Women in Post War Car Culture

While in graduate school during the 2000s, I devised an independent study focused on my growing interest in the relationship between women and cars. What follows is one of the response papers in which I consider how the construction of women as consumers in post World War II automobile culture served to limit women’s possibilities rather than expand them.

“American Car Culture” was created through the serendipitous confluence of a number of historical and social events in the years following World War II. Prosperity, promise and peace contributed to a fascination and a desire for cars that went beyond practicality and usefulness. As the documentary Tails, Fins and Drive-Ins suggests, twenty years of hardship and conflict created a “national obsession with obtaining the elusive American Dream,” a dream often realized through car ownership. Americans sought a reward for years of self-sacrifice; the automobile not only symbolized an “unlimited supply of economic luster,” but represented a promising and prosperous future as well. Television also contributed to the development of car culture. Its invention coincided with the growing desire to own a car, and television promoted such desire through programming and advertising. The development of a national freeway system, to accommodate the growing number of automobiles, not only changed the landscape of the United States, but also created a demand for family destinations such as motels, drive-in movie theatres and in-car dining. As Mark Foster writes in A Nation on Wheels, the automobile “not only influenced where Americans lived, worked, commuted and ran daily errands, [but] the automobile helped shape many of their leisure activities” (65).

Perhaps more important, as Joseph Interrante in “The Road to Autopia” attests, is the role of the automobile as “simultaneously a cause and consequence of the rise in consumerism” (90). The automobile emerged, both literally and figuratively, as the vehicle of the American consumer society. As Interrante writes, “made possible by the automobility of the car, metropolitan consumerism made the automobile a transportation necessity” (91). A burgeoning economy, and the suburbs that grew alongside the expanding highways, created a desire for products and the ways and means to purchase them. And the role of consumer, considered vital to a healthy economy, was most often awarded to the woman who remained at home.

While few dispute the automobile’s influence in the growth of the American consumer culture, little mention is made of another important “event” that helped set consumerism into motion. And that is the return of women to the domestic sphere after World War II. During the Second World War, women entered the workforce to take over the jobs left by husbands, fathers and brothers enlisted in the armed services. Once victory was attained, women were “encouraged” to leave paid employment in order to create welcoming homes for soldiers returning from war. Just as working in industry was deemed “patriotic” during wartime, setting up housekeeping and establishing families was considered a duty to country. Women’s isolation in the newly developing suburbs made owning a car a necessity, especially in the newly prescribed role as consumer.

Interrante asserts, “[the automobile] especially liberated women from the home” (99). In The Automobile Age, James Flink concurs, as he writes, “automobility freed […] women from the narrow confines of the home and changed them from producers of food and clothing into consumers of nation-brand canned goods, prepared foods, and ready-made clothes” (163). However, the automobile did not lessen the number of women’s domestic responsibilities; rather, it converted them into consumer duties. The freedom referred to by Interrante and Flint is misleading. After World War II, women were expected to leave the “masculine” work force to reassume the proper, culturally approved gender role of wife and mother. Ascribing women with the role of “consumer,” while bolstering the economy, also served to reinforce the common belief that woman’s place is in the home, unless, of course, she is in the car purchasing products for that home. As Ruth Schwartz Cowan writes, ‘by mid-century, the automobile had become, to the American housewife of the middle classes […] the vehicle through which she did much of her most significant work, and the work locale where she could be most often found” (Flink 164).  So while the car culture that emerged after the Second World War opened up exciting new possibilities, experiences and meanings for men, it effectively closed them for women. The automobile as a symbol of rebellion, power, status, and sex appeal became part of masculine car culture. Representations of women in popular car culture, Foster tells us, are primarily “appendages or passive observers to be impressed by powerful machinery” (85). While women may have originally been “enamored,” in the words of Flink, with the possibilities of automobility, such dreams were rarely brought to fruition. In the golden age of American car culture, the automobile symbolized woman’s identity as consumer, and reinforced the culturally prescribed gender role as wife and mother.

Flink, James. The Automobile Age. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990.

Foster, Mark. Nation on Wheels: The Automobile Culture in American Since 1945. Belmont CA: Thomson, Wadsworth, 2003.

Interrante, Joseph. “The Road to Autopia: The Automobile and the Spatial Transformation of American Culture.” The Automobile and American Culture. David Lewis & Laurence Goldstein, eds. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Tail Fins and Drive-Ins. 1996. Allumination Filmwork.

Volti, Rudi. Cars and Culture.: The Life Story of a Technology. Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 2004.

Fit for a Dog

3 bullmastiffs ready to go in a Ram City Wagon

With the growth of pet ownership during the pandemic, auto manufacturers are going to the dogs. Each year various news and automotive publications provide a list of vehicles that are the best choices for individuals and families who travel with canine companions. Some of the features that mark a vehicle as dog friendly include a low ride height for easy access, fold flat seats – particularly important if dogs travel in crates, rear vents for temperature control, a durable interior, cargo tie-down hooks, tinted rear windows, hands free liftgate, and of course, roomy cargo space. Some auto manufacturers go out of their way to provide specific pet accessories that make traveling with dogs easier. Options such as pet ramps, padded liners, a harness, pet carrier, and even a small pet travel bowl suggest that automakers are serious about attracting pet owners. 

As someone who has bred and exhibited dogs for over 30 years, I have had my share of dog vehicles. However, as we often have to carry many dogs that fall into the giant breed category, our needs differ a bit from the average dog owner. 

AWD GMC Savanna

Full size vans have been our vehicle of choice for the majority of our dog showing years. We started out with Ford Econovans. Because air and heat are important, we make it a habit to purchase passenger vans and remove the back seats. These vehicles work well because they are roomy, have taller interiors than minivans and SUVs, can carry a lot of dogs, extra crates, exercise pens, food bags, and also carry human necessities. While Ford was our 3-time choice due to the ability to purchase on the A plan, the vehicles were rear-wheel drive, which was somewhat problematic in snowy Michigan even with winter tires. Our best van was the GMC Savanna. It was all wheel drive, and plenty durable – it lasted for over 10 years and 100,000 + miles. When we made the decision to downsize our show involvement and dog numbers, we purchased a Ram City Wagon, once again removing the seats for additional cargo space. With front wheel drive and snow tires, it worked reasonably well in the snow. However after three years of cramming two or three dogs in crates that were a tad too small, we decided to go back to a bigger vehicle.

Ram 1500 Promaster

Our most recent – and most likely last – dog show vehicle, is a Ram ProMaster. Although it is technically a cargo van, we had it retrofitted before picking it up, as well as hooked up for rear heat and air. It has tons of space – we can carry 4 dogs easily, more if the crates are stacked. It is easy to clean, a snap for the dogs to get in and out of, and has tons of head room, so much so that at 5’2” I can stand straight up in it. It is front wheel drive, and handles well in the snow with winter tires. While it does not exactly qualify as fun to drive, it has a good turning radius and the seats are comfy for long trips. It is not high tech and does not come with GPS, but our phones suffice for that purpose.

Tall enough for me to stand upright!

We have just recently retired from breeding. In a couple of years we plan on moving into town with just two – albeit large – dogs. We look forward to the return of the Detroit Auto Show so that we can spend some time looking for just the right vehicle for our well-traveled canine companions.