“Crazy woman driver!” You might remember this line from the climax of Disney’s 1961 animated film, 101 Dalmatians, when Cruella De Vil upsets a truck driver she is trying to run off the road. Under a Youtube video clip of the scene, one commenter writes that “crazy woman driver” is “a quote that every man in the Western World can rally behind.” Indeed, “woman driver” humor has been a quirk of automobile folklore since people began driving. At the turn of the century, advertisers, journalists, and auto companies believed that men and women naturally approached the science of driving differently, beginning with their divergent preferences for gas-powered and electric vehicles.
While electric cars are considered to be “cutting edge” in today’s world, they were actually quite commonplace in the early days of the auto industry. Electric cars did not have the power and range that gasoline cars did, but were significantly more comfortable and easier to operate. Before 1912, most gas-powered engines had to be started manually with a hand crank. Hand-cranking was laborious and dangerous, especially if the engine kicked back instead of starting. Backfired engines frequently caused broken fingers and wrists.
Due to the physical demands of hand cranking, it was assumed that gasoline cars should remain within the domain of men who possessed the necessary muscular strength. Others believed that ladies would be uninterested in driving cars that impacted their appearance. In his 2012 article “How the Cadillac Really Killed the Electric Car,” journalist James R. Healey writes that women “hated what they considered the unladylike positions they had to assume to hand-crank a gas-engine vehicle, thus making electrics a favorite among women.”
It is important to note, however, that many women did not shy away from gas-powered vehicles despite the social limitations of the time. In 1906, a mother-daughter duo named Minerva and Vera Teape made a round-trip journey between Denver and Chicago in a 4-horsepower vehicle, and attempted a transcontinental journey in 1908. A few years later, Anita King became the first woman to make a cross-county drive solo. Numerous other accounts exist of similar adventures by early female motorists. As Long Island car-owner Hilda Ward explained in 1908, she didn’t mind “doing a little extra cranking” for the sake of mobility. In 1912, New York Herald writer Carl H. Claudy related a story of a young woman who told her husband, “I don’t want an electric. I want a car that can go a long distance. I want a car that can go fast, and an electric can’t go either far or fast!”
Charles Kettering’s 1911 invention of the self-starter eliminated the need for cumbersome hand cranks and eventually assured gas vehicles’ dominance over electric. The self-starter used electricity from a battery to power a small motor that cranked the engine. In 1915, Herbert Ladd Towle wrote a piece called “The Woman at the Wheel” for Scribner’s Magazine, arguing that this “total elimination of certain demands for strength and skill” had led to a sharp increase in female drivers. Posing the question “have the women suddenly gained courage, or have motor-cars altogether lost their formidable mien?,” Towle concluded the latter. Others, such as the publication Automobile Topics, speculated that since upper-class women would no longer need to ride with a chauffeur to crank their engine for them, “this will not only leave another seat in a car to be filled by a friend, but will make of such a car a more sociable vehicle.”
Thus, according to historian Virginia Scharff, the self-starter “began its automotive career marketed as a supposedly feminine accessory.” Contemporaries like Towle focused exclusively on the invention’s impact on female motorists, rather than its benefit to all drivers. “Instead of acknowledging that men might desire increased comfort in motoring,” explains Scharff, “many agreed that gas cars had begun to adapt to ‘feminine’ standards.” According to an anecdotal story circulating around the auto industry at the time, a man who offered to crank a car for a woman operating a stalled vehicle “suffered a broken jaw when the crank handle kicked back, and gangrene subsequently caused his death.” The story serves as a cautionary tale against letting women take the wheel, implying that no one would have needed to bother with creating a self-starter if only men were drivers.
Kettering himself was not intending to make a “gallant bow” to female drivers with his invention. In 1906, as he was developing his ideas, he commented, “A man will use the electric machine for the same reason he will use…any other conveniences, because it reduces the actual work, saves time, and makes the apparatus readily accessible.” The self-starter, a so-called “feminine frill,” would eventually become a standard feature of every automobile because of its universal utility. The invention also gained popularity after many female drivers had proved they could operate comfortless hand-crank gas vehicles, showing that gendered divisions between hand-powered and crank-less vehicles were not as stark as many believed.
The argument the female drivers were liberated by the self-starter is still accepted today. “With the invention of the self-starter,” according to Hagerty Auto Insurance, “Charles Kettering finally made obsolete the biggest deterrent keeping women from driving — the arm-busting crank start.” Whether weak of strength or not, thousands of woman yearned for both the literal and figurative advantages of vehicle mobility. Yet many miss an opportunity to frame Kettering’s remarkable invention as a unifying tool, one that made driving easier and safer for all instead of bringing men down to a more simplistic, “feminine” plateau.
Curt McConnell, “A Reliable Car and a Woman Who Knows It”: The First Coast-to-Coast Auto Trips by Women, 1899-1916 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2000)
Virginia Scharff, Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age (Albuquerque: UNM Press, 1992)