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Beyond passengers: The history of women and cars

Melissa Preddy
Special to The Detroit News

Women’s History month has me thinking about women and our relationship to the automobile.

Allegedly, the very first long-distance outing in a horseless carriage was undertaken by Bertha Benz.

From race-car drivers to inventors to industry titans, most of the household names associated with the motor vehicle are men. But from the very start, women have been right there next to men — fixing, designing, promoting and, of course, driving the automobile.

Lore has it, for example, that the very first long-distance outing in a horseless carriage was undertaken by Bertha Benz. Fed up by her husband Karl’s tinkering with his new invention — with experimental autos at that point being driven only short distances for test purposes — the 39-year-old Mrs. Benz and her teenage sons sneaked the three-wheeled buggy-like Patent Motorwagen No. 3 out of the garage — and motored an astounding 65 miles from Mannheim, Germany, to her mother’s home in Pforzheim.

Along the way, reportedly, she used a hatpin to clean out a clogged fuel line and a garter to insulate a wire, making the dawn-to-dusk trip in a fraction of the time of a horse-drawn ride. The roadways she followed have been named the Bertha Benz Memorial Route, part of the European Route of Industrial Heritage.

Bertha Benz’ historic trip and her roadside-repair savvy — undertaken to prove the commercial and consumer value of this newfangled contraption — illustrates that from the very start, women were active participants in this new technology and new industry.

Lore has it that Bertha Benz sneaked her husband Karl's three-wheeled buggy-like Patent Motorwagen No. 3 out of the garage and motored an astounding 65 miles from Mannheim, Germany, to her mother’s home in Pforzheim.

Yet for some reason, in popular culture over the past 100 years, women are often depicted as more concerned that the paint-job matches their lipstick than with what’s under the hood. At worst, they are disparaged as bumbling, accident-prone “women drivers.” (This last despite a variety of surveys and statistics that deem women to be the safer sex behind the wheel.) The subtle implication of phrases like “women driver,” “women mechanics,” and so on, is that they are not the norm — that there are drivers, and then there are women drivers.

In her 2008 book “Eat My Dust,” Georgine Clarsen examines women and cars from the late 1800s and writes that “the very term ‘women motorists’ indicates that they were supplementary to the main game.”

Clarsen, a professor of history and politics at Australia’s University of Wollongong, researched numerous stories by and about early female drivers, business owners and more. She points out that in the earliest days of motoring, in England, Australia and the United States, pioneering women were trained mechanics, taxi-service providers, owners of driving schools and garages, ambulance drivers and technicians.

Indeed, in the 1970s when Clarsen herself followed the feminist slogan “Give a Girl a Spanner” (wrench) and became an apprentice mechanic, she was surprised when older women patrons told her about their own experiences as auto mechanics. Female competence in auto technology was not a new thing in the latter half of the 20th century — yet somehow the myth of women as passive occupants of the auto persisted.

“While the motoring industry welcomed women as consumers, the idea that they might develop an authoritative relationship to cars — becoming capable drivers, knowledgeable purchasers, happy tinkerers, professional designers or creative designers — was a different matter,” Clarsen wrote. “Manufacturers and their agents frequently used the slogan So Simple a Woman Could Drive It throughout the first decades of the century and well beyond.”

One of the eyebrow-raising anecdotes from her book comes from a pair of women who were making a late-1920s cross-country trip in a Dodge roadster. According to Clarsen’s research, the women took to hiding out to make necessary repairs and maintenance to their vehicle, because they said if they worked on the car in inhabited areas they were usurped by men who thought women “with anything more than an eggbeater in hand” were to be supervised.

Even today, attitudes persist. In a recent conversation, I recounted performing a somewhat elaborate aftermarket change to my own vehicle. To my irritation, a male acquaintance kept marveling “You did that? You did that yourself? No one helped you?”

Male students continue to overwhelmingly fill vocational programs in auto tech, and car ads aimed at women seem to emphasize room for kids and groceries, but seldom acceleration, speed or handling.

It’s perplexing that more than a century into this far-reaching, fascinating entwining of our daily lives with the automobile, women aren’t seen as — and often don’t see themselves as — real contenders for influence and excellence. Powerful women in car manufacturing, sales, racing, design and repair still are the exception rather than the rule.

Melissa Preddy is a Michigan-based freelance writer. Reach her via