires in mid-1942 and in October of that year reduced the earlier national speed limit of 40 miles per hour to 35 miles per hour to conserve fuel and rubber. It became more difficult to drive and at times also dangerous because of the condition of frequently repaired tires and patched up essential parts of vehicles that had already been nursed through the Depression. Indeed many drivers moved back en masse onto trains and buses and travelled by public transport. Intercity travel by automobile had accounted for 89% of the total passenger miles in 1939. By 1944 car travel fell to 58.6% of the total, with public carriers now accounting for the remainder. Americans did not like the conditions on the trains and the buses, which were crowded, if not overcrowded, slow, and often broke down. Long waits in congested terminals only compounded the misery. Americans on the home front worked hard in these years of full employment, saved money because of the shortage of consumer goods, and looked forward to peace and a return to normalcy when they could buy cars and get on the road again.

The return of peace did not immediately fulfill either their aims or those of Americans who had not previously been able to afford a car. It proved time-consuming for manufacturers to switch assembly lines from military requirements to civilian automobiles, and acute shortages of basic raw materials persisted. Only in late 1946 did the government lift all priorities. Then car sales reached over 2.1 million, a figure that was slightly less than the Depression-year output of 1934. Demand was very high, but supply did not match this demand for several years even though car sales reached 5.1 million in 1949. There was a slight dip in output during the Korean War, but otherwise production continued upwards, reaching 7.9 million in 1955. By then 52.1 million cars were registered, a huge increase over the 25.8 million of the last year of the war, 1945. A decade later in 1965, car manufacturers sold 9.3 million cars and there were 75.3 million cars registered. Here was the actual spread of “autopia” or the national love affair with the car, as most Americans started to enter what Lizabeth Cohen has called “The Landscape of Mass Consumption.”

This post-war boom in automobile ownership and its ensuing automobile-based culture was not solely the result of the craving of Americans of both sexes to get behind the wheel. The federal government was anxious to ensure prosperity and security and assisted the consumer boom either directly or indirectly. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, more commonly known as the G.I. Bill of Rights, offered 16 million military veterans loans to buy homes or farms or to start a business. One fifth of all single-family dwellings built between the end of the war and 1966 were financed by Veterans Administration (VA) loans, and most of these houses were located in suburbia, where land was cheaper and more abundant. Automobiles then became American’s main mode of mobility. This automobile revolution was also aided by the federal government’s highway building program. The Federal Highway Act of 1944 authorized the spending of $1.5 billion in matching funds to build and improve roads. Then in 1956 the Federal Aid Highway Act authorised spending $25 billion over a twelve-year period to pay for a National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, a planned network of 41,000 miles of multilane, limited access, toll-free roads. Costs increased during the building of the interstates, but the network continued to be constructed, allowing nearly all groups to participate not only in local and regional motorization, but also in nationwide mobility. To be without a car in the United States was, except in the heart of large Eastern or Midwestern cities where a viable public transit system remained operative, to be almost in exile.

Suburbanization in single-family, low-density units, the re-domestication of women in order to care for these new homes, and differential family incomes were important ingredients in suggesting new patterns of transportation. Life in the suburbs—and by 1965 55% of those with incomes over $10,000 were suburbanites—was isolated and miserable without access to facilities. Commuting became a way of life for millions. Although these Americans were differentiated into particular communities by economic and racial discrimination, they all needed to move back and forth for work, school, shopping, running errands, and travelling to group events, whether these were religious, child-oriented, or recreational. Public transit, whether older modes like trains and streetcars or the newer bus, could not meet new individualistic aspirations and demands. The private car was the obvious practical answer, and soon there was an automobile parked on every suburban drive. Indeed, by 1960 15% of families registered ownership of two or more cars, a figure that had risen to 28% a decade later.

So where did the two sexes fit into this new level of automobility? Did they want and need the same service from automobiles, or did they have separate aims and objectives? And for those families who only owned one car, who was the prime driver and why? Work locations were slower to relocate to the suburbs than were domestic residences in the 1950s and early 1960s. Males needed to travel to work. As they were the breadwinners in most suburban families, they either drove themselves to the office or the factory or were driven to and from the local train station to continue their commute to the city. When the former happened, women often became socially isolated and frustrated, because the demand for public transit was too low to encourage private enterprise to provide service to downtown or to local retail centers. Housewives who retained control of the car during the day or those who managed to persuade their husbands that their lives would be difficult, lonely, and miserable without personal transport or that in their new upward mobility they deserved their own vehicle, whether new or second-hand, gained independence as well as mobility. For both of these female suburbanites, the car became almost a second home.

