The Other Road Finally Taken

AN implicit choice beckons every morning at the entrance to the turnpike: east into Boston, to the office, to duty and grownup responsibility; or west to the rest of the world, to whatever adventures could be improvised on a morning away from work, at least until the pangs of a guilty conscience set in. The decision is always made in favor of responsibility over adventure. But that makes the sense of escape from the usual path all the sweeter as one sets out on a week's vacation.

It's a motor trip this time; a change of pace not only from the usual weekly routine but from the usual escape routes by air. There's something satisfying about occasionally getting the chance to move through spaces, and not just over them, as we do when we fly. And there is something about being "in the driver's seat," in charge of one's progress, that no form of public transportation can duplicate. One admits this to oneself with some ambivalence, however, especially if one is a believer in the econom i

c and social importance of public transportation.

This little odyssey has been been informed, so to speak, by insights from a new book by Virginia Scharff called "Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age."

Women in the driver's seat were significant manifestations of - and agents of - the social changes that began to sweep America in the early years of this century, as the author relates. The suffragettes, for instance, relied on automobiles to get them to meetings and demonstrations of women's right to vote.

And women served as ambulance drivers in World War I, denting if not shattering the stereotypes of helpless females who could barely be expected to learn to shift gears, let alone make mechanical repairs. (Ms. Scharff, who teaches history at the University of New Mexico, has some interesting bits on the ambulance-driving careers of that dynamic Paris duo, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, who volunteered impulsively despite not knowing how to drive.)

But if cars had a big effect on women, women had a big effect on the auto industry, as carmakers tried to figure out how to reach the female market. As Scharff sees it, the auto industry was held prisoner by "gender ideology the late Victorian tendency to divide human experience into spheres of influence of the two sexes. Men's sphere was public life, the workplace, labor that brought home cash; women's sphere was private life, the family, and housework that wasn't paid and hence didn't quite qualify as


Gasoline-powered cars (smelly, messy, but more powerful and with a greater range) were seen as naturally a masculine prerogative, whereas electric cars (cleaner, quieter, but less powerful and with much smaller range) were a natural for women. The norm for the female motorist was the housewife doing her domestic errands in an electric car. The image of the male motorist was a rugged adventurer setting off solo for parts unknown.

The trouble is, not all women signed onto this concept - they wanted range and power too. And eventually automakers realized that the "convenience" features intended for women were of interest to men, too, notably the electric starter.

The result was a more unified auto industry that sold simply to drivers, not men drivers or women drivers, and went on to help transform the social and geographic landscape.

Now, that automobile-powered transformation has not been an unmitigated boon to American society. The automobile has connected us all and yet also spread us out, distanced us from one another. When a single parking lot is as big as a whole village used to be, when subdivisions are built without sidewalks, community is being lost. And a lifestyle built on imported nonrenewable sources of energy is in trouble.

Natural-gas-powered vehicles are being looked at nowadays, especially in cities with serious air-quality problems. The discussion recalls the days of clean but wimpy electric cars. The issues of short distance vs. long, of how much power a vehicle really needs, of individual adventure vs. environmental responsibility to the larger community, are the issues of a hundred years ago.

But "gender ideology" won't come up again. Women have taken the wheel.

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