How have women and automobiles been depicted together? The image I conjured in my mind’s eye involved attractive women draped across a car in a purely decorative fashion–something like the image below, where the finer features of the bathing beauties are more on view than the Columbia Six Sport they are presumably helping to advertise.
But that was before I embarked on a journey of discovery through our online images of women and automobiles and began to read about the development of the automobile in the twentieth century—an era that also saw a marked change in women’s roles and activities. As I searched, a variety of images surfaced, many showing women behind the wheel–images such as the one below. Here, the original caption on the photo submitted by F.C. Quimby for copyright protection in 1921 referred to the vehicle simply as the “machine.”
While the focus in this photo was on the smiling woman and less on the machine she was navigating, it suggests how driving offered women scope for engaging in the wider world. Photographs from a few years earlier emphasize this engagement.
The news photo below shows suffragists Miss Neil Richardson and Mrs. Alice S. Burke starting on a cross country automobile trip on April 6, 1916.
When we shared this photo through Flickr, a member led us to a New York Times article that referred to Burke and Richardson as “Suffrage Autoists,” on a trip that ultimately covered 10,700 miles. Along the way, they delivered suffrage speeches in “the byways where suffrage orators are seldom heard.” Their car, dubbed the “Golden Flyer” was yellow and apparently somewhat the worse for wear by the time they returned from the West Coast to New York.
About the same time, suffragists were among the women who took to their autos for a different purpose: raising funds and encouraging recruitment during World War I. Here, actress Claire Richardson is seen on a “Wake Up America,” drive.
Waking up, myself, to the sheer variety of depictions of women in and on automobiles, I set out on the information superhighway seeking more information about the relationship between women and automobiles in American history and came across a site produced by the University of Michigan – Dearborn and the Benson Ford Research Center: “Automobile in American Life and Society,” which includes scholar Margaret Walsh’s discussion of gender and the automobile. One of the thought-provoking points she makes is how the introduction of the automobile relieved the isolation of rural women. Whether they were behind the wheel or in the passenger seat, the family auto enabled them to get into town to shop, sell produce, and participate in organizations with greater ease than in animal-drawn vehicles. This led me to look at our many photographs of rural life in the Farm Security Administration Collection with a keener eye to the automobiles in view.
Challenging my mind’s eye by looking at historical pictures of women and automobiles took me down fascinating lanes of history, full of twists and turns– and pointed me towards new research avenues to follow.
- Have a look at a sampling of images of women and automobiles in our holdings. There are more to be found by trying techniques of looking for captions with “Miss” or “Mrs” and by looking for synonyms for “automobiles” (e.g., “cars” “jalopy”) and the names of particular models of cars.
- Read about the “Golden Flyer” road trip in historic newspapers from Chronicling America.
- Challenge question: Margaret Walsh’s discussion of gender and the automobile includes a case study of women and the electric car. Walsh notes that the electric car, which ran slower and cleaner than gasoline-powered cars, was marketed particularly to women, not entirely successfully. I have yet to find a clear view taken in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century of a woman in an electric car. While I look in our undigitized collections, maybe you’d like to hunt in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog or in the historic newspapers in Chronicling America. If you find one, please send us a comment!
- View the many resources relating to women’s history available through the Women’s History Month portal.