Is Driving a Feminist Act?

I don’t drive. I never really learned. I realize this sounds ridiculous to some of you, but I grew up in a NYC suburb and was one of those over-achieving high school kids who decided that a bunch of extracurriculars were more important than driver’s ed. I started college in DC at 17, and well, driving just never happened. There have probably been a half-dozen times in my life when I wished I had a car and a license, but they’ve always been random events, and I’ve always been able to figure out a way to take public transportation or get a friend or family member to give me a ride. (This probably does make me a horrible mooch, but I promise, these things happen incredibly rarely. Less than once a year.)

Besides, taking mass transportation and walking and biking are good for the environment, right? I’m one less car on the road! Parking in DC is incredibly expensive, and I’m led to believe that car insurance, as well as car maintenance, isn’t cheap, to say nothing of cars themselves. These are the things that I usually tell people when they find out that I can’t drive. They are also partially true, but there is another factor: I’m really scared of it. My father is an excellent albeit very aggressive, driver; my mother was in a bad car accident as a child. This made for some incredibly stressful driving experiences growing up (and to this day sometimes!). My final go-to excuse is simply “I’m terrified of killing someone,” which is the real reason behind my reluctance to drive. Cars go fast! Fast enough to hurt or kill someone most of the time. I don’t want any part of that.

I realize, logically, that I ought to know how to drive. When the post-apocalyptic zombie takeover happens, for example, driving skills will be useful. Or if I move away from the East Coast, something about as likely as the zombie takeover. But still, it’s part of being an adult, and a skill that I really ought to have. So when my sister came to visit last weekend, and flew into a difficult-to-get-to airport, I rued the fact that I couldn’t just rent a Zipcar and go get her.

I was saying this exact thing to one of my coworkers, whose response surprised me: “You don’t drive?! And you call yourself a feminist?! Come on!”

I hadn’t ever thought of driving in terms of feminism before. It’s a right that’s just so ingrained in American culture, totally taken for granted. My coworker was born and raised in West Africa, so perhaps that explains her different perspective, but I couldn’t get her words out of my head. I know, of course, that women in Saudi Arabia are forbidden from driving, but aside from that (and as driving is one in a long line of rights denied women in Saudi Arabia) I had never really thought of driving as a right that was fought for or earned.

Still, I suppose driving must be empowering. (Is this something everyone else realizes at 16 or 17? If so, I’m a decade late to the game. At 27, this is honestly the first time I’ve wondered if that might be true.) Is driving fun? Is it freeing? Television ads seem to tell me that yes, it is, but the day I believe TV ads is a sad day indeed. Mostly it just seems like a stressful, scary hassle. I’d rather take the bus. But am I refusing a right that other women worked hard to earn?

Globally, definitely yes, in certain places. In the US, perhaps not as much. I just did a bit of Googling, and turned up something truly amazing: A 1952 LIFE Magazine article about the first woman in America to get a driver’s license. Here’s where it gets weird for me: The woman was from Washington, DC. The article specifically mentions the building that is now my office. And Anne Bush, the first licensed woman, learned to drive because her father hated horses, so he bought a car. (Related: Go read the article. It is mostly a treat, except–please be warned–there is some racist language about the family’s nursemaid.) So perhaps, due to my fear of driving, I will be on the frontlines of the next transportation revolution? The key point in the article id that once driver’s licenses were required, Anne simply signed up to be tested, took the test, and passed–though technically the license was to operate a steam engine, as the District of Columbia decided to classify early cars as portable steam engines. Oh DC, you never change.

But I digress. While driving was never illegal, many in the US did think it was inappropriate for women to drive, and personal battles fought at home still count as victories for women’s rights. Cars–indeed, pretty much all machines–have always been seen as part of the male domain, if we want to look at traditional gender roles. But to hell with traditional gender roles, right? I’m all about being subversive, I just never really considered driving to be an act of subversiveness.

So what do you think? By not taking advantage of a right other women fought for, am I a traitor to the cause of women’s rights? Is driving a feminist act? Do you think of driving as enjoyable or as a hassle? Also, obviously–should I learn to drive?

By CherriSpryte

CherriSpryte wants you to know that The Great Pumpkin loves you.

10 replies on “Is Driving a Feminist Act?”

Driving is a skill I’m glad to have, but cars are expensive, dangerous, etc. So I’m eager to move to a city with public transit (curses on you, St. Louis!). I do feel kind of subversive when I’m driving, especially if I go over the speed limit (we all do it) and especially considering that my grandmother didn’t drive. She learned how while my grandpa was away in WWII but when he got home, she wasn’t allowed to drive. Partially because they couldn’t afford another car, but more so because her place was at home, having babies and in the kitchen.

