Women Behind the Wheel: The Freedom of Driving

Woman wearing driving clothing

Women Behind the Wheel: The Freedom of Driving

Melina Druga
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A 1910s female driver
A 1910s female driver

The stereotype is that women are bad drivers. This stereotype no doubt got its start in the early days of the 20th century when motoring was thought of as a male pursuit.

But there were some pioneering women who thought it was all nonsense. A woman could operate an automobile just as well as a man.

Women were drawn to driving for several reason:

  • Driving allowed rural women to get into town faster.
  • Women wanted to prove they could master a car just as easily as farm machinery or home appliances.
  • Motoring provided a sense of adventure and independence.
  • Cars were family vehicles that could be used for travel.

Men’s Objections to Women Drivers

Woman driving a horseless carriage
Woman driving a horseless carriage

Men had all sorts of objections to women drivers. They said women were too emotional to drive, that they wouldn’t be comfortable being alone in a vehicle. It was even suggested that cars were technologically challenging for a woman.

These objections were purely sexist as the first person to drive an automobile long distance was a woman.  Bertha Benz, wife of the Benz in the company today known as Mercedes-Benz, drove 66 miles in 1886. It took slightly less than 12 hours.

By 1900, Karl Benz’s company was selling 600 cars annually, making it the largest automaker in the world.

British ambulance driver
British ambulance driver

Cost, of course, remained an issue for both men and women. In 1912, a Ford Model T cost $575. Only the most affluent could afford to purchase their own car.

During the First World War, women drivers became heroines. Women were employed as ambulance drivers. They also took over men’s positions in public transportation.

Driver’s Licenses

A driver's license from 1921
A driver’s license from 1921

Believe it or not, the first driver’s licenses were issued in the early 1900s. Compulsory testing started a few years earlier in some cities. Other areas required no testing at all.

The first woman in the United States to obtain a licence was Anne Rainsford French Bush.  She “obtained a ‘steam engineer’s license,'” the U.S. Department of Transportation says, “which entitled her to operate a ‘four-wheeled vehicle powered by steam or gas.'”

Not Everyone Preferred Cars

Some women were bolder than others.  Like this woman, they embraced another new technology — the motorcycle.

Woman riding a motorcycle
This lady preferred a motorcycle

Saudi Women Can Drive

Saudi Arabia was the last country to allow women to drive, issuing the first licences in June 2018.

King Salmon issued a royal decree six months earlier lifting the ban.  Women in Saudi Arabia need a male guardian for most things, but one will not be required for a licence.

Woods Electric car ad
Woods Electric car ad

Activists had worked for decades to reach this point.  Women who defied the law and drove anyway were jailed.

“Many of these activists have been harshly penalized and still remain behind bars, and the struggle continues,” Yahoo News says. “Only a month ago [May 2018], the Saudi government imprisoned about a dozen women who previously rallied against the driving ban — the same one that has just been lifted — and have been noted critics of the male guardianship policy that governs most of Saudi society.”

This is a great step forward for women, but clearly more most be done

When did you get your first driver’s license? Leave a comment below.

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Updated: 4 July 2018

Most kids have an active imagination. My imagination has stayed strong into adulthood, and I’ve funneled that creativity into a successful writing career. I write history, both fiction and nonfiction, because although your school history classes may have been boring, the past is not. My goal is to bring the past to life in all its myriad of colors.

2 thoughts on “Women Behind the Wheel: The Freedom of Driving

  1. I received my first license in High School.

    The thing that really stood out to me in this article was your statement about Bertha Benz’s car trip. People in our era would do more than balk, I think, if it took them 12 hours to go 66 miles! And yet, that was a huge improvement over the same trip by horse and buggy, I’m sure.

    1. Oh, a huge improvement. And it was a shock to passersby, too, because most had never seen a motorized vehicle before.

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