Have you ever heard the stereotype “women can’t drive” and wondered where the roots of this sexist belief lie? Well, let me walk you through it.
In many countries after the car was introduced to wider audiences, this stereotype emerged with the growing popularity of driving cars among women as a way to prevent them from accessing this new way to get around. Driving a car became a path towards gaining both more independence allowing them to visit places on their own account and more freedom from being homebound. This newly acquired power was quickly met with disdain, as society back then thought the traditional (nuclear) family structures to be endangered by it. Apparently, women gaining more mobility and agency could not do.
Women were criticised for being too nervous or displaying poor decision-making and therefore being unable to navigate a car because they would ‘automatically’ endanger themselves and the unborn generation. This increased independence was also felt by some as undermining the position of men as protectors and providers of security for women, threatening the very social fabric society was based upon. Another aspect was the fear of women becoming sexually aroused from driving – how you ask? Still pondering on the question, to be honest – or experiencing a carefreeness that was restricted to the lifestyle of men. This fear of women’s independence made its way into law-making where in Germany for example, women were only allowed to drive with the consent of their husbands until 1958.
In Saudi Arabia, women had to bargain for a long time to lift the ban on driving for women that was put in place in 1957. The ‘women to drive movement’ has been active since the 1990s and many activists have been fighting to get this ban revoked. These protests were dangerous for the activists, many lost their jobs and even got their passports taken away. There has been significant progress made and since June 2018 women are now legally allowed to drive. However great this advancement is, it has to be read against the backdrop of strict guardianship laws that still very much curtail Saudi women’s agency and access to specific services. Finally, many of the activists who paved the way remain imprisoned behind bars.
Moreover, it seems important to note that although what makes a good driver remains to be decided by the person passing judgement, statistically, data collection in the UK shows that women are less likely to be involved in accidents than men and are thus safer drivers. On the flip side, it was only in 2013 that the EU ruled out the opportunity for car insurance companies to offer women cheaper fees just based on their gender.
Denying any person based on their gender the right to drive is denying them independence, agency, and equality. Being a good or bad driver should not be something measured by or attached to gender identity. Yet, stereotypes seem to die hard.