Initially such women got behind the wheel to shop. Retail outlets might be grouped a mile or more away from their homes, but these were gradually shifted into more purpose-built shopping centers. Such off-street retail complexes were frequently dedicated to domestic, if not female-oriented, consumption, and they were planned as primarily female meccas because market analysts estimated that women did between 67 and 92% of family shopping and spent considerable time at the stores. Designed to facilitate car access and to offer a variety of services in a one-stop journey, shopping centers increased from 8 in 1945 to 3,840 by 1960. Frequently anchored by department stores, they accommodated a number of different shops and services, thereby drawing in consumers from both the neighborhood and the region. If supermarkets were not located in these shopping centers, they required a separate visit from the motorized suburban housewife who wanted to take the weekly supply of food home in one journey. Indeed the supermarket came of age in the decades of post-war affluence. In 1950 it accounted for 35% of American food sales; a decade later this percentage had doubled. Not only did the low prices appeal to consumers' sense of value, but the supermarket also fitted the new automobile-led middle-class way of life. Supermarkets responded to their growing popularity by becoming bigger and better, by carrying new branded products and more sizes of pre-packaged foods, and by having larger parking lots.

Suburban women also perceived the growing need to transport children by car, initially to school. As more children’s activities became organized into such groups as Girl Scouts or Little League, in addition to the more traditional piano or dancing classes or school bands, mothers became major transporters of their offspring. While the yellow school bus might pick up children from the edge of the suburban complex, it was not privatized to adjust to the individual interests of specific families. Mothers wanted and needed to run their children from pastime to pastime. Indeed William Chafe has observed that the suburban family was essentially run by children. Even the advent of television, which by the mid-1950s was a feature of 66% of homes, did not prevent this child-centered mobility. Add to the shopping and children’s activities trips to doctors’ and dentists’ offices and visits to friends, families, or clubs, then it is easy to see that many suburban housewives were becoming dependent on the automobile to carry out domestic responsibilities and to pursue their own interests.

Suburban housewives might be synonymous with the growing numbers of white middle-class women in these decades, but other women were also interested in automobility in the post-war years. Increasing numbers of females were gainfully employed and were working wives or working mothers. By 1960 over twice as many women were employed as in 1940. The remarkable shift in this female labor force participation took place among married women with husbands present, revealing a 139% increase in women aged 35-44 and a 254% increase among the 45-54 year olds. Married women, frequently in older age groups and from the middle class, were leading the surge in the growth of employment in the service sector, where many women were already working. Whether they were suburban or metropolitan, they not only carried out their domestic responsibilities but also had to get to work. They were interested in multi-tasked journeys and faced complicated travel patterns that could not be accommodated by public transport. They, too, became gainfully employed commuters who wanted to drive themselves to work.

Yet there is more to gendering automobility in the post-war years than putting more women behind the wheel on a regular basis. Two other notable features of the mass spread of the car culture of the 1950s and 1960s were teenagers on the road and family vacations, and the overlapping dependence on roadside facilities used by both groups. In addition to the car parked on the drive as an icon of post-war society, vacation trips became another status indicator as well as being a potential time for enjoyment. Mark Foster has well described the less-than-relaxing reality of vacation trips for millions of blue-collar workers who were enjoying their first paid holidays in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Travelling in non-air-conditioned vehicles, usually with the father driving, mother navigating, and the children in the back seat, staying at motels that were still of the “mom and pop” variety and thus lacked amenities and often charged extra for children, was not a restful experience for anyone in the family. But as with many service sector businesses in the 1950s, entrepreneurs quickly seized the opportunities of a buoyant economy in which recreation and leisure were becoming important to American lives and promoted automobile-oriented businesses. Motel construction boomed in the late 1950s and the 1960s, and by 1964 there were 62,000 motels in the United States. Stimulated in part by the tax code of 1954 that allowed rapid depreciation of construction costs, some motels were flimsy, but others offered an enjoyable, secure and entertaining “home on the road.” Here family travellers re-energized in order to move on, whether their stay was in a franchised “no surprise” accommodation, an economy lodging, or a roadside inn.

