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Gender and Automobility: The Pioneering and Early Years

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Gender and Automobility: Sexual Equality in Modern Times

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Gender and the Automobile in the United States

by Margaret Walsh

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.

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