Cars & Road Trips Made A Huge Difference In Women’s History

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Today, cars can feel a little suffocating. In bigger cities (and sadly in many smaller ones), traffic can make you feel like you’re stuck in a rolling coffin. Everywhere, the cost of owning one can sometimes make you feel like you’re caught in a debt-trap with a newer car or feel like you’re putting the mechanic’s kid through college with an older one that’s paid off. This leaves many people seeking more freedom using transit, e-bikes, and other modes of transportation.

But, if you go back to the early days of automobiles, Atlas Obscura tells the story of a time when the situation was pretty different. In fact, one of the first cars ever built got taken by a woman, without permission, on the world’s first road trip! Bertha Benz wanted her husband’s invention to actually be seen out in the country so people would buy it, but her husband Karl Benz was being timid about it. So, she took the car out on a road trip with her kids.

Seeing a woman and her kids drive by in a three-wheeled horseless carriage got a lot of attention, and seeing her stop to make quick repairs and adjustments to the machine got even more attention. She even used her garter to cover an ignition cable that had lost its insulation, showing the world that cars were something that weren’t only for men.

This outing proved to be the first of many during the early 20th century that smashed barriers for women seeking greater independence. In those days, women were often treated as little better than serfs, unable to walk around in a city alone. Sometimes, it was the harassment. Other times, it was assumptions that a woman walking the street must be a prostitute. Whether they thought she was a prostitute or not, a woman walking the streets over 100 years ago would likely be bothered by the authorities and asked where her husband or father was, not unlike a lost child.

Bicycles and cars made this kind of harassment a lot harder to pull off. Zipping by at 10-30 mph meant that the wealthy women were first left alone by authorities. Then, as women from lower income households joined the wealthy women in the streets on 2, 3, or 4 wheels, everyone got used to seeing women alone in public. In the beginning, some men tried to stop this, claiming that bicycles would lead women to all become lesbians or become infertile (an argument still used to this day in Saudi Arabia), but there was no shaming women back into the kitchen.

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This new market wasn’t lost on the early electric vehicle manufacturers. Because ICE vehicles of that era required manual cranking to start, most women just couldn’t do it. This limited them to either keeping the motor running or traveling with a male companion with enough arm strength to start it for them. Asking a stranger to help could be seen as either flirtatious or dangerous, so that was largely out. EVs, on the other hand, were tools of liberation for many women because they could be operated without cranking to start, shifting a janky early transmission, or nasty fumes.

As the electric car market started to fail, women’s freedom was saved by another invention: the electric starter. By being able to press a pedal on the floor to crank the engine, a woman’s small toe became as strong as a man’s whole arm. This meant that women of that era got to keep the bit of freedom cars had won them!

The car would soon prove useful for the next fight after freedom of movement: the right to vote. Suffragettes took a famous trip across the United States in 1915 using improved ICE technology to show that women were every bit as capable as men. Keep in mind that this was several years before even the United States military tried to take a convoy across the whole continent by car, so this was an extremely gutsy move. Road conditions were iffy at best and deadly at worst in those days.

“The sight of the car, with its worn banners, luggage roped on to the running boards, and the western mud and dust carefully preserved to heighten its effect, allowed the suffragists to stage a highly stylized performance of female independence, transcontinental solidarity, and sexual equality,” historian Georgine Clarsen wrote. “It was a nonverbal vocabulary of entitlement and social change, perfectly intelligible and easily read by people in the streets.”

The article at Atlas Obscura goes on to tell the stories of women who did other types of performance driving beyond cross-country endurance runs. Bugatti sponsored Hellé Nice in races all over Europe and South America. Other women set land speed records, raced across Mexico, and set drag racing records as the decades went on. This in turn smashed assumptions about femininity, enabling young women to have role models who didn’t feign weakness to impress domineering men.

As we know, the fight for equal rights for women continued on from there and still continues today. In a time when some politicians are trying to take away reproductive freedom, pressure women to use the “fundie baby voice” to impress Christian nationalist men, and even show off a sitting senator speaking from the kitchen in that tone, inspiration from the past when the first women broke out from those barriers is more important than ever.

It’s also important to remember that this fight is about more than just the rights of women. Breaking gender stereotypes and restrictions enables men to live more freely and not have to pretend to be somebody they’re not in order to impress people. It also enables the LGBT community to likewise not feel constrained by those stereotypes in their daily lives.

Plus, with the re-emergence of electric vehicles, this is a fight for our children, too. Women care deeply for the world’s children, and it’s in our nature to watch out for their future. So, it pays to be involved in the EV industry and help secure the future of our planet while we smash those stereotypes.

Featured image from the Library of Congress.

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