Women at the Wheel
A Century of Buying, Driving, and Fixing CarsUniversity of Pennsylvania Press
272 Pages, 6.00 x 9.00 in, 3 illus.
- Published: July 2022
- Published: September 2017
- Published: September 2017
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Ever since the Ford Model T became a vehicle for the masses, the automobile has served as a symbol of masculinity. The freedom of the open road, the muscle car's horsepower, the technical know-how for tinkering: all of these experiences have largely been understood from the perspective of the male driver. Women, in contrast, were relegated to the passenger seat and have been the target of stereotypes that portray them as uninterested in automobiles and, more perniciously, as poor drivers.
In Women at the Wheel, Katherine J. Parkin illuminates the social implications of these stereotypes and shows how they have little basis in historical reality. With chapters on early driver's education and licensing programs, and on buying, driving, and caring for cars, she describes a rich cast of characters, from Mary Landon, the first woman ever to drive in 1899, to Dorothy Levitt, author of the first automotive handbook for women in 1909, to Margie Seals, who opened her garage, "My Favorite Mechanic . . . Is a Woman," in 1992.
Although women drove and had responsibility for their family's car maintenance, twentieth-century popular culture was replete with humorous comments and judgmental critiques that effectively denied women pride in their driving abilities and car-related expertise. Parkin contends that, despite women's long history with cars, these stereotypes persist.
"Women at the Wheel is a remarkable tour de force. The book sweeps through the twentieth century and into current times to examine how American women have been associated with the car. The scale of the coverage is awesome, and the sources are both numerous and diverse . . . Katherine Parkin has combined the traditional diligence of the historian digging through archives and libraries with the technology of the internet to create an analysis which should appeal not only to academics, but to a much wider audience."—The Journal of Transport History
"[T]ranscends historical narration, offering a meditation on gender roles and power relations . . . Women at the Wheel does a wonderful job of analyzing the relationship of women to automobiles."—Business History Review
"Parkin challenges many of our historical notions about women and driving, especially in the early period, and her work adds greatly to the ongoing conversation about automobility in the United States . . . Woman at the Wheel adds depth to well-known stories and brings a fresh perspective to the table."—Technology and Culture
"Now I understand why I so often end up in the passenger seat! Katherine Parkin has convinced me that driving-and all that surrounds it-is one of the most gendered experiences in American history. Women at the Wheel reads like a romp through American popular culture, but Parkin's claims are well worth taking seriously."—Beth Bailey, author of Sex in the Heartland
"Buying, driving, and fixing cars has always been a highly gendered experience, as Katherine Parkin shows in this engaging and richly researched narrative. But when the focus is shifted from an experience overwhelmingly understood to be male to what it was like for women at the wheel, a deeper meaning is revealed: the ongoing power imbalance between women and men."—Susan Ware, author of Game, Set, Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women's Sports
"If you've ever wondered just what it was that drove Thelma and Louise over a cliff, you need to read this book. In her fascinating work of historical scholarship, Katherine Parkin uses twentieth-century popular culture-from lowbrow to high, from the front pages of newspapers to the poetry of e.e. cummings, from an interview with Newt Gingrich to the fiction in magazines-to demonstrate how American men tried to stop American women from discovering the empowerment possibilities that lay 'behind the wheel.'"—Ruth Schwartz Cowan, author of More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave
"Women at the Wheel takes a novel approach to exploring-and debunking-the tired but persistent clichés about women's ineptitude behind the wheel. Katherine Parkin's examination of archival and popular sources reveals how both cars and drivers have been gendered in fascinating and provocative ways."—Jennifer Scanlon, author of Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown
- Winner of the 2018 Popular Culture Association Emily Toth Award for Best Single Work in Women's Studies