A video by the German TV channel SWR3, presumably from the early 1960s: The interviewer asked random men if women should be driving cars. These were their answers:
“She is safer when I drive.”
“Only when I guide her. On her own, she feels way too insecure in the big city traffic.”
“My wife is unqualified to drive a car.”
“Why should the woman drive if the man drives?”
“The women should take care of the financial situation at home and the children.”
Interviewer: “Does your wife have a driving license?” – Man: “Well, she wants to get it, but I cannot take the responsibility for that as a husband.”
A simple thing like driving a car; something we take for granted today. What I found intriguing about their answers was not the blunt misogyny – it was the 1960s after all, when women still had to fight for many basic rights. Women could not take up a job without their husband’s approval in Austria until the mid-1970s. Hence, I was not really surprised about their views. But what I found upsetting was that the majority of them made it sound as if they were against it, because they wanted to protect their helpless wives; they were just simply worried about them. They have to be salvaged by their strong husbands behind the steering wheels. According to them, women cannot cope with the stress of city traffic – they can make it through childbirth and raise children, but driving – well, that’s a bit too much. They have to “take responsibility” as husbands and protect everyone else (i.e. other men) from the danger of a woman driving a car.
“She is safer when I drive.” Is she really “safer”? Who judges his driving skills? I assume HE feels safer because he is in charge, he can exercise control and decide where she is going, when and with whom. “She feels way too insecure,” – how does he know if he has never given her the chance of driving? “She wants to get it, but I cannot take the responsibility for that” – he pulls the strings, he decides on what is “good” for her.
I love driving. It is the ultimate feeling of freedom. I grew up in the countryside with limited access to public transport. After school, I sometimes had to wait for one to two hours to catch a bus home or my parents or grandparents had to pick me up. When I turned 16, a new type of driving license was introduced in Austria: you could start taking driving lessons at the age of 16 (instead of 18) and after you have done all the theoretical and practical lessons at the driving school, you had to drive 3,000 km on your own under the supervision of your parents. When you turned 17, you could take the test for the driving license and get it one year earlier than before. It was a no-brainer to do that, as it meant more freedom not only for me but also my family who always had to coordinate around me and my brother’s pickup times. Both my parents worked full-time, my grandmother also helped our (she obviously loved driving as much as I do); but it was a big commitment for everyone. Getting the license was a relief.
I cannot imagine if someone had taken this freedom from me – especially if this person had been my husband. Even today, I still know some women (mostly from the older generation) who either do not have a driving license or never drive themselves. (Or they feel very insecure behind the steering wheel because they lack the practice.) Getting anywhere is left to the good graces of the husband. If he has other plans, you have to sit at home and wait around. More than once, there was the case that the husband got sick or passed away and the wife was suddenly completely helpless. (As mentioned above, in the countryside, public transport is almost non-existent and you very much rely on a car to get around.) If a husband really wanted his wife to be “safe”, he would encourage her to drive.
I often think about the role of feminism today. (I also wrote about it in Postcard #70.) Nowadays, feminism is often labelled as “unnecessary”; sometimes, I hear that as a white woman, I enjoy the same privileges as white men. (If you have this opinion, I have to break it to you: no, we are still at a disadvantage, check the statistics.) This video was another reminder that we cannot lean back. Firstly, women in many countries still have to fight for basic rights – the right to go to school, to wear what they want or to drive a car. Secondly, with populism on the rise and many women voluntarily moving back into more “traditional” roles, it illustrates how hard women had to fight for things we take for granted today. I wrote about the phenomenon of the so-called “tradwives” (women who “obey their husbands like in the 1950s”, you can read my Postcard here). If they really wanted to live like in the fifties, they should learn from the views expressed in that German video and immediately hand over that car key to their husband, ask for permission and rely on his kindness to drive them where they need to go. I am curious if this lifestyle was that attractive to them then.
Similar to the men interviewed in the 1960s, a push-back of our rights often happens under the pretence of “protection” or “worry”: We are told to wear more more “appropriate” or “modest” clothes to protect ourselves from the looks or actions of men. Women are advised to take a step back from our careers because it is “too stressful to juggle our private and professional life”, it is just “too much on our shoulders”. We are told to focus on careers which are “safe” and “stable” with family-friendly times (like teachers or caregivers) so that we do not have to worry about neglecting our families.
Until today, there are many more or less subtle stereotypes about women and driving. One of the most notorious ones in German is “Frau am Steuer, Ungeheuer” (we could translate this into “Women at the wheel make me squeal”). Women are said to not be able to park their cars (not true, watch me), we are “not interested in anything on wheels” and we are “just more risk averse”. Last night, I watched the Canadian Formula 1 Grand Prix and I thought that racing reflects our overall society quite a bit. While it is still a heavily male-dominated sport, things are changing slowly. There are more female drivers, engineers, commentators and key-decision-makers. Cyndie Allemann is one of them – the former race driver is now a test driver in one of the car shows I watch religiously on Sundays and she usually kicks every man’s a**. I wonder what the men from the 1960s video would think about her?