Monday, May 15, 2017

Motor Girls: How Women Took the Wheel and Drove Boldly Into the Twentieth Century by Sue Macy

One of my favorite things to do when I first began to drive was to get in the car and just go. And I did go - here, there, and everywhere, crossing the continental united states eight separate times, each time taking a different route. Little did I know that I was part of a legacy of women who took to cars with the same love of driving that I had. 

Motor Girls, Sue Macy’s latest book about women and mobility (see also Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom) traces that love from the very start of the automobile’s history, beginning in the 1890s and the very first prototypes of motorized cars. 

Motorized cars were pretty exciting and irresistible stuff back then and men may have felt that automobiles should remain strictly their domain, convinced that driving and all the perils that were part of early automobiles (things like changing tires and getting stuck in mud) would not only threaten women’s femininity, but that they were just too fragile to handle such a big machine anyway, but women had a different idea. First of all, it didn’t take long for women to realize that driving meant freedom from their previous house-bound life, a way to get around on their own, and what a boon for the women driving to rallies and fighting for the right to vote as early as 1910.  And as much as they were often not welcomed, women drivers even began participating in automobile races. 

Macy introduces readers to many of the early pioneering women, such as Lillian Sheridan, first female tire salesperson in 1917, Alice Ramsey, first woman to drive cross country in 1909, Mrs. Olive Schultz, first female taxi driver, and Mary Dexter, a nurse who drove makeshift ambulances  through war-torn France in World War I. 

Using an incredible array of archival photographs, as well as clippings from old newspapers and magazines, Macy presents a well-researched, thoughtfully written historical document of women behind the wheel. In between chapters, she has also included some pretty interesting cultural items relating to the automobile, such as some odd motoring laws, the ideal clothing to wear while motoring, and one of my favorite parts - a look at early series books written for young readers, such as the The Motor Girls, The Motor Maids, and The Automobile Girls, all of which can be found on Project Gutenberg for anyone interested (though I should add that while they may be interesting look a driving in those early days, some of the references made may be offensive to sensitive readers). 
A list of resources is included in the back matter, as is an interesting timeline and list of sources used by Macy.

Motor Girls is an ideal book for anyone like myself who loves to drive. Sometimes I think we take driving for granted and it is nice to read about how the automobile had such a tremendous impact on the lives of women in the late 19th and 20th centuries. This is a solid book that will be a welcomed addition to any nonfiction library.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was sent to me by the publisher, National Geographic


  1. Age eighteen and out driving my own car for the first time I felt like I ruled the world I wish I still felt that! These days I’m afraid to go far, there are just so many vehicles on the road and my reflexes are not so sharp. My dad showed me how to change a wheel, fit a new tyre, top up the oil, etc., and sent me off with a wave. In the winter, he insisted I put a bale of hay in the boot (for weight and to put under the wheels if I got stuck in a snow drift), other essentials were a shovel, blanket and flask of hot tea. There were no mobile phones in those day and very few public phone boxes so you were pretty much on your own. I really do like the sound of this book if nothing else it reminded me of happy times.

    1. I completely concur. I don't drive anymore, either, but I did enjoy this book so much for the memories of driving.


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