Placing Gender and Automobiles into Perspective

Gender and Automobility: The Pioneering and Early Years

Gender and Automobility: Consumerism and the Great Economic Boom

Gender and Automobility: Sexual Equality in Modern Times

Gender on the Line


Critical Bibliography

Full Bibliography

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Gender and the Automobile in the United States

by Margaret Walsh

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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