Screenshot: H.W. Nicholls; The Woman and the Car (YouTube)
Life wasn’t easy for women in the early 20th century and race car driver and motorist Dorothy Levitt knew that for a fact. That’s why she published The Woman and the Car: A Chatty Little Handbook for all Women who Motor or Who Want to Motor in 1909. It tells women how to take care of themselves and their cars, and reminds them to always carry a gun.
The book was published for women a little like Dorothy: someone who wanted their own little slice of freedom but who weren’t sure how to get it. The automobile provided a huge opportunity to give women autonomy, and Ms. Levitt wanted women to know how to take control of their lives in this one, simple way. So, in a very conversational tone, she guided young ladies through the process of purchasing, starting, driving and repairing their own cars.
Now, it might not seem like there’s a whole lot to learn from a turn-of-the-century book like The Woman and the Car. Automotive technology is almost unrecognizably different now, and the social conventions that barred women from driving at the time are pretty much nonexistent in the Western world today. And in some ways, you’d be right.
But I firmly believe the handbook should still be a piece that everyone read, both for its importance to history and for the advice that can stand the test of time.The Woman and the Car costs less than ten dollars on Amazon and clocks in at just over 150 pages, most of which are decorated with illustrations elucidating Levitt’s descriptions, which means it’s a quick afternoon read. And that’s just what she intended.
The Woman and the Car is approachable. Levitt makes sure her readers can see that she knows what she’s talking about while also assuring them that nothing is quite as difficult as it seems. She dedicates multiple pages to talking about all the things you need to do before you even think about driving. Locate the petrol and oil takes and make sure they’re full. Learn what all the knobs and levers do, learn what they control, learn why, and learn how to solve these problems on the go. Test your brakes to make sure they grip well. Oh, and make sure you turn on your battery, too – but do not touch anything metal underneath the car while there’s still a current flowing.
Not once does she leave any potentially confusing term undefined, and when she finishes the chapter with, “let me assure you that while it has taken some little time to explain these things in the plainest possible language, it will take you but a few minutes to carry them out,” you actually do believe her.
Her information regarding the purchase of a car is certainly outdated but also shows that, for all of her pioneering work regarding women, Levitt still believed in some of those sexist myths herself. For a woman, she highly recommends a single-cylinder De Dion that generally fell under eight horsepower. This, she says, is important, because it requires no muscle at all to start and has the most graceful lines. As such, it’s appropriate for any women to handle.
This handy little book came out in an era when women were usually expected to be seen and not heard, and your outfit was of massive importance when you were out and about with your car. Levitt was known for racing in outfits that accentuated her feminine figure, and The Woman and the Car lays out all of the most important style cues. She advises against leather that gets cracked and stiff in poor weather and recommends wearing shoes instead of boots, as they give the best freedom of ankle movement. Dress as you normally would for the season (except, don’t wear your nice silks) and make sure to protect your neck with a scarf. You must absolutely wear a hat, but make sure that it fits well, lest it blow away. Y’know. The important things.
But what’s truly revolutionary is Levitt’s constant emphasis that women can do this themselves. Motoring is the realm of women, and a woman can drive as well as any man and fix her car as well as any man. She offers a full list of the tools women should have available to them at all times, runs through every single problem that Levitt believes a woman could encounter on the road, offers pointers on how to spot them, and then details how to fix them. Is your engine misfiring? It may be a faulty plug or a sooty plug – remove and replace both with a spanner. Is your car coming to a standstill after a few misfires but you know your petrol tank is full? You might have a choked carburettor. Your spare hair pins can take car of any dirt in the carburettor pipe. As long as you’ve got your overalls and some Antioyl soap handy, wrench away!
Screenshot: H.W. Nicholls; The Woman and the Car (YouTube)
Dorothy Levitt doesn’t assume that these avid lady motorists are going out on drives with their husbands – she expects that women will go out by themselves. As such, she highly recommends purchasing a Colt revolver, which has little recoil, and practising your aim in your spare time. If you’d like a companion, bring a dog; They love driving and most will curl up on your seat with delight. Never, ever let anyone else drive your car, because “a strange hand” will “put your car out of tune.” Carry a hand mirror to check behind you. And make sure to keep chocolate in the drawer under the seat, because they can be soothing in stressful times (such as, in her own case, when she’s unable to figure out a mechanical issue). Nowhere does she mention men.
And that, I think, is the most revolutionary part of her book. She took on the automotive world almost single-handedly in order to carve a path for her fellow women to follow and then made sure she guided them along the way. When you read The Woman and the Car, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of confidence in yourself. I’ve never laid eyes on a De Dion in my life, but Dorothy Levitt’s assurance makes me feel like I could go out and operate one, no problem. It’s a powerful counter-argument to the claim that women were far too weak to handle an automobile, and she had no interest in trying to persuade the men to believe her. Levitt just wanted women to get behind the wheel.
Dorothy Levitt knew that women deserved to have fun. She wrote The Woman and the Car: A Chatty Little Handbook for all Women who Motor or Who Want to Motor to let the world know. And in between her advice on road rules and driving procedures and how to file paperwork with the bureaucracy, she let you know that it’s never a bad idea to let yourself loose once in a while.
“Keep within the legal limit of speed all the time except on a good and clear stretch of road, where there happen to be no “blind” corners or dangerous cross-roads or traffic. Then there is no real harm done to any one in trying to see what you can get out of your car.”