In addition to lodgings, automobile tourists and travellers of both sexes needed food and gasoline service stations. As with the motel, limited-menu, fast-food chains emerged on or near major highways. Even before World War II, coffee shops, roadside stands, and new “drive-in” restaurants offered an eating experience that was integrated with automobility. As cars became much more central to post-war travel plans, families, especially working-class families, wanted quick, cheap and substantial meals at the roadside. More quick service, fast-food “eateries” emerged to meet the demands of automobile convenience. Howard Johnson’s expanded in the 1950s by merging the casual soda fountain with more formal dining into the familiar orange-roofed chain of family restaurants where children were welcome. White Castle, focusing on the hamburger served in look-alike diners, also expanded to cater to nervous mothers and families travelling without reliance on home cooking. This chain was soon overtaken by another generation of roadside eateries, McDonalds. Started in 1954, McDonalds had 82 outlets in 1966. Six years later it ranked second of all the food service operations in the United States with over 1,000 franchises. The rapid delivery of a uniform quality mix of prepared foods in a clean, orderly, and cheerful environment with drive-up or drive-in facilities underwrote the success of the “Golden Arch” operation. This “place-product-packaging” concept that co-ordinated architecture, décor, product, service, and working routine nationwide, set the standard for many imitators as they delivered uniform food products to a nation in a hurry and on wheels. And these fast-food outlets became more than the choice of tourists of both sexes in the post-war years. They attracted home-based families who wanted to give mother a rest from preparing meals, and they become the haunt of teenagers on wheels. Doubtless they, too, were hungry, but they also wanted a space in which to socialize with their peers.

Teenagers were publicly recognized as a growing phenomenon in the 1950s and 1960s. The offspring of the parents who had married young during the war or immediately thereafter, these “baby boomers” forged their own lifestyle, a proportion of which was centred on access to the car that could give them freedom. Having wheels meant escape from prying eyes, gaining “street cred[ibility]” among high-school or college peers, and access to the local automobile culture. Gaining a driver’s licence was, as Kenneth Jackson suggests, the most important rite of passage in the high-school experience. While the majority of teenagers who inherited and customized “hand-me-down jalopies” were young males, young females were by no means debarred from teenage automobility. Indeed, they were central to this style of youth culture. Part of teenage driving was to impress other male students about knowledge of and intimacy with car technology, but another part was to be seen cruising with a popular girl, often enjoying the new rock and roll music to the annoyance of the older generation. To join the scene teenagers also frequented the local drive-in restaurant or visited the drive-in movie theatres. By 1950 there were 1,700 outdoor drive-in movie theatres, a number that grew to 4,200 only four years later. Reaching their height of popularity in the late 1950s and known as “passion pits” by both their critics and admirers, they offered teenagers, more so than families, a haven where they could be themselves while watching road movies or movies with automobile themes at bargain-basement prices, if not indulging in other activities.

During the years of confidence in the twenty to twenty-five years after World War II, the automobile moved to center stage in American life. For both sexes of all ages, it became a household vehicle, if not technology that changed their way of life. It was the house on wheels. Girls and women viewed the car and its culture in differing ways from boys and men, but everyone wanted access, increasingly as drivers as well as passengers. Even though the years of liberalism in the 1960s also provided a sharp critique of the hypothetical benefits bestowed by automobility, car production and sales continued to rise as Americans became more dependent on their personal vehicles and public transit systems offered few alternatives to the increasing number of people living in suburbs. There was a growing awareness of the environmental, energy, and safety problems created by high levels of driving, but remarkably little action was taken as all Americans aged 16 and over (and sometimes younger) took to the road to pursue their individual desires and commitments.

Gender and Automobility: Sexual Equality in Modern Times

In the late twentieth century, the two sexes have become more alike in their access to and usage of cars. This convergence of behavior says more about the actions taken by women to gain equality rather than about any changes in automobile production and technology. Among these actions the dominant trend has been for more women of all ages to be gainfully employed and then for women of all ages to be able to drive. They entered what some historians have called and continue to call “male public space.” Although there have been some indications that men have participated in the private space of the home and housework in the same ways that women have entered the public space of employment and politics, there remains a considerable lag in the activities of male homemakers. Nevertheless, women have insisted on much more equal access to automobiles because increasing numbers of dual-income families are able to afford not just two vehicles parked in the drive, but three or even four. Indeed, by 1990 20% of all American households had three or more cars. At the other end of the spectrum, the notable growth of female-headed families since the 1970s has also contributed to the growing presence of female drivers.

