Simanaitis Says

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WOMEN AT THE WHEEL

I RECENTLY READ a debunking of the “just a woman driver” myth. It was in “What a Woman Can Do With an Auto” by Robert Sloss who made “the surprising statement that woman not only can do but has done with the automobile everything of which man can boast—in some respects she has done it better.”

I should add that Sloss’s article appeared in a 1910 issue of The Outing Magazine.

Women and Advertising. Sloss wrote, “… the favorite device is a female figure with hands airily touching the steering wheel. Sometimes, her garb is a cross between that of a Greek goddess and the Statue of Liberty; sometimes it is of a wasp-like modernism.”

“Always,” he said, “it is altogether decorative, and if people think about it at all, they are inclined to set it down to the pretty symbolism of artists who invariably paint a figure of a woman to represent ‘Progress,’ ‘Commerce,’ and most of the things with which women are supposed to have nothing to do.”

A Sisterhood. “Yet the woman at the wheel is no allegory,” Sloss said. “Already her intuition has put her in touch with the automobile. Its delicacy of adjustment, its vagary of moods, she has come to understand as those of a sister organism, for what enthusiastic motorist does not refer to his car as ‘she.’ ”

Maybe I’d feel a bit more attuned to this argument had Sloss not paired “enthusiastic motorist” and “his” car.

The Hairpin. Even back in those days Sloss said, “Some … may apply an old joke and assure us that the lady motorist’s tool kit is confined to a hairpin.”

I recall Bertha Benz’s Motorwagen drive, in which she used her hairpin to unclog a fuel line.

In August 1888, Bertha Benz drove a 128-mile roundtrip with her two teenage sons in husband Karl’s Motorwagen No. 3 (without his permission…).


Women and Things Mechanical. “Did you ever see a woman fixing her sewing machine?” Sloss asked. “If you have, and possess any imagination, it will not be hard for you to look into the future far enough to see the automobile working as marvelous, though quite different a change in the life of a woman as the sewing machine is credited with having brought about.”

Like the typewriter, the sewing machine took women out of the home and into the workplace. (Though not always with overly positive results.)

Women in Competition. Sloss observed, “There is scarcely an organized competitive tour nowadays without the entry of at least one woman driver, and it is no longer surprising if she makes an enviable score for herself.”

Sloss cites Mrs. F.J. Linz, of San Francisco, who “has driven over every road in both California and Nevada.” Mrs. Linz made an appearance here at SimanaitisSays. One of her achievements followed the 1906 San Francisco earthquake: Sloss noted, “… with only a thin waist and petticoat over her underclothing, she drove steadily for two days carrying women, children and even exhausted soldiers to shelter.”

Meanwhile, on the East Coast. Sloss cites “Mrs. Andrew Cuneo, of New York City, who, in competition with men, has won more motoring prizes for speed, endurance, and skill than any other woman alive.… In September of that same year [1905], she did some fast exhibition driving at Atlantic City. Subsequently, Mr. Al. Reeves, the automobile association manager, asked her to repeat the performance at the Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Fair.”

Sloss continued, “There she competed with Barney Oldfield, Cedrino, and other famous men drivers and did an exhibition mile in the then splendid time of 1 minutes 24 seconds. The following November she drove an exhibition mile in 1 minute and 14 seconds at the Empire track in New York City. The next year in Atlantic City she won her first race in competition with men drivers, doing a mile in 1 minute 12 seconds.”

These and other primary-source tales are from Motoring in America: The Early Years, edited by Frank Oppel, Castle, 1989.

Mrs. Cuneo once gave a spirited drive to Enrico Caruso, who remarked, “I see that my chauffeur does not know how to drive… But this—this is like sailing on the ocean or in the air!”

“I quietly slipped into the high speed [i.e., high gear] then,” said Mrs. Cuneo, “and scared him into silence, as I once scared Barney Oldfield into yelling ‘Slow down!’ ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2019

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