How early electric cars made American women independent

Electric car makers of a century ago faced the problem of positioning. They arrived late to the party — around the year 1895 — and severely handicapped by power and range anxieties at that. The first electric cars were slow, didn’t travel far, nor climbed hills. They were no match for competing petrol cars, and the image stuck. What did electric evangelists do? They aimed for the ears of women, and even children.

“An electric pleasure car may be driven by any member of the family, and therefore removes the necessity of a chauffeur or attendant,” says an editorial in a journal from 1913. Another article makes a case for letting children drive themselves to parties and dance classes.

“Before the youngsters are very old, boys or girls can run the car themselves, and in a large number of instances they are permitted to do so because the simplicity of construction, absence of cranking and facility of management make it a matter of no risk to trust the piloting of an electric to a fair-sized and reasonably bright boy or girl.”

Fair-sized and reasonably bright? We would have many 10-year-olds speeding around in Tesla cars, but for the rules.

The publicity did one good thing, though — it got many women driving (soprano Louise Tetrazzini was one). Horse carriages and even gasoline cars had been too cumbersome and messy for most women, but small and easy-to-use electrics freed them to go “shopping, for her calls and little runs into town for matinees or bridge parties” alone.

No longer dependent on her husband or the chauffeur, the ‘liberated’ woman could stay at parties as long as she liked. She could also attend to numerous chores: “On rainy days she can send them (her children) to school or to the railroad train in the ever-ready electric, and no condition can arise to block this plan, for no chauffeur is required. She herself can drive the machine and she has no fears of any difficulties she may encounter while controlling its movements.”

A 1913 article from Boston reported: “since the season for golf and tennis opened, it has been remarked that an increasing number of women players and visitors appear at the various country clubs driving their own electrics.” Apparently, Boston women caught the electric fever from visits to “Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland and other cities where electrics are in very common use.”

The cars — “clean, simple, and with the minimum amount of garage attention constantly ready for use” — seemed made for women. (Read about a pioneer saleswoman of electric cars)

“With an electric in the garage a woman who wishes to make a trip to the country club has simply to step aboard with her golf sticks or tennis racquet, switch on the current from the battery and drive away.”

Petrol cars, on the other hand, were simply too ‘masculine’ at the time. The first difficulty they posed was hand-cranking the engine. Most women, the editorial said, were not “strong enough to turn over a heavy gasoline motor,” while an electric car eliminated “the danger of broken arms through an accidentally advanced spark in starting the motor and avoids the necessity of wading in the mud to the front of the car and to the crank.”

Electrics also did not have gear levers: “As change gears are eliminated, it is pliant in its action and especially adapted for travel in the congested districts of large cities, where the constant manipulation of the gear lever is not only tedious but dangerous to the operator.” Also absent were “problems incident to the spark and carburettor controls.”

And so, the electric car became a practical runabout, one “anyone who has the mechanical ability to move a small, single control lever back and forth” could drive.

It was certainly a wimpy projection of women that many readers today wouldn’t like, but it worked in the early 1900s, and women put their money on cars that could be driven “without soiling the hands or ruffling the temper.”

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