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Canada Amplify: You’ve heard the history of the automobile, but not the women behind it

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Joan Newton Cuneo was the first person to drive 100 miles an hour, a speed believed never attained before in a half-mile straightaway

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In the spring of 1911, a short story in The Globe and Mail recounted a milestone accomplishment: Joan Newton Cuneo had become the first person to drive 100 miles an hour, a speed believed never attained before in a half-mile straightaway, and a new world record.

That was the good news.

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But, as the story went on to note, the American Automobile Association barred women from racing, so Newton Cuneo’s record didn’t count.

Joan Newton Cuneo was the first person to drive 100 miles an hour, a speed believed never attained before in a half-mile straightaway.

Library of Congress

The modern automobile had barely rolled into broad public usage and two things had already become clear: Some women loved driving and were very good at it. And some men weren’t too happy about that.

I’m Jana Pruden, a feature writer at The Globe and Mail. I also love to drive, and the start of road trip season always has me thinking about the potential and pleasure of the open road.

While much is said about men and automobiles, the relationship between women and vehicles often goes unrecognized though women have played an important part in automotive history, and driving has changed the lives of many women in return.

Women have played an important part in automotive history, and driving has changed the lives of many women in return.

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Among those who aided in the development of the automobile were Bertha Benz, credited with making the world’s very first long-distance road trip in August 1888. Not only did Benz prove the potential of her husband’s new gas-powered motorwagen, she kept it running with female ingenuity – using both her hat pin and a garter for mechanical maintenance along the way – and arranged for the creation of a leather buffer, inventing the first brake pads. And silent film star Florence Lawrence is considered to have invented both turn signals and brake lights, though she never sought patents.

By 1902, a news story about the exponential increase in automobiles in St. Louis made special note of “expert women drivers” such as Lillie Lambert, “considered by many to be the best auto driver in St. Louis, not barring the male contingent who pride themselves on expert manipulation of the horseless carriages.”

As more women got behind the wheel, some men called for segregated streets or for bans on women drivers altogether. Others questioned not only whether women should drive, but if they were even capable of it.

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In the fall of 1911, the same year as Newton Cuneo’s record-breaking ride, a story in The Globe and Mail asked “Are Women Competent to Drive Automobiles?” The story was based in large part on a writer’s alleged observation of a female driver who, he claimed, almost caused a crash at Toronto’s Bloor and Yonge streets, then “roared with laughter as she grasped the wheel, as if it were all a good joke.”

In the fall of 1911, a story in The Globe and Mail asked 'Are Women Competent to Drive Automobiles?'

“The safety of children, men and women, and even animals, is being rapidly endangered by women drivers of automobiles,” the writer warned.

Women drivers were criticized for being too meek or too aggressive, for driving too fast or too slow, or, alternately, for driving at inconsistent speeds.

Some men attempted to dissuade women from driving in other ways, with one doctor warning operating the accelerator would make the shape of a woman’s leg less attractive.

Society attempted to dissuade women from driving in many ways.

But it was too late. In wartime, women were called to service driving buses, trucks and emergency vehicles, and throughout Canada, bylaws banning women from driving taxis were lifted one by one, despite the protestations of some city officials and threats of strikes by male drivers. (In Winnipeg, the police chief unsuccessfully argued cabbies’ interactions with the underworld would jeopardize a woman’s morals.

It wasn’t a smooth road, but as years passed, the arguments grew steadily weaker. Statistics proved on paper that women weren’t posing an undue risk on the roads, and concerns about women drivers soon moved from the news and opinion columns to the funny pages, becoming less a threat than a punch line, and even there, an old joke increasingly running on fumes.

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By the early 1960s, Globe columnist Bruce West noted with some disappointment that women who once hadn’t minded jokes about their driving had become “extremely touchy” about the matter, and he lamented a world in which the only safe things left to joke about were the Royal family and the president of the United States.

Though it wasn't a smooth road, the arguments against women drivers grew steadily weaker as years passed.

It’s no surprise that women were drawn so strongly to the automobile, nor that the relationship between women and automobiles could feel so threatening. Vehicles are much more than a mode of transportation, after all. They can be a symbol of freedom and independence. A driver can go wherever they want, whenever they want, and take whoever they want to with them. That’s no small thing. In fact, it can be life changing.

Vehicles can be a symbol of freedom and independence.

Library of Congress

The world’s last ban on female drivers was lifted one year ago, on June 24, 2018, in Saudi Arabia. A reporter was with Majdooleen al-Ateeq, one of that country’s first female drivers, as she got behind the wheel legally for the first time in Riyadh. It was just after midnight on the day the ban was lifted.

“There’s no words that can explain what I’m feeling right now,” said al-Ateeq, smiling as she drove through the darkened city, taking in the lights and traffic around her, and the road stretching out ahead. “It looks way different from the back seat.”

What else we’re reading:

Spring is journalism awards season in Canada. While the news of those nights is mostly inside the industry, I think it’s a time to more broadly reflect on – and re-Amplify – some of the amazing journalism being done in this country. These are a few of the pieces that stood out to me this year, and which I went back to in recent weeks: Jessica Leeder’s bold personal and investigative journalism about attempting to get an abortion in Nova Scotia, Tim Kiladze’s first-person account of taking on the role of primary caregiver for his new daughter, Lindsay Jones on a transgender woman transitioning in rural New Brunswick, Shannon Proudfoot on a 41-year-old man living with Alzheimer’s, and Finding Cleo, Connie Walker’s podcast about the search for a missing girl.

Inspired by something in this newsletter? If so, we hope you’ll amplify it by passing it on. And if there’s something we should know, or feedback you’d like to share, send us an e-mail at amplify@globeandmail.com.

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