The Forgotten Women of Women’s Automotive History

The history of women and the automobile is a subject that has not received a great amount of attention in scholarship. It wasn’t until 1991 that the first comprehensive history of women’s involvement with the automobile was published. Virginia Scharff’s groundbreaking work, Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age, shattered previous presumptions of women’s relationship with the automobile as it set the stage for further research. Australian historian Geogine Clarsen provided a more international approach to women’s automotive history with the publication of Eat My Dust: Early Women Motorists in 2008. Katherine Parkin, a social historian and professor at Monmouth University, examined the history and social implications of women driver stereotypes in Women at the Wheel: A Century of Buying, Driving, and Fixing Cars in 2017. While each of these publications are important contributions to the field of women’s automotive history, the focus of each analysis is White women. The assumption, therefore, is that all women, regardless of class, color, or ethnicity, experienced automobility in similar ways.

Entrepreneur CJ Walker at the wheel of her Model T Ford in 1912

Transportation historian Carla R. Lesh, in Wheels of Her Own: American Women and the Automobile, 1893-1929, broadens the scope of women’s automotive history to include the early experiences of Black and Indigenous women. Writes Lesh, “the automobile offered new freedoms: freedom for all Black women from the danger they encountered on public transportation in the era of increasing segregation; freedom for Indigenous women to rebuild cultural, kinship-based, and economic networks shattered by Federal government policies; and freedom for White women from the restrictions of the sheltered, home-centered life of the Victorian era” (2). Yet as Lesh notes, although the majority of women appreciated the automobile as a useful tool to improve their quality of life, gender and racial restrictions often qualified how that freedom might be achieved. 

Philip and Eugenia Wildshoe (Coeur D’Alene) and family in their Chalmers automobile, 1916

Lesh places the automotive experiences of White, Black, and Indigenous women into relevant social and historical contexts. Rather than generalize automotive experiences as common to all women, Lesh examines how social factors – including discrimination, geography, and cultural practices – influenced women’s automotive participation. As minorities, Black and Indigenous women’s automotive experiences had more in common with men of their respective populations than White women. Thus Wheels of Her Own does not focus exclusively on female motorists but also considers the social climate in which women took the wheel. Lesh provides valuable insight into how women negotiated entry into the new technological world which, due not only to gender, but also to race, ethnicity, and class, was not always welcoming.

Lesh’s fascinating and important new work is a timely addition to current scholarship focused on the history of women and cars. As an investigation of the divergent automotive experiences of Black, Indigenous, and White women, Wheels of Her Own is a valuable resource for the historical and social exploration of gender, race, and mobility during the early automotive age.

Suffragists leaving New York City in a ‘Golden Flyer’

Birthday Ballpark Road Trip

Cool night at Banner Island Park

When asked how I wanted to celebrate a big birthday, I had a one word answer – baseball. Since my birthday is at the very start of baseball season, my husband and I decided to take a trip to northern California where we would be able to visit one major league and six minor league ballparks in just over a week. Forgetting how vast the state of California is, we decided to stay in one location and travel each day to a different stadium, as well as a couple of National parks. It turned out to be a not-so-great idea as we spent way too much time in a, dare I say, crappy rental car. The weather cooperated for the most part – it started out cool at the beginning of the trip and warmed up a little each day. Minor league games are always a hoot and the California Single and Double A teams did not disappoint.

Happy 75th [yikes!] Birthday to me

Our first stop, after a long plane ride and jet lag, was Banner Island Park, home of the Stockton Ports. Northern California can be quite chilly at night; I was glad to have my woolen cap and parka. Saturday evening found us at Excite Park, where the San Diego Giants play. It is an old ballpark with lots of history. The game was made more special by attending it with my old high school friend Pat and her husband Paul, who live in Palo Alto. The AAA teams were pretty awful but entertaining to watch. There were a lot of hit batters, and a player running from second to third tripped and made a somersault [he was out.] Sunday we headed into San Francisco to watch a Giants game. While we’ve been to Oracle Park before [a few names ago] we had great seats in the sun and it was an exciting game – the Giants came from behind in the 8th inning to win. Monday is an off day in minor league baseball and was also my birthday. We spent it at Yosemite National Park where there was still snow on the mountains.

Home of the Fresno Grizzlies

On Tuesday we headed to Sutter Health Park where the Sacramento River Cats play. The weather was starting to warm up – I was able to ditch my parka and enjoy some sun before it set. Wednesday found us at Chukchansi Park [try repeating that three times], home of the Fresno Grizzlies. While the Grizzlies are a Single A team, the stadium was originally built for a Triple A club; it was the largest and nicest park we visited on the trip. Our Thursday trip was to John Thurman Park. It was a small and raucous stadium where the Modesto Nuts play; the team has a Bat Dog, who would scamper out of the dugout to retrieve a bat once the hitter headed to first base. Our last game was spent at Valley Strong Park, home of the Visalia Rawhide. It is an old, small park with plenty of activities to keep the kids occupied.

Visit to the California Automobile Museum

Although we did a lot of driving, we found time between ballparks to make a few stops. While in Sacramento to watch the River Cats, we made visits to the California State Railroad Museum and California Automobile Museum which were wonderful surprises. And afternoons spent at Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks were nothing short of spectacular.

The spectacular Sequoia National Park

It was a fun trip and a great way to celebrate my birthday; however, there were a few things I learned. 1. Check the distance between destinations before booking hotels, and 2. Take your own car or splurge on a better one.