Recent government statistics and scholarly analysis of women’s travel patterns have pointed to a variety of issues and trends basic to gendering automobility in the United States. While the rise in gainfully employed women, the continuing suburban sprawl, and the failure of public transit to satisfy individual needs appears to be central to understanding why women have increasingly become dependent on the automobile, diversity among women drivers rather than differences between the sexes has now become fundamental to understanding female automobility. By 1990 the percentage of women drivers was approaching that of male drivers. Each generation of young female Americans, regardless of class, race, or ethnic affiliation, was learning to drive because automobility had become one of life’s expectations, if not necessities. New immigrant women arriving in large numbers in the 1980s and 1990s also came to recognize that to be car-less or unable to drive sentenced them to a life of dependency, inconvenience, and frustration in the land of plenty. Furthermore, as the auto society matured, increasing numbers of older women continued to drive. It seemed that, once a driver, always a driver, unless health problems and safety issues intervened. Women were making more journeys, more often, and were travelling more miles.

Women’s increased participation in the labor force has been the impetus for their greater familiarity with and usage of automobiles. Historians of women have repeatedly pointed out that since the 1970s women’s life cycles have become more like those of their male counterparts. If we reverse this male-led proposition it might be preferable to say that as the twentieth century moved towards its end, feminine cultural mores became more central, if not dominant. Such conceptualization when applied to automobility has been well expressed by the reporter Joel Garrow in Edge City, his book on recent American urban and demographic patterns. Suggesting that 1978 was the “spike year,” he observed that the doubling of cars in the United States between 1970 and 1987 resulted not only from women’s greater involvement in the work force, but also from their demands to work in locations that were convenient both to their homes and to their chosen mode of individual transportation, the automobile. Regardless of what architectural shape “Edge City” took, urban developers knew that Americans rarely walked more than 600 feet before getting into their cars and that these vehicles needed to be parked. It was becoming an axiom that as women took to the car in increasing numbers, society and work were becoming yet more shaped around that vehicle.

So which women were now working or were working longer hours, and how had they become so tied to their cars? And were they more attached to or dependent on the car than were their male counterparts because they worked in both the private and the public sphere? Women’s labor force participation stood at 59.5% in 2003, a point at which it comprised 47% of the total American labor force. These proportions have not changed significantly since 1990, and analysts suggest that growth has slowed or has come to a virtual standstill as most women who can, wish, and need to go out to work, have done so. Focusing on women in the age group between 22 and 44, or women in their prime child-bearing and child-rearing years, it seems that childless women and women whose children have reached adulthood had a high labor participation rate of 84% in 1995 and have had this commitment to paid work for some years. Those women in the same age bracket who were mothers, however, moved rapidly into the workforce. Mothers of school-age children increased their participation rates from 55% in 1975 to 75% by 1990, while mothers of pre-school children moved upwards from 39% to 58% during the same years and then to 61% by 1995. So how have America’s employed women used their cars?

More women recently have been moving out of the traditional low-paid feminized occupations into professional and managerial positions, and they have been working longer hours. For these middle-class and frequently Euro-American women, the work-life balance has became more complex. They have had to juggle such arrangements as child-care, “gofering” children to school and to extra-curricula activities, getting to and from their job, and running errands, which could involve anything from supermarket shopping, to banking, to picking up items required in their households or in personal or family business engagements. Working mothers are much more likely than working fathers to drive for household errands or non-work family requirements. Their trips have become either specific shorter commutes as the need arose or multi-tasked. Indeed, women prefer the latter type of journey because it is more time-efficient. They engage in “trip chaining” or linking different journeys into one longer, interrupted ride, and they use their car as a flexible vehicle. Single adults with children are even more likely to undertake these trip chains as they are the sole driver in the household, and since the divorce rate shot up in the 1970s there have been more female-headed than male-headed families. The rise in female-headed family households from 8.7 million in 1980 to 12.4 million by 1995 put many more women on the road more often.

Where the traditional two-parent family remained intact or was replaced by the step-family, women were more likely to link journeys than were men. Having more domestic responsibilities, they often preferred to make shorter work trips, especially when their children were young. This preference took two forms. Those in managerial and professional occupations who belonged to the 55.5% of households with two or more cars in 2000 pressured developers to move office buildings out to “Edge City” rather than remaining in the traditional male-dominated downtown. Such offices or work centers were convenient for middle-ranking women. Those female workers who remained in the lower-paid feminized jobs, often in the service sector, became more creative about car-pooling arrangements, worked part-time, or tried to live where it was possible to use public transit. But these suburban or metropolitan women, too, have pressed for access to their own vehicles, whether second-hand or hand-me-down family cars, a trend reflected in the growing sales of new and used cars in the 1980s and 1990s. Mothers who belonged to the 10% of households who remained car-less were often in poverty and could not afford to commute to work.

