A Quick Note on Early Female Drivers

Early female motorists were often not wealthy travelers; they were automobile pioneers, the “firsts.”  These included the first woman passenger on a transcontinental trip, the first woman driver on a cross-country trip, the first solo-female driver on a transcontinental autotrip, and the woman who set the cross-country speed record.  Automobile makers, who, in an attempt to sell autos to men, wanted to show that theirs were so easy to drive that even a woman could do it, and so they sponsored many of these first trips.  Curt McConnell, author of A Reliable Car and a Woman Who Knows It, reveals that these women appeared in newspapers largely as a result of men, either from the press or hired by the automobile manufacturers sponsoring the trip, riding ahead of the female-driven car.  These “pilot cars” would alert the press of the woman’s arrival, so that by the time she arrived in town, the newspapers would be ready with reporters and cameras to cover the story, where “female transcontinental motorists were received as heroes.”[1]  Clay McShane, author of Down the Asphalt Path: The Automobile and the American City, in acknowledging the rarity of female drivers in newspapers, notes that, “in writing about drivers in general or, in referring to drivers whose gender they could not identify, reporters bestowed only masculine pronouns or adjectives.”[2]  Although these “first” females proved that women could be capable drivers if given the opportunity, male dominated society still relegated the majority of women the passenger, or even the back, seat.

Beyond these “firsts,” suffragists became one of the first groups of women to utilize and drive the automobile on their own.  They traveled across the country to promote the women’s vote.  Barnstorming, as it was called, was a way to “get positive publicity for their cause.”[3]  Local newspapers covered their arrival at stops along their routes in part because barnstorming suffragists were also female motorists.[4]  Even after women won the right to vote in 1920, similar drives continued, including a solo-trip taken by Maud Younger, legislative chairperson of the National Woman’s Party, in 1923 from California to Washington D.C. to promote the Equal Rights Amendment.  In 1924, Younger’s two-part article, “Alone Across the Continent: The Adventures of a Woman Motorist on the Road from Coast to Coast,” ran in Sunset Magazine, chronicling her cross-country adventure.[5]  As suffragists attempted to advance rights for women, they also increased society’s acceptance of female motorists and drivers.


[1] Curt McConnell, A Reliable Car and a Woman Who Knows It, 23, 61, 103, 136-137; Clarsen, 132.

[2] Clay McShane, Down the Asphalt Path:The Automobile and the American City (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 131.

[3] McShane, 132.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See Maud Younger, “Alone Across the Continent: The Adventures of a Woman Motorist on the Road from Coast to Coast,” Sunset Magazine, May 1924, 43, 106-109 and Maud Younger, “Alone Across the Continent: The Adventures of a Woman Motorist on the Road from Coast to Coast,” Sunset Magazine, June 1924, 25-27, 60.

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2 Responses to A Quick Note on Early Female Drivers

  1. Martha Ginty says:

    My paternal grandmother learned to drive in Europe in the early days of automobiles. She continued to drive as if there was no one else on the road! In the 1960s, when she was in her 80s, she had to take a road test to get her license renewed. The DMV tester told her”Madam, you drive like a kid.” Not sure if it was a compliment but she was known around town and folks got out of the way when they saw her coming.

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