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Brooklyn Women Rule the Road

By Nalleli Guillen

Posted on March 11, 2020

Woman in car, 1910-1925, V1981.283.3.89; Burton family papers and photographs, ARC.217; Brooklyn Historical Society
Woman in car, 1910-1925, V1981.283.3.89; Burton family papers and photographs, ARC.217; Brooklyn Historical Society

Sexism in driving is as old as the American automobile industry. At the turn of the twentieth century, as Americans began purchasing personal vehicles, social commentators immediately dismissed female drivers, assuming the “fair motorist” was timid and hindered by “woman’s natural distaste for mechanics.” Luckily, photographs like this one from the Burton family papers and photographs show that women have ruled the road just as long as men!

As the Brooklyn Daily Eagle noted on May 5, 1907, “the number of woman motor car drivers in Brooklyn is growing every day!” In 1905, there were only 8,000 registered cars in America. By 1925, there were nearly 17.5 million! While early drivers like this unnamed woman in the Burton family photograph were predominately white and upper middle class, mass produced vehicles like the Model-T Ford greatly reduced the cost of cars, making them available to more American families.

Despite arguments that automobiles were “masculine” objects, American women embraced cars and the social freedoms they provided. During WWI, Brooklyn women even volunteered for the Women’s Motor Corps, driving trucks and delivery vehicles while local men were away at the war front. In Brooklyn, cars drove the development of new infrastructure, suburbanization, and contributed to the evolution of the modern woman.

Women’s Motor Corps on a drill in Flatbush, 1918, v1973.6.701; Brooklyn photograph and illustration collection, Brooklyn Historical Society
Women’s Motor Corps on a drill in Flatbush, 1918, v1973.6.701; Brooklyn photograph and illustration collection, Brooklyn Historical Society

This image comes from the Burton Family papers and photographs (ARC.217) which contains 189 photographs taken between from 1870 to 1949, including cabinet cards, cartes de visite, tintypes, and portraits of the Burton family. For more information please see our finding aid here and for more photographs from this collection, please visit our image gallery here.

Interested in seeing more photos from BHS’s collection? Visit our online image gallery, which includes a selection of our images. Interested in seeing even more historic Brooklyn images? Visit our Brooklyn Visual Heritage website here. To search BHS’s entire collection of images, archives, maps, and special collections; visit BHS’s Othmer Library Wed-Sat, 1:00-5:00 p.m. [email protected].

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