Income has not been the only influence shaping the modern car culture of American women, though it seems to have been the dominant one. Racial and ethnic differences suggest variations in women’s propensity either to drive or to access automobiles, while senior citizens of all origins still diverge from younger women. A multicultural and aging society cannot expect there to be a universal gender norm, even though the white middle-class woman has been the role model in the past. Social science research in the 1990s clearly demonstrated that female minority workers were at variance with Euro-Americans in their commuting-to-work patterns and thus in their automobility or lack of automobility. African-American women living in inner cities experienced longer work trips to service sector jobs whether they drove or used public transit, although the differences between all female auto-users have been decreasing in recent years. Hispanic workers, again frequently located in central cities, also often had longer journeys to work, using public transit. As many were newly-arrived immigrants, they were less likely to hold a driver’s licence or to actually drive than their African-American peers, let alone Euro-American women. Indeed, in 1990 66% of Hispanic women held driver’s licenses in contrast to 71% of African American women and 90% of Euro-American women. Furthermore, their cultural upbringing may have hindered their desire or ability to become Americanized and thus auto-dependent if work at home or at a nearby, walkable business was available.

Women currently over the age of 65 may not have been so fully immersed into personal automobility as their younger counterparts are now. They also appear to be less auto-active than comparable men, in that they have cut back on their driving at an earlier age. They have thus tended to become more dependent on the support of family and friends for their “auto-ized” standard of living. Good access to income has bought taxi services for some or residence in a retirement community where help is to hand, but the travel patterns of older Americans, especially older women, have consisted of shorter or fewer car journeys than average. Security issues seem to have worried older women more than younger women or men of any age, and the fear of traffic accidents and possible injuries has also contributed to their reticence to drive as they aged. Although newer generations of senior women have demonstrated a propensity to remain “autoized” significant increases in their life expectancy and their ensuing capacity to drive may continue to deter them from getting behind the wheel even though technological improvements have made automobiles easier to handle and safer in recent years.

The notable increase in women’s automobility since the 1970s has been related to other personal decisions over and above their dual role of household manager and gainfully employed worker. Recent American travel surveys have paid much attention to leisure travel, which has consisted of vacations, visiting friends and relatives, entertainment, and recreation. Women may spend less time during the course of the week in travelling to local leisure pursuits than do men because they spend more time working at home, but they have become fully engaged in vacation travel and networking with family and friends. Their local or regional journeys, often on the weekend and sometimes involving an overnight stay, have usually been taken in an automobile, which increasingly has become a minivan or a Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV) as being more practical for carrying children and large quantities of personal items and increasingly equipped with in-car entertainment. Their planned vacations, often in the third quarter of the year, have either made full use of the main family car or have combined air travel with car rental when they shared the driving.

Long-distance leisure travel, defined as journeys over 50 miles one-way, has in modern times become differentiated by income and age rather than by sex. Income and age in turn can be combined into what might be called life-style choice categories. These categories have fragmented the mass market of the post-war consumers’ republic into a mosaic of specific niches. By the mid 1980s households could be differentiated into 62 distinctive “clusters” of consumers. Persuaded in part or in full by high-powered sales tactics, communicated initially by print advertising, direct mail and phone messaging, and then by the newer electronic forms of telemarketing and internet shopping, American consumers have been persuaded or have persuaded themselves that they belong to distinctive subcultures marked out by life-style choices. Leisure travel became one of the indicators of this life-style branding. Then the individual, the couple, or the family decided to sightsee in the national parks of the Rocky Mountains, go camping in the Adirondacks, take a coastal trip on California’s Route One, visit the amusement parks of Florida, or enjoy a series of day trips to local places of interest according to their perceived life-style standing. Wherever these tourists went, they were likely to use an automobile, and most likely one of their personal automobiles, because driving was necessary to cover the land miles even if some of the journey was undertaken by plane. Windshields primarily framed holidays within the United States.