I don’t own a car, never have and don’t plan to right now, and didn’t learn to drive until I was 21 (I live in Ireland, which while not perfect is much more public-transport-friendly than the US). It just gives you more options – like you said, you could rent a car to go pick up your sister. When I was travelling, I mostly used buses, but it was great to have the option of driving somewhere without relying on anyone.

Personally also, I do associate it with independence – one of my grandmothers never learned to drive (she failed her test multiple times) and relied on my grandfather to get her anywhere she needed. When he got too sick to drive, she was stuck at home too.

I honestly think this is somewhat of a generational thing. My mother says the same exact thing to me – that she’s amazed I can call myself a feminist and yet not know how to drive. To me that seems absurd, but I can see where she’s coming from. To her, driving symbolises independence, not having to rely on a husband to get you from place to place. And to be fair, she has a point. I’ve never lived in a place where I absolutely needed a car, but I’d be a right hypocrite if I pretended I’d never depended on others for lifts either. Mr Rah and I have been on a lot of holidays based on driving around random countries, and all of that is possible because he drives.

I am, genuinely, going to learn to drive in the next few months. Not because I plan to buy a car or anything – I still don’t intend to drive around any more than absolutely necessary – but because it just gets harder the longer I wait. I’m a little afraid of it, being honest. So I may as well just face the fear now!

I was going to say that in the United States driving has 100% moved beyond being a feminist act. Then I thought about it a bit. I drive a sporty car. Owners of this particular car tend to have a communal bond and often a fellow driver of my model will flash their hazards or throw some sort of manly version of a wave at me. They always look slightly puzzled when they see it’s not a dude driving the car. Car culture is still very male dominated and there is still a stigma about women and driving. There are plenty of men out there who believe all women are shitty drivers. I cringe at how often I get the “Wow, you drive really well for a chick!” comment. Annnd I can’t really cohesively sum up my thoughts because I’m slipping into a warm soup coma. I just know that I personally love the freedom of driving.

But you should do you. If you’re perfectly happy not driving, there is no reason to start. If you get the itch, you could always ask a friend to take you to a big empty parking lot and see how it feels.

My story is almost the same as yours- grew up too busy to learn, and besides, I had rides anywhere I needed to go- moved through a series of public transportation-blessed and/or pedestrian/cyclist-friendly cities, and simply didn’t need to learn how.

UNTIL I moved back home to LA, home of the Car. It’s been almost three years now that I’ve done without a license in this car-dependent city. I’ve been pretty lucky, in that I live right on some good bus routes, most places I need to go have transportation near by, and friends/family are very willing to help out whenever public transportation is impractical. That said, I finally got my learner’s permit last month, because I am so. frakkin. sick. of not being able to drive in this city.

In terms of it being a feminist/anti-feminist/radical/or what have you act- being where I am, not driving causes a lot of conversation. Usually I am treated like some wunder-saint, saving the world by refusing to drive. Many seem to think it is an act of great rebellion against The Man or something, like I’m staging my own little protest every time I leave the house.

Well, it’s not. And I’m pretty sure that most of the folks crammed in there with me on our commutes would agree. I can’t WAIT to drive. I know gas is bad, exhaust, I know, plus everything is expensive, oh, I know. And I don’t even care anymore. Here’s why:

Driving will increase my independence so greatly I’m not sure I can even wholly anticipate it. I will get to go places when I want to, by the route I desire. Complete control over my movements. I won’t have to avoid jobs I want because they aren’t close enough to a bus. I won’t have to miss my friends’ gatherings, or school-related events because I can’t get out to them. I won’t have to leave everywhere early, or not go out at all, because waiting on a dark corner by myself for an hour makes me a target, and the possibility that the bus just won’t come at all, worsening my situation, maybe stranding me across town, is just too great. I won’t have to insist that every date I have be within walking distance, or early enough in the evening to avoid the prior problems, so as not to be relying on practically strangers to escort me home safely. I won’t have to put up with regular harassment from guys who think that my being on the bus is an invitation for them to talk to me. I won’t have to depend on anyone but me.

And god, am I ever looking forward to that independence. I suppose, discussing it like that, it does begin to sound like a feminist act- taking control of my own actions, freeing myself to do as I please, when I please, where I please- but mostly I just think of it as an incredibly pro-me action.

It’s always interesting to me to read about people who choose not to drive. When I was growing up, my mom didn’t have a driver’s license because she was legally blind. Although she qualified for disability, she went to school, got her degree, and worked all my life.  We lived in a small town, but it regularly reached 120 degrees for four months out of the year, and our town was really spread out, so walking was not an option, and there was no other transportation except for expensive Dial-A-Ride. My childhood memories are a constant stream of going to pick up mom, wondering how mom is going to get home, or the whole family going to the grocery store because mom needed something. It was stressful for her because she spent so much time waiting for a ride, and it was stressful for my dad because he was the only person able to get me to school, riding lessons, and youth group, AND pick up my mom and run all the errands. When I turned 16, there was no doubt I was getting my license so I could relieve some of the burden. I found driving anxiety-inducing for several years, and I was basically an automatic chauffeur for many years. Finally, our state approved corrective lenses for legally blind to allow them to drive. My dad wasted no time shelling getting the lenses and driving lessons for my mom. The day she got her lenses and her driving license was one of the happiest days in my family history. It was like we were all free – but mostly my mom. She no longer had to wait for a ride or wait for someone to have time to take her somewhere.

For me, driving is a kind of freedom, the knowledge that at any time, you can find your keys, get in the car, roll down the windows, and drive anywhere you want. It means not being tied to a house or going without until you can go get what you need or want. It means independence, and I can see that being a feminist move.

But feminism is all about making your own choices and not being tied to what other people say you’re supposed to do based on the sexual organs in your pants. But feminism says you can make the decision based on what you want or what works for you. Saying a woman needs to drive because of feminism is like saying all women should work outside the home and never bake cupcakes because of feminism.  To me, it’s important that I have a career and full financial independence, but I have friends who love staying home with their children and baking cookies and planning meals in the afternoon. I would never deny them the freedom to do that because of how *I* feel about working. I think the same applies to driving. Driving is important to some women, and driving is necessary for some women. But for others, it’s neither, and a real feminist move is to do what’s right for you.

In all honesty, as much I love being able to jump in the car and go get bottles of wine and ice cream at 10pm (I do not dare walk to the closest grocery store to me – I’ve been there twice when cops have run through the parking lot with guns drawn). But when I had to drive three hours a day to and from work, I would have given anything not to have a driver’s license. Oh, and live somewhere with a decent mass transportation system, because I still would have needed to get to work.

I’ve had my license since I was 16 (no road test in Texas at the time, ha!) but I didn’t actually learn to drive until this summer, and I’m 33. It sucked having to mooch, so in college I mostly walked everywhere. Then I moved to NYC and took the subway everywhere, so even after my husband bought a car I didn’t learn, because Queens Blvd scared the crap out of me! But we moved to a town with no public transit, and I had to be able to get out and about with the kiddo. I’m starting to enjoy it now that I don’t want to burst out crying every time I get behind the wheel. (Although, I have yet to drive in the dark or on a multi-lane highway, baby steps!)

Whether or not you learn to drive has nothing to do with how good a feminist you are. Just like you can be a good feminist and still wear feminine clothes or be a stay-at-home-mom or hate sports or make your man a sammich, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to in the name of feminism. So long as you aren’t refusing to drive because you think that’s a man’s job or because you’ve bought into the crap line that women are inherently worse drivers, you aren’t a bad feminist. But you might enjoy it, and even if you don’t buy a car it would come in handy for situations like you mentioned. But it’s entirely up to you.

I think it’s reasonable, given that you live in a metropolitan area where you rarely need to drive, to not have a driver’s license.  I grew up in the country, and let me tell you, I was DESPERATE for that license when I had a chance to get it.  But just because the right was fought for and won doesn’t mean that everybody has to do it.  That’s like saying that just because women fought for the right to go to college and for co-ed colleges, every woman who is a feminist ought to go to co-ed college.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t be aware of the fact that this right, like so many others, had to be fought for, or that we shouldn’t appreciate that we have a choice about whether or not to drive.  But driving or not driving are both valid choices.

As for enjoyable…I find country driving, and some expressway driving (assuming it’s not too traffic-y) to be really fun most of the time.  The motion of a car is soothing, you can blast some music and open the windows and enjoy the scenery, and keep moving.  City driving kind of sucks (although now that I live in a city, car-free, I’m always grateful for a chance to borrow a car for my grocery shopping and not having to haul 40 pounds of groceries home in my backpack/on my arm).  City streets are full of other cars and people and lots of stops and driving in them tends to stress me out.  At least that’s my take – I know some people who love driving in the city and find country driving boring, so to each their own I guess.

1. Do you get yourself where you need to go, regardless of ability to drive a personal vehicle? (Yes.)

2. Do you preserve our mother planet, which I would argue is a greater feminist act, by abstaining from an action that directly leads to her destruction? (Yes.)

I think you’re fine, but learn if you feel like you’re missing out. (I am hugely biased, as I’m a bus commuter and have been for ages.)

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