Women and the Driver's Seat

ELLEN GOODMAN

April 26, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON. — Boston -- When 47 Saudi women staged a ''drive-in'' last fall, wheeling their luxury cars around Riyadh for a half-hour before the police stopped them, I had the same mixed reaction of many other Americans.

On the one hand, I groaned at our allegiance to a country that wouldn't let women drive, let alone vote. On the other hand, I had a hard time joining a fight for the right of rich women to drive their own Mercedes.

As a second-generation American woman driver, I hadn't thought of driving as freedom since I was first licensed to take to the road. For most of my adulthood, the car has been a tool to get where I have to go with the people and things I have to take there.

American men, we are continually told, have a love affair with the automobile. But most American women are looking for a commitment. I just wanted a car that would be there the morning after to help take the kids to school.

Now, months later, reports filter back that these Saudi women are still being punished for their brief time behind the wheel. They and their movement have been ''chauffeured'' underground by the religious police.

Against this background, comes Virginia Scharff's new book, ''Taking The Wheel'' as a lively reminder that even in America, automobility was once seen as a driving force for social change. And not everybody was keen on the idea.

Her book is one of those rare and delightful touring vehicles through history. It starts almost a century ago, when the &L automobile was built by and, most decidedly, for men. Here too, the first women who wanted to drive were the wealthy. Here too, women started driving before they started voting.

In the early years of the 1900s, when cars were still cranked up for action, there was a heated debate about whether women should or could drive. The argument reeked more than faintly of the odorous controversy raging then around women's rights. Women as a whole, argued one traditional man, ''are utterly unfitted to pilot ships, command armies or operate automobiles, through no fault of their own. They were born that way.''

Taking to the open road was, in turn, a strike for female independence, even rebellion. As Ms. Scharff, a University of New Mexico historian, writes, ''Climbing into an automobile, a woman rejected the cloister, certainly, and potentially also the female sphere of hearth and home.'' Or purdah and veil.

During Teddy Roosevelt's years in the White House, his impetuous daughter Alice drove alone from Newport to Washington reaching speeds of 25 miles per hour. This created the sort of national uproar that led her father to admit that he could rule Alice or the country but not both.

Even Henry Ford, who put men squarely in charge of family life and family cars, inevitably contributed to this change. A sales brochure of World War I vintage, geared to Ford's female customers, laid it out succinctly, ''No longer a shut-in, the woman reaches for an ever wider sphere of action. . . . And in this happy change, the automobile is playing no small part. . . . It is a real weapon in the changing order.''

''The prospect of unleashing women on the American landscape,'' Ms. Scharff concludes,''deeply disturbed many observers who worried that mobile women would be beyond control, socially, spatially, sexually.''

Decades later, half a world away, a Saudi teacher echoes that fear of sexual freedom when asked why driving so threatened the Muslim establishment. He answers obliquely, that ''driving could lead to temptations that would hurt the sanctity of women.''

Today Americans, men and women, may feel more imprisoned in our cars than freed by them. We spend as much time commuting to work as our Russian counterparts spend lining up for food. A suburban mother doesn't regard her station wagon as a room of her own. It's the mobile office she takes on her daily rounds.

We're more conscious, too, of the damage the car has done. The car is to the environment what the cigarette is to the body. Gasoline-powered liberation sounds a bit like a Virginia Slims ad. You've come a long way, baby?

But the bulletins from the Mideast and the past, are echoes of the real and symbolic role of the car. Women are still trying to take themselves where they want to go. In Saudi Arabia, when men are in the driver's seat, it isn't just a figure of speech.

9- Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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