Income was critical to deciding distances travelled and the location of Americans’ vacations, while age influenced their activity level and the desire for like-minded company. Professional or managerial single women could well afford to set themselves apart from others as elite travellers, customising their vacations and staying in good-quality accommodation. Like males of the same age group and social standing, they were looking for something distinctive and hoped to mix with new interesting people and enjoy fresh experiences and pastimes. Their automobile usage was likely to be much less than the blue-collar family on an outdoor activity holiday. Struggling to retain their standard of living as income inequality grew in America in the 1980s, these families were more likely to drive the highway landscape in their personal vehicle, using roadside facilities and stopping off for excursions that offered potential enjoyment and relaxation. Their experiences were an outgrowth of and variation on the automobile tourism of the previous generation. Senior citizens, free of mortgage commitments and education costs, and enjoying adequate pensions, savings, and good health, took to the road more regularly for both short and long outings, often at times when accommodation and attractions were discounted at out-of-season rates. Usually travelling in pairs or small groups, their greater mobility showed no significant gender difference. They were relishing the freedom of a mature automobile culture and the economic benefits of retirement. Ethnic or racial subcultures became less distinctive in their travel patterns as increasing proportions of minority Americans improved their standard of living. Those with the income, having fought the battle for social inclusion, were able to enjoy the vacation they desired and could afford without fear of discrimination. Those who remain rooted in poverty did not participate in vacation mobility.

Recent automobility has displayed the characteristics of what Lizabeth Cohen has called “identity politics,” in which Americans’ attachment to a particular consumer community has defined their cultural consciousness and has thereby influenced their patterns of driving. Although most Americans continued to live in the suburbs and increasing numbers of households had dual incomes and more than one car, driving was nationally differentiated by income and age. Within these two major categories, single-headed households, race, and ethnicity created more subgroups than gender. The gender gap in drivers’ licenses, access to vehicles, and miles driven had narrowed considerably, and women and men had similar opportunities to make their automobiles into a second private space. In the age of more equal opportunities, many women made shorter and more multitasked trips than men because they remained more involved in domestic tasks. But they were as much tied to personal automobility as were men. Their mass access to cars provided abundant opportunities for greater life-style flexibility and rapid change. By taking the wheel more often they have contributed to the ever-changing face of the world’s dominant motorized society.

Gender on the Line

Women were involved in producing automobiles as well as consuming these popular twentieth-century vehicles. Historians have written many volumes on male car workers, their response to Fordism and Sloanism, their union struggles in the 1930s, their position as well-paid and organized blue-collar workers in the post-war years, and their struggles to adjust to restructuring as the automobile industry faced foreign competition and environmental criticism, and adopted automation. Only recently have historians and social scientists examined female car workers in an attempt to recover the hidden past of how women specifically contributed to manufacturing automobiles and thereby to industrial relations. Their findings reveal that women’s access to auto factory work opened slowly and with difficulty. Male blue-collar workers, long persuaded by the ideal of the family wage, resented female intrusion into their workspace and created barriers to gendering work patterns despite the egalitarian ethos of industrial unionism.

Women have always been part of the American automobile labor force, but they became more visible during the union struggles of the 1930s. As very supportive auxiliaries during the major sit-down strikes of 1936-37 they contributed indirectly to the building of the United Auto Workers (UAW) in these critical years. They were also more directly active in the drive towards organizing industrial unionism in parts plants, like the Ternstedt General Motors factory in Detroit or at Fry Products, also in Detroit, where women were numerous. Conventional ideas about women’s place being in the home, however, prevented any sustained action by female auto unionists to press for gender equality, let alone consideration of women’s special needs. Males, whether rank and file workers or union leaders, were insensitive to feminine needs and concerns. The mass assembly line was a masculine domain, or in the words of Nancy Gabin a “No Woman’s Land.”

American participation in World War II initiated changes in the position of female workers as over six million American women responded to male labor shortages and became the nation’s reserve army of labor. In the auto industry the number of female workers jumped from 28,300 in October 1941 to 203,300 in November 1943, and by 1945 women comprised 28% of the UAW’s membership of one million. Women then took advantage of their stronger numerical position to express their concerns about gendered working conditions. They challenged aspects of the sexual division of labor that defined female and male work as separate and unequal and confined women to a limited number of poorly paid jobs. They made some path-breaking gains. The UAW responded positively, albeit at times grudgingly. It supported the federal government’s wartime funding of day-care facilities for children of working mothers, developed a model maternity rights clause for inclusion in work contracts, introduced a much-admired scheme of counselling for new female workers, assisted the progress of experienced women up the ranks of local union leadership, and established the Women’s Bureau as an Office of the War Policy Division in 1944. Unfortunately, the support the UAW gave to improving female auto workers’ needs proved to be only temporary. The wartime reclassification of jobs and the retention of male wage rates and seniority rights had already suggested that any gains might be short-term and that women would be expected to revert back to low-paid inferior jobs or preferably to domesticity. And when male workers returned to the auto industry in 1945, they insisted on the long-established structure and organization of work.

