JUST ABOUT a month ago, Saudi Arabia issued its first driver’s licenses to women and lifted a ban on female drivers, giving them freedom to hit the road. Coincidentally, automobiles and women’s rights in the United States—in the first quarter of the 20th century—are the subject of a new exhibition at the Frick Pittsburgh’s Car and Carriage Museum. “Driving the Disenfranchised—The Automobile’s Role in Women’s Suffrage” explores how cars became a central part of the struggle to win the right to vote.
That battle began with the first Women’s Rights Convention that took place in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York. More than 70 years of activism later, in June 1919, the 19th amendment granted citizens the right to vote, regardless of gender.
The exhibit points out that it was the introduction of affordable, mass-produced cars, such as the Ford Model T in 1908, that helped propel the women’s rights movement in the early 20th century. Suffragists relied on cars for both transportation and publicity, using them in parades and on tours across the country where the car became a stage for speeches. Like it did for Nell Richardson and Alice Burke who traveled from New York to San Francisco and back in their Saxon car, outfitted with flowers and “Vote for Women” banners. The car had compartments for a sewing machine, a pistol (for killing snakes) and evening gowns to wear for speeches. They crossed the country to drum up support for suffragist delegates attending the national political conventions in Chicago and St. Louis. Women drove for votes but cars also gave them the means to change their identity —leave the house, expand their geographic horizons and challenge stereotypes about their lack of mechanical know-how.
Along with historic automobiles, the exhibit highlights period fashions. Modern cars required a more modern wardrobe. The cumbersome dresses and extravagant feathered hats of the Victorian period gave way to more streamlined, functional clothing suitable for women who had broken out of the domestic sphere to become agents for political and social change.
Give a woman a car, and there’s no telling what she can accomplish. Even though it was a silly commercial jingle, I’m reminded of the world of possibilities I felt when I heard Dinah Shore sing “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet.” Saudi sisters, now you’ve got a key to your kingdom. We wish you the best.
The exhibit at the Car and Carriage Museum of the Frick Pittsburgh closes Oct. 21, 2018. Hours Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, 10am to 5 pm; Friday, 10am to 9pm. Admission is free.