IN 1987 I OPENED my Midwest Quarterly essay on "the liberated lady driver" by describing a then-contemporary television commercial in which a confident young woman quit her job as a journalist, jumped into her car (a Mercury, reflecting the source of the ad), and drove crisply away from the city and along the winding rural roads that are close to mandatory in most automotive advertising. Smoothly cornering each twist of the highway, she arrived in timely fashion at her destination, a secluded beach cottage where the final shot in the ad showed her sitting down to write the first page of a novel. This was a woman--and a driver--who appeared competent and creative, firm but disciplined. For her, an automobile was a means to an end, and that end was self-fulfillment as an empowered human being who defined risk as opportunity and investment, rather than a flirtation with death (Kraig, 378).
What possibilities did such a narrative hold for altering popular perceptions of women as drivers, I mused. Aided by the logic of rational feminism, could confident and dear-thinking women lead all drivers toward a more healthy future on the road, steering smoothly between the Scylla and Charybdis of automotive gender stereotypes: Automotive Woman, a fecklessly timid fender-bending menace; and Automotive Man, an aggressive pedal-stomping pseudo-Daytona racer? What were the prospects for a middle course, an Automotive Human, a widely accepted female driver who eschewed the extremes of passive incompetence and brazen thrill-seeking? Implied by such specific inquiries into the metaphors and images of driving were larger questions about the prospects of feminist models for shrinking the gap between polarized versions of masculinity and femininity.
Understandably, I approached such questions with considerable caution and some pessimism. Rereading my own words today, almost twenty years later, I am struck by the extent to which I was concerned about how popular culture and mainstream society defined and understood independence in gendered terms, especially as it pertained to the simple act of driving a car. For men, cars had long been linked in the public sphere with escapism and freedom from entangling responsibilities; independence in that context represented a self-centered dismissal of "control, rules, regulations, and restrictions" (Kraig, 394). But not everyone could pursue self-interested autonomy with such abandon. Someone needed to tend the home fires. To enable the free-wheeling male driver to gun down the road, therefore, women were characterized as naturally docile and painstakingly safe in their driving habits. The image of the "'lady driver" (or Automotive Woman) reassured society, even as it represented the source of much humor, for if one assumed that women were innately selfless and prudent, they could always be posed as a social counterbalance to road-roaming men.
The "liberated" woman driver thus did more than threaten hoary jokes about flustered housewives and parallel parking. She also destabilized a profoundly useful social truism: male adventuring and aggression are buffered by female domesticity and nurture. If women's liberation centered on having as much entitlement to roar down the highway as men had, who would sustain the value of prudence at the wheel and the larger social responsibilities for which careful driving was a metaphor? It was unfair to hold women exclusively to the task of cultivating the interdependencies of communities and relationships, but also troubling to imagine a future of recklessly independent drivers pursuing her or his own gratification without regard for others.
In reflecting upon those observations today, I see how strongly they mirrored my concerns about the possibility that valuable and necessary changes in gender stereotypes might be distorted or inflated in ways that would replace one system of social imbalance with another. I feared that focusing mostly on changes in women's identities and roles would leave less examined (and thus, less altered) the extremes of male roles. …