Traditionally historians have discussed American women’s labor experience in the post-war years as being in the doldrums. Female workers were perceived to lose ground as the culture of domesticity flourished. Not until the feminist activism of the 1960s would issues of gender equality and women’s dual responsibilities at home and at work be publicly debated. Revisionist historians have, however, now clearly demonstrated that modern feminism neither born in the 1960s, nor was solely led by discontented white middle-class women. Working-class feminism emerged from union halls and factory floors in the 1930s, grew during the war, and developed a new consciousness in the two decades after the war. Then women entered the long struggle for workplace justice and social rights, and they argued for the dismantling of the masculine standard. These labor reformers initially wanted sexual equality on the shop floor. But they gradually came to argue for both full equality and special benefits for women and did not consider that the two concerns were incompatible. They were building a case that gender differences must be accommodated and that equality has not always been realized by applying the same standards of behavior to women and men.

In this more persuasive approach to the labor feminists of the post-Depression years, women on the automobile lines and in the UAW were leaders in the struggle to achieve workplace equity. Their wartime experiences left a positive rather than a negative legacy in providing both a sense of self-confidence and an appreciation that work conditions were not unchangeable. Certainly in the late 1940s the number of female auto workers was reduced, often by discriminatory tactics, and the UAW frequently failed to defend its female membership. Although frustrated by indifference and at times hostility even from their male counterparts, female activists and staff in the Women’s Bureau continued to challenge the union to retain its commitment to fully equal treatment, and they persisted in engaging with the problem of occupational segregation and in making gender-conscious protests. Gradually, if grudgingly, increasing numbers of auto unionists in the 1950s and early 1960s found the arguments for equal job rights, including the claims of married women, more persuasive. The debate over a single seniority list rather than separate male and female lists further indicated a growing awareness of workplace justice among auto workers. These were the good years for workers in auto plants as the UAW, nearing the peak of its influence and power in the industry, negotiated job security, rising wages, and fringe benefits for its members.

Women in the auto industry, who could be regarded as leaders in labor women’s rights in these years, subsequently became involved in the famous legal battles of the liberal years over equal pay and civil rights. They fully supported the need to address the race issue through civil rights legislation, and when Title VII, or the sex clause, was added to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, many pressed union officers to challenge management’s discriminatory practices of applying older state laws on such issues as overtime and long-hours shifts that prevented women from gaining access to better-paid jobs. Here the UAW women’s officials were at odds with other labor women who represented female-dominated workers in less well-paid industries and with some of their own members. But they persisted in pressing for gender equality even though this meant accepting the male standard in hours as well as wages. Subsequently in 1970, the UAW endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), the first union to do so. More tensions followed with other union women as they debated how to move forward in the interests of women, but UAW leaders insisted on sex-blind treatment in the workplace and promoted greater activism among union women. They knew that culturally women remained dissimilar to men because they bore the burden of household work and childcare, but they failed to promote the equal sharing of these domestic responsibilities. Their feminism was thus limited by its narrow focus, which is as problematic now as it was then.

Yet in the 1960s and early 1970s the working-class activism that emerged from the female auto workers was transforming in terms of raising issues of gender equality and social justice. It occurred, however, shortly before the industry faced major restructuring as a result of international competition, the flight of American production abroad, outsourcing, new labor-saving technologies, and new patterns of work organization. The industry that employed one million workers in 1978 slumped to some 750,000 five years later. Women were among the many who lost their jobs as plants were closed or modernized. Although union activists continued to support women’s efforts to increase their incomes by seeking access to men’s auto jobs and also moved in the direction of comparable worth to help those women who still remained in the lower-paying female jobs, they faced major problems of unemployment. Thousands of women were laid off or were bought out of their contracts and conceded wage rates, benefits, and work rules won in the prosperous years. The UAW, like other older industrial unions, was in a weak position to negotiate improvements as blue-collar manufacturing jobs declined and power shifted from labor to management in the 1980s despite the introduction of some Japanese management practices. Workers of both sexes faced humiliations of daily shop-floor life, and women not only had to struggle with this poor supervisory treatment, but also faced resentment from their co-workers. They had become a cog in a dehumanized production line.


