In yesterday’s post, I talked tangentially about auto-mobility. It got me to thinking about the role that the automobile has played in Western women’s lives, and the role it continues to play. If you Google ‘women and cars’ you get the sorts of images above. But our relationship to cars, while I have talked at length and could talk more about how it is defined above, is much more complex in any number of less visible and even invisible ways. I can, of course, speak more precisely to the role that it plays for women in Canada, particularly Western Canada, with our urban sprawl and vast distances between towns. Several of my more storied earlier posts reference mobility as part of my daily life. I think often about distance, time, and mobility, when considering energy transition. But, several years ago now, I did some research on woman and the automobile: some of it published, some of it unpublished. I was particularly interested in the shape of feminism in the West and what role oil and fossil fuels has played in the development of 20th and 21st century feminism. While that research would take up much more than a blog post, I’ll share today, some interesting conclusions that I came to around the ways that the automobile (and other technologies) promised women liberation in a way that has not been delivered.

Did you know that the automobile was a symbol of the suffragette movement of the early 20th century, in both England and North America? (Imagine the suffragettes seeing how women are now photographed in relationship to the car.)

The suffragette campaigns of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries used visual media campaigns to popularly align women’s emancipation directly with the automobile. As just one quick example, in the US, suffragettes campaigned for the vote in gas-powered cars. Gas cars, beyond being associated with glamour, modernity and freedom of movement linked to the automobile in the general sense, also came to define a woman as physically independent and powerful, given that gas-powered vehicles were more physically demanding to drive than electric cars. And after 1920, Hollywood perpetuated generalized notions of women’s emancipation and freedom, linked to the automobile, by promoting stars like Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich posing in their cars (Wosk). This link between driving and women’s emancipation more generally has been perpetuated into the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, both through film—think of, for example, Thelma and Louise (1991)–and advertising and media news stories. These practices account for the way in which the automobile has been popularly constructed as a foundational element of Western women’s freedom, despite the functional realities of how the automobile is practically employed to the contrary.

But the promise of women’s freedom (emancipation) linked to the automobile only goes so far, when put under the microscope. “The freedom of the road”, popularized in the early twentieth century, is linked to market strategies that target women as consumers. The mobile woman is at the centre of a consumer-oriented society. And, within this system, women become both consumers of automobile culture as well as commodities within the same circular network. Women and cars, in many instances, are made synonymous with one another, the automobile being perceived as an object of desire and either equated to or accessorized by the voluptuous and semi-naked woman draped on the hood of a car (or over a motorcycle). The woman and the vehicle are culturally linked: both objectified and both fetishized. Rather than moving freely through space and time, women often find themselves boomeranging back and forth along a largely pre-determined track: moving from home, to work, to community destinations, to commercial centres. On a sometimes daily and certainly weekly basis, women where I live, in one of the western provinces of Canada, now spend a significant number of hours driving to a variety of commercial centres and shopping for foods, textiles, clothing, and newly designed consumer goods marketed as necessities–items no longer produced in the home or brought to communities as they had been in times gone by when the transportation of goods was the responsibility of the vendor. This is particularly true of mothers. (The petro-mother being a topic for much more in-depth discussion. See PetroMama.)

In practice, the automobile has been imbricated as a normal and necessary tool for personal independence and the successful management of a nuclear family, which in and of itself is intrinsic to the neoliberal social and cultural construction of personal success, as well as to the perpetuation of capitalism and to the ongoing project of settler colonialism. The promotion of the nuclear family as the accepted social norm has had significant ramifications for women, and men, who must independently reproduce in each household tasks that, had they been socio-culturally constructed otherwise, could have easily been industrialized, thereby relieving many women and families of a number domestic tasks. Furthermore, the housing needs of the nuclear family home have shaped the design of urban and suburban living in our modern petrocultures, just as the necessity to provide each family home with all of the consumer goods and services necessary to run a single residence has created a large capitalist marketplace. What are the limits of the petro-feminism(s) produced over the last two centuries, within a network of fossil-fuel determined relationships? How might we organize the way we live differently, in more socially-just and feminist ways? Is freedom of mobility around which our current culture is organized going to be a lasting value into an age after oil? If not, how else might we claim our own liberation?

(Image: Screen shot courtesy of a Google Chrome Image Search for “women and cars”: