Archive for maternal mobility

Transportation Infrastructure Investments and Maternal Mobility

Posted in camp, High School, Know Your History, lectures with tags , , , , , , , , on May 9, 2012 by kevin kuswa


The Birth of Transportation Infrastructure Investments and Maternal Mobility

It sounds like the articles about Fordism are helping to contextualize the high school debate topic on transportation infrastructure (or at least the posts are being “viewed”) so it makes sense to share a few additional pieces on the page.  I have decided to combine two essays on the links between Motherhood and auto-mobility in this post and will follow that up with a separate post on the figure of the fatal driver.  Much of this work appeared on the Shared Sacrifice website in 2009 and originated as part of a 2001 dissertation on American Highway Shifts written at the University of Texas at Austin and directed by Ron Greene.

By way of a preface, when thinking about the upcoming topic, Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its transportation infrastructure investment in the United States, there will be a tendency to jump to the exotic at the expense of what is right there in front of us every single day.  Certainly airports, space stations, and even computing clouds are a big part of our transportation infrastructure and offer countless avenues for debate, but America is a highway nation and will continue to exist in that domain for a long period of time.  We drive places and use roads—virtually every day and often multiple times a day.  When we are talking about transportation investments, we have to start with roads and the vehicles that traverse them—how can we bypass the interlocking network of car-paths defining a vast majority of our capacity to move and experience place?  We cannot and should not.

In that spirit, this piece turns from the geopolitical importance of Fordism to the homestead of maternal mobility in an attempt to mark that patriarchal division of transportation and critique the domestication of transportation from a historical perspective in much the same way we learned that the personal is political.  Comments and questions welcome as always.  Enjoy.


Driving Ourselves and the Rise of Maternal Auto/mobility


Wright’s (1939) The Car Belongs to Mother


Kevin Douglas Kuswa, PhD

July, 2009



1. Driving Subjectivities and the Emergence of the Mobile Mother


What concrete traits make up our identities as we participate in the highway machine?  What are the effects of America’s addiction to cars and speed?  What do cars and speed mean for American individualism?  What does the emerging notion of the driver do to our communities, our families, or our bodies?  How does the motor vehicle take over our lives so quickly and so pervasively?  What types of people fall into (and out of) place through the discourse of the driver’s seat?  And, interlocking all of these questions: What makes a machine distinct from a horse or even from the human body?  Is the driver distinct from the machine being driven?  Driving no longer involved building or assembling.  Marking this transition, Dunbar (1915) positioned the human race on the cusp of a technological revolution in transportation—the edge of an era where a majority of Americans would ride in cars every day, yet not have a solid idea what made the vehicle move (nor want such knowledge).  Human “auto” agency became possible, but always contained by the mechanism of circulation and the availability of roads.


“The average mind already shrinks from efforts to assimilate what eyes behold and hands use, and so, hereafter, we must accept much of what is done for us without understanding, content to let a few work in regions not for us, while we casually employ what they bestow.  Those who hereafter become benefactors of the race through invention and discovery in the fields of physical and mechanical science are destined to find their large reward within their own thoughts….Thus it has always been, and much more often will it be so in the future.  It is not because we are thoughtless, or ungrateful.  It is because we have so many other things to think about, and to do.”  (Dunbar, 1915, p1366)


In Dunbar’s frame, the reward for average Americans outside the invention loop was the opportunity to drive these new technologies.  Of course, much of the driver’s circulation was imaginary and hopeful, for only 15 to 20 percent of Americans had the luxury of using the cars and highways that other specialists had crafted.  Even among the individuals using the highways and driving vehicles, automobile ownership was more of a privilege than a given.

For those Americans starting to take on roles as drivers, the beginnings of their pervasiveness can be charted in the appearance of road-user coalitions.  An intersection of different types of drivers (commercial and personal), these road-user groups included private truckers, oil and gas distributors, for-hire shippers, and members of automobile owners associations.  The road-users adamantly opposed federal gas and vehicle taxes, even though they favored additional federal spending on road construction and repairs.  Their arguments included a petition (submitted to Congress in 1947) stating that road-related taxation was unjust “because the burden is determined by the distance the taxpayer must drive” to work (Rose, 1990, p34).  The intense lobbying effort did not take hold until the mid-50s.  Despite the efforts of the National Highway Users Conference in 1949, President Truman extended the federal tax on gasoline.  A few taxes could not restrain the proliferation of the driver, however, for as early as 1915 it was reported that, “American opinion was demanding one car for every American family” (Pettifer & Turner, p101).  It is not surprising that America’s opinions did not correspond to the constraints of economic inequality, prohibiting most individuals from affording a reliable automobile.  Nevertheless, with a brief pause during the Depression, both the demand and the means to acquire automobiles would increase continuously in the U.S. during the course of the 20th Century.

Some of the interaction between the automobile and the family comes to light in the notion of the mobile Mother (or maternal driver).  Here, we should note that many familial aspirations were not satisfied, reinforcing class divisions.  As many as 41 percent of families “still lacked personal automobility in the form of the family car as late as 1950” in the U.S. (Flink, 1988, p131).  In particular, segregation in cities like Atlanta and Chicago testified to Flink’s (1988, p135) contention that “blacks were not to share proportionately in the extension of the ‘American dream’ of the automobile commute to a suburban home.”  Racial and class divisions marked the driver as a manifestation of white privilege.  Discussing various types of drivers in relation to the car as a cultural object, Meaghan Morris (1993, p288) argues that we should “consider cars as mobile, encapsulating vehicles of critical thinking about gender, race, and familial space, articulating a conflict between a ‘society’ and an ‘environment’ that is nonetheless mutually, historically, and perhaps catastrophically, entailed.”  The subject of the car, the driver, arises as central to human struggles over space and identity.

From the road-user coalitions, the figure of the driver shot off in multiple directions.  Moving to a more abstract plane, the state and the market began to articulate the driver as a political or economic unit.  The political unit solidified itself through a driver’s license, access to a means of transit, and an obligation to follow the laws of the road.  The economic unit solidified itself through the purchase of an automobile and its fuel, a contribution to the economy’s circulation of goods and services, and as a relatively large source of disposable income.  A surge in anti-diversion legislation during the period marked a struggle constituting the driver as an economic unit capable of being taxed in a comprehensive way.  Diversion would allow drivers to become a source of revenue for other programs sponsored by the government through a legislative siphoning of highway revenues for competing social needs such as education, defense spending, health care, etc.  Highway proponents, naturally, demonized these leaks and passed anti-diversion legislation.[1]  Eventually solidified by Constitutional amendments in 21 states that earmarked gas tax revenue for further road construction, state highway trust funds secured a self-propelling transportation infrastructure based on the car.

On a less abstract plane, road-users emerged as truckers with specific economic interests tied to the process of driving, as well as private individuals running errands or recreating.  Through the advent of motorized vehicles, the body took on new roles and was produced in new and varied ways.  The driver was molded into a specific subject capable of distinct modes of circulation.  This body was expected to operate the speed and acceleration of a motorized vehicle by strapping to a chair, manipulating a combination of levers and pedals, and following certain speed limits and other road norms to ensure safety and reach the desired destination.  Despite these new demands on the body of the driver, the physical requirements of driving were less strenuous than previous forms of transit, per mile traveled.  This new efficiency prompted James Flink (1988, p162) to comment: “Because driving an automobile requires skill rather than physical strength, women could control one far easier than they could a spirited team (of horses).”  Indeed, the car was not a privilege reserved to men as much as it was an extension of the domestic duties performed by many women.  Ruth Schwartz Cowan (1983, p85) explained the significance of the car and the driver to the 20th Century figure of the Mother:

“By mid-century, the automobile had become, to the American housewife of the middle classes, what the cast-iron stove in the kitchen would have been to her counterpart of 1850—the vehicle through which she did much of her most significant work, and the work locale where she could be most often found.”

Yet, how can we talk about specific people and identities if we conceive of each and every driver as representative of some other homogenous group?  How can we talk about women drivers, for instance, and specific women drivers in the suburb connected to their surroundings and neighbors by the on-going process of chauffeuring?



2. Women Drivers: The Car Belongs to Mother


In Pettifer and Turner’s (1984) history of drivers in America, Automania, depictions of the woman driver are scant and generalized, often bordering on exploitative.  Not only are they commenting on a car culture that objectified women as either housewives running errands or desperate singles latching on to the man with the flashiest car, Pettifer and Turner are also complicit in such objectification by positioning women as largely absent or passive in the automobile arena.  Other than the chapter on “The Car and Courtship” (Pettifer & Turner, 1984, p181-201), women are mentioned fewer than twenty times, and even then are described as submissive, domesticated, incapable of dealing with adversity, or sexually explicit hood ornaments.  Especially in Pettifer and Turner’s account of the years prior to the Depression, women are usually portrayed as simple passengers or on-lookers.

According to their history, only a few woman–the rare exceptions–broke the mold to take the wheel in a “man’s world.”  Not a single woman driver enters their narrative during the first forty pages of the book.  At that point, Pettifer and Turner paraphrase Dorothy Levitt’s advice on fashion for “ladies” and what was required for proper “motoring dress,” encouraging women to plan well for their public excursions.  Their aim was to help women drivers avoid losing their femininity while remaining safe and prudent:


“In The Woman and the Car (1909) she advises the woman driver to aim for neatness and comfort and to avoid flamboyancy: ‘Under no circumstances wear lace or “fluffy” adjuncts to your toilette.’…. The prudent lady motorist should also carry an overall of butcher blue or brown linen to slip over her clothes for the time when greasy maintenance work had to be done; and a pair of wash leather gloves to help keep hands ladylike.  She adds that the woman driver traveling alone should carry a small revolver to defend herself on the highways and byways” (Pettifer & Turner, 1984, p45).


The details of the advice offered to women drivers imply that most drivers at the time were male, but it also demonstrates a growing concern for the needs of the woman driver.  James Flink reports that automobile manufacturers had women in mind when they replaced the hand-crank for starting the engine with a self-starter.  Introduced in 1912, the self-starter was advertised as the “ladies’ aid” and was followed by the closed car in 1919, “which obviated wearing special clothes while motoring and put middle-class women drivers in conventional gasoline automobiles in droves” (Flink, 1988, p162).

Even though Pettifer and Turner may erase women from the driving experience prior to 1956, their history does not write over the experiences of the tens of thousands of women who put themselves behind the wheel as the highway machine made its entrance.  In 1899, the same year the first U.S. driver’s license was issued to a woman from Chicago, women in society clubs decorated cars with flowers and drove them in a New Port, Rhode Island parade (McShane, 1997, p26).  In 1903, Oldsmobile began advertisements in the Ladies’ Home Journal and a group of women drivers formed their own auto club in New York City.[2]  From the very beginnings of the auto industry, advertisements had been directed toward women under the assumption that those women who did not drive the family car would at least be directly involved in its purchase.  In 1910, Laura Dent Crane published the first of a “six-volume Automobile Girls Series” called Automobile Girls along the Hudson.  By 1917, 23 percent of drivers in Los Angeles were women (McShane, 1997, p30-53).  Clearly, women were extending themselves into these automobile as drivers.  Flink (1988, p163) notes that “most of the comfort and convenience options added to cars—including vanity mirrors, plush upholstery, heaters, air conditioning, and automatic transmissions—were innovated with the ladies especially in mind.”

Following their prescription for the woman driver, Pettifer and Turner then mention the story of Alice Huyler Ramsey who became the first woman to drive across the country, journeying from Hell’s Gate on the Atlantic to the Golden Gate on the Pacific.  Making up one of their rare forays into the realm of women drivers, Pettifer and Turner (1984, p75) write: “Perhaps the most conclusive and remarkable proof of the taming of America’s great open spaces came in 1909 when 22-year-old Alice Ramsey, with three female companions, became the first woman to drive across America.”  Ramsey’s taming of America’s spaces is reminiscent of the ways that female objects are tamed through the automobile.  In another disturbing passage, Pettifer and Turner (1984, p93) participate in such objectification by leaving the following statement about the spokes model for the MG company unquestioned (and tacitly supported): “The MG Girl was an amalgam of so many of our automobile fantasies: the freedom of the road, the open car, the lure of speed, and the implicit sexual promise offered by the well-bred but thoroughly modern girl raring to go.”  Such objectifying (and widely circulating) advertisements are not enabling in the struggle against patriarchy.  Before engaging in a comprehensive critique of representations of women alongside the automobile, however, a more contoured example arrives in the form of the mobile Mother.

As an expression of women drivers negotiating subjectivity through the automobile, Priscilla Wright writes The Car Belongs to Mother in 1939, a book devoted to “the many problems which beset the woman driver” (Wright, 1939, piv).  Over the course of its eighty pages, this work travels through ten chapters, or arenas of advice, including “The Chauffeuring of Husbands,” “School Chauffeuring,” “The Right Service Station,” and “The New Car.”  Directed toward a specific audience (married women sharing a car in the suburbs with their husbands), the book diagrams a number of characteristics of a specific highway subjectivity: the suburban, married, woman chauffeur.  She has a clear sense of belonging to the automobile and has adapted it, in an unashamedly feminine way, to the rigors of everyday life.  Maybe Priscilla Wright is simply articulating her own identity–maybe she is only writing a loosely guarded autobiography.  Regardless of her intent, though, this book as a guidebook for women who operate cars on a daily basis positions and creates the subjectivity of mobile motherhood.  Fluctuating between the triumphs of liberation and the torture of needless repetition, Priscilla’s Wright’s (1939, pxiv) mobile Mother is many people wrapped together.


“Man sees the automobile, invented by him, improved by him, fashioned for his pride and pleasure, become, as he believes, the plaything of Woman….She deals, rather, with the problems of the matron–and her name is truly legion–who, with the one family car at her disposal, transports her husband to and from trains, her children to school, herself to market, club members to their homes on unaccepted streets and relatives on their various whims and vagaries.  Truly this woman is a gallant creature, a creature of wit and resourcefulness, of nerve and verve.  May she receive consolation and help from these humble pages and may Man, after reading them, meet her more respectfully upon the road and reverently exclaim, ‘God wot.  A woman driving!’”


The multiple subject positions of our present era were abundant before the close of the 1950s and far before the complete arrival of the highway machine.  Attaching the mobile Mother to many of these pre-highway subjects, the stereotyping and essentialism in Wright’s statement constrains women to preconstructed lines within a patriarchal society.  Stereotyping occurs when Wright establishes the woman as the domestic servant for her husband, the woman who may be able to operate the automobile but could never invent or build such a thing.  Essentialism occurs when Wright reduces the essence of the married woman to a submissive and supporting figure who manages the domestic sphere.  On the other hand, there are marks of resistance available in Wright’s perspective that can contribute to a map of radical feminism in opposition to trajectories that would either blame the processes of technology and science or remain in a liberal theory of equality.[3]  We return to these cracks of resistance after laying out more of Wright’s text.

Beginning with the concern that marriage is more about being a chauffeur than being in love, Wright (1939, p1) imagines a set of wedding vows that would include a promise to drive the children to school in foul weather and to pick up the husband’s clothes from the cleaners.  She only entertains this rebellious thought momentarily, for such a “disillusioning clause would mean fewer marriages, a lower birth rate, and a marked decline in suburban property values.”  Not about to risk such a dramatic restructuring of family life, Wright (1939, p1) consents: “Better that woman should continue to bend her back to the yoke, and keep her hand on the throttle.”  This axiom of automobile martyrdom does not hold for single women, working women, or married women who aren’t responsible for driving their husbands to the station—the “keep-to-the-throttle” message is “concerned wholly with the suburban husbands who live too far from the station to walk to it and who wouldn’t walk to it anyway” (Wright, 1939, p2).

As the mobile Mother drives the family to and from school, work, baseball practice, the cleaners, music lessons, the market, and the swimming pool, she both fulfills her role as an American housewife and circumvents it at the same time by taking charge through various regulation and management strategies.[4]  When the family purchases a new car, the husband attempts to take control of the vehicle by lecturing the rest of the family on its care and use.  Even though the mother will eventually discover the peculiarities of their new vehicle, the husband attempts to assert his dominance by lecturing from the pamphlets and instruction books, “and the wife has to listen, perforce” (Wright, 1939, p61).  Not only does she have to listen, she has to remain passive and submissive to give her husband the illusion of control.  The wife must muster all of her courage as a strategy of self-protection: “During this period, indeed, she can do nothing but call on all her inner resources of courage and strength and remind herself that, like the dew of the morning, it soon will pass, although it may take longer” (Wright, 1939, p61).  The point is not to interpret the mindset of the infantalized wife, but to map the way relations among family members operate through the functions of the car.  The roles of the mobile Mother seem to shift back and forth in tandem with the car–the car is personified at times as the quiet but dependable servant of the family and the mother is empowered at times as the gatekeeper of transit.[5]

Wright continues to both criticize and praise the mobile Mother’s position as domestic facilitator in her chapter on “School Chauffeuring.”  She (Wright, 1939, p13) claims, with a sardonic edge, that “school chauffeuring is one of the most vicious practices of the present day” because of its ability to undermine a mother’s stamina and vitality.  Even though the typical chauffeur takes on stereotypes of the “old man behind the wheel” or the “butler-driver,” Wright’s figure of the chauffeur revolves around the housewife.  For the mobile Mother, the “schoolhouse is never near the house you bought” and “modern children are appallingly puny” (Wright, 1939, p13), requiring the driver to pull up directly in front of each child’s home and escort them to and from the car.  “In spite of being stuffed with vitamins and spotlighted with violet rays, the child of today is utterly unable to stand up to a raindrop, a snowflake, or a drop in Fahrenheit” (p13).  Wright does not elaborate on the “appalling” traits of “modern children” except to complain that the health of the neighborhood kids is always precarious and capable of disrupting any schedule.  The consuming task of chauffeuring “has its bright side,” though, for Wright (1939, p16) admits that “many firm friendships are formed among the chauffeurs, who otherwise might not know one another.”  Despite the enclosed nature of the car’s sense of individualism (freedom in a box), these women drivers were able to “exchange news and recipes as they parked conveniently abreast or at casual angles in the schoolyard and in the street in front” (Wright, 1939, p16).

The maneuvering of the automobile necessary for chauffeuring demonstrates a certain mastery of surrounding technology.  As much more than a coping strategy, agency abounds in the image “of two women jockeying their cars so that, without shutting of the motors or putting on the breaks, they can draw alongside each other in the middle of the road and pass through the open windows boxes containing costumes for school plays or cakes for food sales” (Wright, 1939, p17).  Does this manipulation of space by the mobile Mother resist what Donna Haraway (1991, p19) calls technological applications of the “political principle of domination”?  Haraway explains this argument by mapping machinery and its scientific base as complicit in domination:


“The political principle of domination has been transformed here into the legitimating scientific principle of dominance as a natural property with a physical-chemical base.  Manipulations, concepts, organizing principles–the entire range of the tools of science–must be seen to be penetrated by the principle of domination.[6]



Yet, Haraway realizes later that science and technology cannot be demonized–at least not without also admitting to their productive potential.  As an escape from the specifics of certain oppressive arrangements, machines and their functions must be reclaimed and re-articulated.  Put differently, technologies have effects that can be productive and emancipatory, as well as destructive and restrictive.



3.  Does the Mobile Mother Belong to the Car?


In one way, Priscilla Wright (1939) and her interrogation of the relationship between the car and the Mother has generated a genealogy of leaving the house and all that it entails.  Indeed, her work could be positioned to operate alongside the notion of an emancipatory potential for selectively deployed technologies.  In her move following the articulation of the chauffeur’s social space, Wright embraces a Spivak-style of “strategic essentialism” by critiquing the father’s presence in the sphere of the schoolyard.  She does this by isolating the male essence (or masculine traits) implicit in the Father’s arrival at the school and then criticizing his general lack of understanding and effectiveness in such an environment.  The schoolyard and its parking lot are almost a “private public” open to mothers and their children but not to fathers and their brash style.  It is valuable to chart Wright’s essentialism (of women as masters of the domestic economy and men as incapable of successfully raising or tending to the children) as partially resistant to the male norm.  Such transgression may only take place in the school parking lot, but in that arena Wright (1939, p17) associates the father with an unwelcome intruder capable of disrupting the balance of the local environment:


“Yet leave the girls to themselves and everything goes off like clockwork, not a fender or bumper scratched and the schoolyard cleaned with swiftness and skill.  Let one man come into the yard, however, and there is sure to be trouble….Let one lone father, home for the day and eager to help, drive in, and pandemonium reigns.  He utterly fails to grasp the spirit of informality and camaraderie that prevails.  When he sees what is to him a jigsaw puzzle of cars, he immediately becomes outraged and panic stricken, and in two minutes has turned a peaceful social schoolyard into a madhouse of honking horns and locked bumpers.”


The challenge that Wright offers here may not translate into critical radicalism in relation to the patriarchy.  Wright’s protective defense of the schoolyard may indirectly extend her domestication into certain public places such as the mall, the church or the school.  When a woman’s activity is acknowledged, “it is commonly held to be less sophisticated, and in many cases less authentically political, than the involvements of men” (Stilanen & Stanworth, 1984, p11).  Thus, the activities of a mobile Mother like Wright’s protagonist are “explained as a direct product of a woman’s social role as wife and mother and her mythical status as purity personified.  This distortion involves an assumption that women’s present weak political position is necessary and functional” (Bourque & Grossholtz, 1984, p105).  The devaluing of housework as well as women’s labor outside of the home lends credence to the view that the limited public spaces available to women were feminized, privatized, or otherwise subordinated to the “real” public sphere governed by men.

The Mother driver should be at the service of the husband’s friends and relatives (Wright, 1939, p31), wary of male pedestrians (p42), respectful of her husband’s superiority when repairing the automobile is in order (p44), and ready to “stand by the car, looking as helpless as possible” (p55) if something goes wrong some distance from a garage.  For Wright (1939, p55), “women should never attempt any repair work themselves.”  It is the driving that the mobile Mother must perform effectively, not the mechanical tinkering required to keep the automobile in operation.  Wright (1939, p79) concludes with a plea to the mother to maintain her mobility: “Tireless, courageous, venturesome…on she goes!  Will she stop?  Not if she knows!” (Wright, 1939).  Even though the Seneca Falls convention had declared that “Women are citizens; their relationship to the state should be direct and unmediated by husband or children” (Evans, 1989, p95), the expansion of domesticity extended the mediated role performed by many mother.  In this case, women’s roles were mediated by the automobile as much as the husband or the children.  “Domesticity had emerged from the era of association as a much expanded version of republican motherhood” (Evans, 1989, p95), and women were still “responsible for children, the home, and morality.”

How does the figure of the Mother intersect with the mobility afforded by the automobile to produce a certain trajectory of motherhood attached to many middle class married women?  Following the schizophrenic protrusions of the figure of the driver (negotiating poles of intimacy and distance in relation to the automobile), we must acknowledge that metaphors can work in complementary and competing directions—the affirmation and confrontation implied by motherhood is a great example.  Mothers can be both passively nurturing and violently protective.  Of course the woman driver takes many paths, and Wright’s driver is usually more nurturing than violent, but each subject position flows through mixed and contradictory personas.  Priscilla Wright walks both sides of the fence when she attaches the newly available automobile to her own sense of worth and freedom, while simultaneously constructing the vehicle as a disciplinary mechanism that locks her into a specific role of domestication.  As Evelyn Nakano Glenn (1994, p5) posits in her article on the social constructions of mothering, to “emphasize the social base of mothering is to attend to the variation rather than searching for the universal, and to shift what has been on the margins to the center.” Just as Glenn articulates the duality of the Mother and her fierce compassion, so too does Wright articulate the duality of the mobile Mother: driving to both escape and uphold the family.

Motherhood in the 1920s and beyond was not all tied up in the automobile or driving, but many middle and upper class women transformed their notions of mothering through the (im)mobility offered by the car.  By the time The Car Belongs to Mother (1939) was published, many advances in women’s rights had been achieved such as better labor laws, the opening up of previously closed public spaces, and the Constitutional right to vote signed on August 26, 1920.  Yet, even after the large-scale mobilization of the women’s rights movement, countervailing trends such as the “feminine mystique”[7] resulted in a celebration and strengthening of domesticity “during the 1950s when married women were in fact taking jobs in record numbers” (Margolis, 1984, p4).  Maxine Margolis, an Anthropologist coming to the question of motherhood with the analytical tools of cultural materialism, argues that the dichotomy between public culture and private culture warrants a critical history of the meaning of motherhood in America.  Margolis (1984, p6) focuses on “middle class American women as mothers, housewives, and workers” in an attempt to add to a critical and cultural perspective to previously rigid ideologies of motherhood.

Critiques of the “proper role of women” were becoming more common in the 1950s, but the women who did enter the workforce were usually taking low-paying and dead-end jobs.  Well into the later years of the 20th Century (and extending into today), women were under-represented and underpaid in the workforce.  At the same time, women have “continued to bear primary responsibility for child care and housework” (Margolis, 1984, p5).  Despite the flaws in an analysis or cultural history that relies exclusively on prescriptive writings, Margolis (1984, p10) deploys them to uncover “ideologies about women’s place in the scheme of things, a place that varied over time according to the exigencies of the material order.”[8]  These prescriptive histories, including Wright’s text, are drawn from books, manuals, pamphlets, or other literature designed to provide advice or guidelines for a particular group at a given time and place.  Margolis recognizes from the outset that most prescriptive histories are already targeted toward white wealthy consumers living predominantly in urban areas.  Given these and other limitations, it may be the case that such prescriptive writings “were indeed addressed to the white middle class woman, and as such they do not and cannot provide us with a guide to contemporary views of poor, nonwhite, or immigrant women” (Margolis, 1984, p8).  Nevertheless, specific changes within the rubric of the white, middle class, married woman may be evident in these historical directives.

Ideological trends follow alongside prescriptive histories, and Margolis (1984, p9) has documented how “both the tone and content of books dealing with motherhood, housekeeping, and women as workers did change over time.”  Indeed, the very gap between a prescriptive history and its historical context may point to the ways an ideology contributes to the production of subjectivity.  The “as if” connecting ideologies to lived experience (Greene, 1998a) permits the mother to define herself as if the proper development of her children is her primary responsibility.  Once the concept of motherhood articulates a link between the mother and the child as the central responsibility of the mother, it follows that something like the automobile would extend that responsibility rather than providing an escape from it.  Coming back to the automobile later, it is first significant to note the prevailing intersection between a woman, a mother, and her child:


“The ideology that full-time mothering was essential to the proper development of the child met with little or no dissent in the prescriptive writings of the years 1900 to 1940.  Even during the depression when economic necessity forced more married women than ever before to take jobs, the experts’ relentless insistence on the centrality of the mother’s role did not abate….While motherhood after the turn of the century was still a woman’s central occupation, it was no longer her only one.” (Margolis, 1984, p44)


Margolis uses the historian Mary Ryan to back up her argument that the role of the mother did not substantially change in the 1900s; rather, the major change was the addition of other roles and responsibilities to the previous duties of the mother.  Mary Ryan (1975, p243) observed that women had become “social housekeepers” even though few challenged the “notion that child rearing was a woman’s principal responsibility.”  The major difference, mirroring the schizophrenia of the driver, was that the mother was now expected to play even more roles.  The automobile only furthered the potential for more tasks to be undertaken by the mobile Mother.  Margolis (1984, p44) contends that the crucial change after the turn of the century “was that now other activities could be added to child care.”

An important question here is whether or not the inclusion of women drivers into the fold of driver through mobile motherhood can offer an emancipatory alternative to patriarchal norms of automobile ownership.  In other words, once the subject position of the driver is opened up to women, how does the automobile become a means of expression?  How does the automobile reinforce and legitimize patriarchal formations of the family and the individual?  How do women drivers challenge and extend notions of feminism, rhetoric, and identity?  As a small start toward putting these questions on the map of the highway machine, this section positions Wright’s 1939 treatise within a staunchly entrenched patriarchy operating through technology, science, politics, and the military.  Nevertheless, machines also provide escape-routes to male-centered oppression, for it is not mechanization that relegates women to roles of inferiority; rather, it is the deployment of particular types of mechanization.

This diagram points to an arrangement of motherhood that allowed the automobile as a technology of mobility to be deployed as another ensnaring mechanism that perpetuates the mother’s subservience to her children and her husband.  Before and after World War II, in Margolis’ account, the strict and regimented childcare suggested by Watson and the behavioralists fell to the wayside in the favor of a hands-off approach called the “permissive” school of child rearing.  Foreshadowing Lauren Berlant’s (1997) critique of fetal rights and infantile citizenship as a means to disembody and regulate women, Margolis contends that what was permissive for the child was also obligating and domesticating for mothers.  In the new paradigm, Margolis (1984, p62-3) declares that the child was “to lead and the mother would follow,” the child was to have “free rein,” and the child was to be nurtured with an “emphasis on individuality and a tendency toward self-indulgence.”  Moreover, the child-care advice published in the 1940s and 50s did not speak to the growing number of non-married women, single mothers, working mothers, and many other women in unique circumstances.  This “disjunction” (Margolis, 1984, p65) grew throughout the second half of the century as the 1960s saw “more and more mothers of school age children holding jobs.”

In many ways the permissive school of mothering common during Priscilla Wright’s era was simply a confirmation of the place of the child at the center of the family.  Families that did not conform to this norm were not incorporated into the scope of Wright’s work and similar documents operating within the permissive child rearing perspective.  An additional problem inherent in relying on prescriptive histories bears itself out in the gap between the familial norm imagined by Priscilla Wright and historical challenges to the universal nature of that norm.  The problem can be mapped through the processes that would connect Wright’s excluded audience to the same group of people excluded by the creation of suburbia around policies promoting white privilege.  In other words, when Helen Leavitt (1970) writes her book attacking the Interstate Highway, Superhighway-Superhoax, she is talking to many of the people ignored by Wright three decades years earlier.  Wright’s work, regardless of her intent, ignored a number of women because they were not part of a middle class family “emboldened” by the power and luxury of the automobile and reliable highways.

Speaking to the flip side of Leavitt’s equation, Wright’s audience was primarily made up of white, middle class, married women who had not submitted to rising inflation or the growing demand for female labor outside of the home.  This group was largely the same demographic who would help to populate the suburbs over the remainder of the 20th Century.  On the other hand, the positioning of Wright’s book within the history of motherhood in the United States is not a form of criticism that would hinge on uncovering the voices neglected by any particular text.  Such interpretation (ideological criticism in Margolis’ frame) is a project distinct from, and subsumed by, this inquiry.  The impact of the mobile Mother, within machinic rhetoric, is that the map of subjectivity generated by the highway machine in the U.S. implicates a specific intersection between the woman driver and the motherhood of many predominantly white, married, middle and upper class women.

Transformations and transitions in subjectivity, of course, operate through arrangements that include imaginary projections such as an applied audience.  Competing audiences help to draw these specific arrangements, even though they are supplemental to the contexts provided by abstract diagrams (the highway machine) and concrete machines (Priscilla Wright’s automobile).  The imagined audience of a situated text is different from the “actual” reception of the text, a utopian notion of reception that should not distract criticism from diagramming the “second persona” in its contingency and context.  Questions concerning audiences can be worthwhile tracks.  Borrowing from Edwin Black (1970, p112), it is important to recognize “the possibility, and in some cases the probability, that the author implied by the discourse is an artificial creation: a persona, but not necessarily a person.”  This persona may not be embodied, according to Black (1970, p117), but s/he certainly represents a figure implied by the projection of a given discourse—a “model of what the rhetor” would generate as an identity for the audience at that moment.  Going slightly further, Philip Wander (1984) opens up the possibility and probability of an excluded audience and the need to speak for (or with) this marginalized “third persona.”[9]

An example of the second persona in Wright’s work is the mobile Mother and all that she entails for women, motherhood, and highway subjectivities.  In addition, Margolis marks the third persona (or at least one of them) in Wright’s book by accounting for a discrepancy between the mothers imagined by a given prescriptive history and the material factors constituting motherhood at the time.  Thus, the impact of this map is that the subject of the mobile Mother—as she emerges alongside the highway machine and within The Car Belongs to Mother—acts to challenge the assumption that the typical driver is always male as well as the assumption that women do not negotiate their subjectivity as drivers in complex and contradictory ways.  The impact of this map is also that the subject of the mobile Mother provides its challenge in ways that are partially defeating.  The mobile Mother is complicit in notions of motherhood that exclude many women as well as notions of motherhood that conflate the identity and expression of the mother with the well-being and development of her children.


4. Returning Home  


Donna Haraway adds a few dimensions to the subjectivity of mobile Motherhood, especially as transformations in the domestic economy and the meaning of motherhood flow forth from industrialism.  When we map the mother as a particular subject generated by the arrival of automobile transportation, one aim is to attach the domestic chauffeur to a dominant narrative perpetuated by heterosexism and patriarchal culture.  The way transportation emerges in this country helps to produce a constraining subjectivity in that the mother is subordinate to the family automobile and dehumanized as the vehicle’s insufficient caretaker.  Wright demonstrates, however, that the mobile Mother also expresses herself in a complex narrative of frustration and empowerment.  The re-telling of the mother’s schizophrenic negotiation (or doubling) of the automobile is another challenge to “perceptions of clear distinctions between subject and object” (Haraway, 1997, p267).  Haraway  (1997, p269) goes further by interrogating the misplaced distance between science and feminism:


“Attention to the agencies and knowledges crafted from the vantage point of nonstandard positions (positions that don’t fit but within which one must live), including the heterogeneous locations of women, and questions about for whom and for what the semiotic-material apparatuses of scientific knowledge production get built and sustained are at the heart of feminist science studies.  Interrogating critical silences, excavating the reasons questions cannot make headway and seem ridiculous, getting at the denied and disavowed in the heart of what seems neutral and rational: these notions are all fundamental to feminist approaches to technoscience.”


Continuing to borrow from Haraway (1997, p267), the interrogation of knowledge and what counts as meaning “depends, paradigmatically, on undoing the founding border trace of modern science–that between the technical and the political.”  The border between the technical and the political collapses in two ways through the abstract diagram of the driver and the concrete diagram of the mobile Mother.  First, the initial move connecting the automobile to the subject of the driver conflates the technical advance of motorized travel with the political element of individuality and freedom afforded by the possibility of driving.  Second, the duality of the mobile Mother draws a series of angles that are both political and technical: the extension of domesticity into specific public spheres through the operation of a vehicle, the intensification of motherhood brought on by the opportunities and limitations of the automobile, and the exclusion of certain groups of women from the question of how technology is deployed to promote or suppress feminism within the home.



Works Cited


Berlant, Lauren (1997).  The Queen of America Goes to Washington City.  Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Biesecker, Barbara (1992).  “Coming to Terms with Recent Attempts to Write Women Into the History of Rhetoric,” Philosophy and Rhetoric 25.

Black, Edwin (1970).  “The Second Persona.”  The Quarterly Journal of Speech, 56.  pp108-119.

Bourque, Susan & Grossholtz, Jean (1984).  “Politics an Unnatural Practice: Political Science Looks at Female Participation.”  In eds. Siltanen & Stanworth. Women and the Public Sphere.  London: Hutchinson, pp103-121.

Cowan, Ruth Schwartz (1983).  More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave.  New York: Basic Books.

Dow, Bonnie J. (1992).  “Femininity and Feminism in Murphy Brown,” Southern Communication Journal 57, pp143-155.

Dow, Bonnie J. (1997). “Feminism, Cultural Studies, and Rhetorical Studies,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 83, pp90-131.

Dunbar, Seymour (1915). A History of Travel in America.  Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

Evans, Sara M. (1989).  Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America.  New York: The Free Press.

Flink, James J. (1988).  The Automobile Age. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Gaonkar, Dilip P. (1990). “Object and Method in Rhetorical Criticism: From Wichelns to Leff and McGee.”  Western Journal of Speech Communication, 54.  Summer, pp290-316.

Greene, Ronald Walter (1998a). “Another Materialist Rhetoric,” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 15, 21-41.

Griffin, Cindy (1993).  “Women as Communicators: Mary Daly’s Hagography as Rhetoric,” Communication Monographs 60, pp159-177.

Griffin, Cindy (1994).  “Rhetorizing Alienation: Mary Wollstonecraft and the Rhetorical Construction of Women’s Oppression,” Quarterly J. of Speech 80, pp293-312.

Haraway, Donna J. (1997).  Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan ã_Meets_OncoMouseä.  New York: Routledge Press.

Leavitt, Helen (1970).  Superhighway–Superhoax.  New York: Ballantine Books.

Margolis, Maxine L. (1984).  Mothers and Such: Views of American Women and Why They Changed.  Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

McShane, Clay (1997). The Automobile: A Chronology of Its Antecedents, Development, and Impact.  Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

Morris, Meaghan (1993).  “Fear and the Family Sedan.” In ed. B. Massumi, The Politics of Everyday Fear.  Minneapolis, MN: U. Minnesota Press, pp285-306.

Pettifer, Julian & Turner, Nigel (1984).  Automania: Man and the Motor Car.  London: Collins.

Rose, Mark (1990).  Interstate: Express Highway Politics 1939-1989.  Knoxville: University of Tenn. Press.

Ryan, Mary P. (1975).  Womanhood in America: From Colonial Times to the Present.  New York: New Viewpoints.

Siltanen, Janet & Stanworth, Michelle (1984). “General Introduction.”  In eds. Siltanen & Stanworth. Women and the Public Sphere.  London: Hutchinson, pp11-16.

Wander, Philip (1984).  “The Third Persona.” Central States Speech Journal, 34. pp1-18.

Wright, Priscilla Hovey (1939). The Car Belongs to Mother.  Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.


[1] In Indiana, for instance, highway lobbies went so far as to ask the legislature to return $14 million in previous diversions (Rose, 1990, p32).


[2]  In 1905, Mrs. C.C. Fitler drove to victory in an auto race attended by 20,000 spectators in Cape May, New Jersey.  In 1909, women were temporarily banned from racing by the American Automobile Association when another women, Joen Newton Cuneo, beat Ralph Dapalma in a New Orleans road race.  Also in 1909, Maxwell-Briscoe sponsored the first cross-country road trip by a woman driver, using the phrase “even a woman can drive” for publicity.


[3]  Bonnie Dow (1992, p155) grapples with these traits and asserts that “rhetoric needs to critically engage feminist theory.”  Her engagement produces the argument that we should study communication about women, not merely women who communicate.  Dow has a point, but it is Biesecker who pushes the edge by expanding the critique to include humanism and Western subjectivity.  According to Biesecker (1992, p147), we must consider the excess of the centered subject.  This move makes the feminine style more significant as an action (what are the effects of the feminine?).  It is actions that resist, not actors.  Cindy Griffin (1994, p306) notes that “patriarchy functions as a constitutive rhetoric that creates subjects as objects.”


[4] Again, this is not to say that the woman driver always assumed the identity of the domestic chauffeur, nor that the domestic chauffer always adopted the identity of Priscilla Wright’s lead character.  For Wright’s driver, for example, an inner conscience makes itself heard in order to convey an authenticity or wholeness in the mother that might be absent from the generalized driver.


[5] Some of the comparisons between the individual and the automobile blur together even further when the bodies of each face injury.  When the new family car finally escapes the overbearing scrutiny of the husband, the mother is compelled to protect its pristine condition.  Her concern over the automobile’s body is more than personifying, it is animating.  She cautiously takes the new car out on her own, fearful of a “third-degree scratch” that may be noticed: “Women can often conceal or disguise first- or second-degree scratches, but they can do little or nothing with a third-degree would or an actual disfiguring injury” (Wright, 1939, p69).


[6] Haraway joins Shulamith Firestone and others in her defense of selectively produced and applied technologies.


[7]  Betty Friedan’s landmark book, The Feminine Mystique (1963), marked the continued acceptance of domesticity and submissive roles by many married women, and Friedan’s critique of this passivity became “the first contemporary statement of female discontent and the founding document of the (contemporary) women’s movement” (Margolis, 1984, p5).


[8]  Margolis is more than aware of the shortcomings in an approach relying on prescriptive histories.  She (1984, p8)  raises many of these “unanswerable” questions herself: “Who bought these manuals and magazines?  Were they actually read?  And, if they were read, how seriously was their advice taken?  Did such advice affect the way middle class women saw themselves?”


[9]  Citing Black and Wander here helps to explain some of the issues surrounding the groups included and excluded from Wright’s audience.  Gaonkar (1990, p302-3) critiques the effects of Black’s and Wander’s frameworks, noting that Black’s emphasis on the critic as a “discloser” separates the critic from criticism and relegates the critical voice to the past, “a doctrinally dead discourse.”  Repeating the voices of the past in a pre-constructed moral framework is also a problem for Wander and his form of ideological criticism that threatens to erase the role of the specific intellectual in favor of training and becoming agitators.  The bottom line here is that rhetoric operates partially through an intersection of competing texts that are productive of, and created by, particular audiences.