Automobiles have been central to American lives throughout most of the twentieth century. Initially considered “boy’s toys,” they were popularized and then mass-produced into becoming essential modes of transportation for a modernizing society. Many women may have been inhibited about taking the wheel while there was less than one car per household unit, but they wanted to learn how to drive and seized their opportunities whenever they were presented. Having gained a measure of independence during World War II and being part of the post-war affluent society, they adopted the automobile as a type of second home in which they drove to implement their newly-emerging status as homemaker and gainfully employed worker. Their auto usage and dependency increased like that of their male peers, such that by the end of the century the automobile had become either a gendered or a genderless vehicle.

Critical Bibliography of Key Sources

Any discussion of the impact of the automobile on the lives of women and its relationship to understanding changing views of femininity must start with Virginia Scharff’s Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age (1991). This is a pioneering volume that examines the interaction between women and the automobile up to 1929 and demonstrates how gender considerations affected the design, engineering, and sales of automobiles and how driving gave women freedom, independence, and power. While scattered sources also discuss women’s participation in automobility and their relationship to the car culture in this pioneer period, other scholarly studies of female motorists have not followed this splendid volume. Materials for later years are few and far between and tend to examine the automobile industry. Information about women and the automobile must thus come from a variety of sources, including official statistics, women’s and gender history, the history of technology and culture, popular culture, volumes on automobile industry and its workers, and on urban and suburban developments.

For study of the automobile and its influence on American culture, Michael L. Berger’s reference guide and evaluation of source material, The Automobile in American History and Culture: A Reference Guide (2001), is of immense value. This guide is much more than a listing of materials, an introduction to the literature in the field, or an annotated bibliography because it links together an enormous number of books and articles in a sequence of narrative and thematic essays. It is both the starting place for understanding the nature and significance of the automobile’s impact on American society and culture and is an inspiration for undertaking more research into the world’s leading “autopian” nation.

No serious researcher of American automobile production and American car culture can or should want to avoid the publications of the two leading automotive historians of the third quarter of the twentieth century, John B. Rae and James J. Flink. John B. Rae set in motion the scholarly study of the car industry and automobile transport and travel with his brief history of The American Automobile (1965). Building on his earlier volume, American Automobile Manufacturers: The First Forty Years (1959), he analyzed the social, economic, and political scope of automobility for the general reader. His subsequent and best volume, The Road and the Car in American Life (1971) examined the impact of automobile mobility on the lives of Americans through the 1960s. John Rae was essentially positive and upbeat about the impact of the car on the United States.

James J. Flink expressed major concerns about the influence of the automobile and what he came to consider as the social problem of automobility. In his first book, America Adopts the Automobile, 1895-1910 (1970), he investigated how the early years of the automobile industry changed the socio-economic environment in a risky, if not negative, way. His second and more influential book, The Car Culture (1975), was distinctly critical of the vehicle that came to be revered by most Americans and was the center of a consumer economy. Flink’s third and still critical volume, The Automobile Age (1988), provided an extensive history of both the industry and the mobility it stimulated. Between them, Rae and Flink represented the peak of scholarly work on automobility. Unfortunately neither man wore gendered spectacles, although their publications were by no means gender-blind. The relationship of women and men to each other and to their cars was not their direct concern because they were products of their age, and gender was not on their agenda. Their output, however, can be used indirectly to see where women and men fitted into a nation that was being consumed by automobility.

Similar comments are applicable to Mark S. Foster’s A Nation on Wheels: The Automobile Culture in America since 1945 (2003). Gender insights are present, but are not direct or in the fore. This short but dynamic book essentially offers a knowledgeable, learned, and balanced survey of the vast, complex, and varied impact of the automobile on recent American life. There are both positive and at times personal insights into automobility, but there are also warnings about the serious challenges facing a car-dependent society.

Fortunately women’s history and newer insights into labor history have provided more evidence about gender and the production of automobiles. Nancy Gabin’s, Feminism in the Labor Movement: Women and the United Auto Workers, 1935-1975 (1990) offers the first synthesis of women’s difficult work experiences on the line and their campaigns within the male-dominated United Automobile Workers. Indeed the automobile industry served as a major arena for working women’s collective action.

In the area of official statistics, since the 1970s federal government organizations like the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), and Office of Highway Information Management (OWIF) have been concerned to ascertain the patterns of travel by women and men over time and to evaluate the planning and policy implications of differences both between the sexes and between different groups of women. Three conferences have been held, in 1978, 1996, and 2004. Of these, the second National Conference on “Women’s Travel Issues” offers a range of insights into the ways and the reasons why women use automobiles in their daily lives in the late twentieth century. The forty peer-reviewed papers, seven poster session abstracts, and research agenda are available in the Proceedings from the Second National Conference in 1996.

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