Katrine Marçal is the author of Mother of Invention: How Good Ideas Get Ignored in an Economy Built for Men.
Electric cars have been around for a very long time. In 1900, one-third of all European cars were electric. We tend to forget this when we get excited about the fact that in the spring of 2021, one in 12 new cars bought in Europe were fully battery-powered; or that Canada is banning the sale of fuel-burning new cars and light-duty trucks from 2035.
Whether on the streets of Montreal or Manchester, electric cars are seen today as a hint of a future to come, when actually they are a blast from the past – their emergence upended, oddly enough, by sexism.
The first car to ever go over 60 miles per hour was an electric. In 1899, an American investor raised US$1-million to build a nationwide electric-car network – he envisioned an electric transport system that would link up the entire country. Electric trains would run from city to city, and within the cities, trams and electric cars would take over.
At the time, such a future didn’t seem out of reach. In the late 1800s, electric taxis milled around London picking up passengers. In New York, an electric-car company constructed a garage with a state-of-the-art, semi-automatic system that could swap batteries in 75 seconds flat. Cars would drive in, have a freshly charged battery installed, and then zip out again onto the streets. It was a way to try to get around the problem that electric car batteries – then as now – take a long time to charge.
In 1910, The New York Times wrote excitedly that it was now possible to get your own electric charging station installed in your stable. According to technology historian Gijs Mom, it was the electric car, and not its gas counterpart, that initially won out over the horse as a means of transport. The gas car of the day was simply too technologically inferior. Once the horse had been defeated, however, the gas car took over and the electric car almost completely disappeared. Why?
To start them, early gas cars had to be cranked to life by hand. This was a sweaty and often dangerous operation. By contrast, electric cars could be started from the driver’s seat. They were quiet, comfortable, safe and easy to maintain. This was, however, one of the reasons that they started to be seen as “feminine.” Gas cars were less of a means of transport than a sport for young daredevils. Electric cars, on the other hand, were viewed as a natural successor to the horse-drawn cab – something that would simply take you where you needed to go in comfort.
In her book Taking the Wheel, historian Virginia Scharff cites American commentators of the time who argued, “No license should be granted to anyone under 18 … and never to a woman – unless, possibly, for a car driven by electric power.”
Around the turn of the century, electric cars accelerated faster and had safer brakes than gas cars. In many ways, they were the ideal choice for city travel, but because of their battery issues, they couldn’t go particularly far. This only seemed to make this type of vehicle more suitable for women in the eyes of the market. At the time, it wasn’t particularly acceptable for a woman to travel far from the home.
Electric cars were sold to wealthy women as luxurious drawing rooms on wheels where they could visit with female friends while taking a leisurely spin around the city. Some of the vehicles even had inbuilt crystal vases for flowers – something you wouldn’t find in the latest Tesla.
In the early 1900s, electric cars were not only marketed to women, they were also largely developed with women in mind. They were the first cars to be fitted with roofs as women (unlike men) were thought to want shelter from the rain. It was also the electric-car manufacturers that first thought to position levers and controls so as not to catch on a woman’s clothing.
But soon these associations between femininity and electric-car technology started to become a commercial problem for the industry. After all, electric vehicles were high-tech, reliable city cars that should have been of interest to anyone who wanted to get to work on time without an oil-spattered suit. But since they were seen as more “feminine” than gas cars, that made many male consumers avoid them.
In 1910, Detroit Electric tried to counteract the feminine image of its product by introducing a new “man’s model,” the aptly named “Gentlemen’s Underslung Roadster.” It didn’t catch on.
In 1916, E.P Chalfant, a member of the board of directors for Detroit Electric, wrote resentfully: “The gasoline car dealers have branded the electric as a car for the aged and infirm and for the women.”
We don’t often think of innovation as bound by cultural norms. Instead, we view technology as an unstoppable force that drives history on. We invent one tool and then we invent the next. Invention builds on invention in a neat chain, new technology seems to come from nowhere fully formed, then it pushes the rest of us along. All society can do is adapt. The history of the electric car shows us something else: how innovation is shaped by our ideas about gender.
Why did it seem so implausible to the car industry that a male consumer could want a car that he could start without risking breaking his wrist? Why was it taken for granted that men wanted a car that roared and stank by default? Why were demands for comfort, convenience and safety attributed to women alone?
If anything, these values are human values. But that which we have chosen to call “feminine” we often also think of as “inferior.” That certainly happened with the early electric car.
It became a “drawing room on wheels” – rather than a technological marvel.
This wasn’t the main reason electric cars disappeared. Battery technology was still in its infancy, and the proponents of the electric car didn’t succeed in building an infrastructure that could compensate for these problems. Investors lost interest. Eventually gas cars became cheaper and so did oil. Later attempts to revive the electric car were met with powerful resistance from the oil industry.
But it’s worth remembering it wasn’t just about technology and oil prices. There was another key issue, often glossed over by historians as “other cultural factors,” that contributed to the demise of the early electric car. While marketing electric cars to women may have initially been seen as a winning strategy, in the end, gender stereotypes only proved a roadblock to progress.
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