Suffrage, Liberation and Checking your Engine

Posted on September 2, 2019

by Faith S

Facing mechanical issues when driving a car is one of my greatest fears, simply because it can be costly and often times I worry when I go to a mechanic they are taking advantage of a person who doesn’t know a thing about cars. Looking through two women’s magazines from the last two waves of women’s feminism it turns out that my fears weren’t abnormal. Having been put in a domesticity role, women were introduced to the wonderful world of automobiles, and had a lot to learn about what happened under the hood.

The Motor Age Begins

Starting in 1917, the motor age was just beginning for women automobile enthusiasts. Taking care of cars was something that was left to their male counterparts since women weren’t expected to be able to handle masculine roles. The Ladies’ Home Journal decided with the rise of women drivers, they should teach women about their cars to manage the upkeep and/or proper maintenance of their vehicles. They instructed women to thoroughly read their instruction manuals, follow traffic laws and make sure to get enough practice time with an instructor. However, the article “Little Things About a Car” focused more on car maintenance rather than driving tips.

Little Things About a Car, Ladies Home Journal, March 1917

The article describes how to maintain normal oil levels, radiator water levels, tire pressure, how to grease the cups, check under the hood each morning, clean the battery, check the level of battery functioning and what accessories are recommended or needed for driving. Accessories included anything from pedal extensions for the petite woman to mud guards to keep passengers, pedestrians, and other motorists from getting caked with mud as the car drove down a muddy lane to an electric signal that could be worn on the back of the hand in the dark to indicate the driver’s hand signals, much like the turn signals we see today. These tips, while now a days are common knowledge, outdated in some areas, and seem to offer little when trying to understand the function of a car, allowed women the freedom to work on their own cars without the reliance on others. When urging women to read the owners manual the journal states, “It will look terrifyingly unitelligible at first but bring it to bear upon your modern, alert woman’s mind for a few evenings and it will become as simple as rudimentary arithmetic. For, after all, not the entire joy of motoring is in simple driving; a lot of it is in knowing your car” (Ladies Home Journal, p. 32). The art of owning a car not only allowed women the freedom of being able to travel and drive, but the freedom came from knowing they could do the work a man could do, understand complex machinery, fix complex machinery, maintain their cars and understand the freedom they had in knowing what was in the car they drove and the driver of said car was capable of.

The Women’s Liberation Movement

In 1972, the women’s liberation movement found that there was more freedom to be found in automobiles and began to seek it out through Ms. Magazine. In their July 1972 issue, Elizabeth Hemmerdinger wrote an article entitled, “Demystifying Your Car.” In the article she breaks down the inner workings of the motor and discusses its function and how it works in order for women to understand what each part does next time they face a mechanic. Having been put in a situation where she didn’t know what the parts on her car were for or if it was worth the costly repairs, Hemmerdinger took to Ms. Magazine to make sure women were capable of making the decisions needed over their own automobile.

Hemmerdinger showed the reader detailed graphics of the engine and pointed out each part that made up the reasons why our cars are propelled forward when our foot hits the gas. She also included a list of common problems associated with cars. In each common problem presented she gave readers a part of the car that might contribute to the issue which gave the reader a heads up on what they could discuss with their mechanic before they even went to the garage. This information made the reader aware of their car and allowed for them to feel better about knowing what is happening while they drove as well as in the garage while their car was under repair.

In the article, Hemmerdinger discussed how women kept out from under the hood created a lack of understanding, she states, “To understand is to be free” (Ms., p. 37). These commonalities between the 1917 article and the 1972 Ms. Magazine article demonstrate that understanding the mechanics of their car allowed women to be independent and gave them a sense of freedom that could only be achieved through education. While women struggled to get this education in a non liberated society, women’s magazines picked up the slack and determined education in these areas were valuable to their readers. These articles are still relevant today, because they show that access to information in an unbiased and presentable form allows for growth, understanding, and yes, even freedom.


Hemmerdinger, Elizabeth. “Demystifying Your Car.” Ms., July 1972, pp. 36–38.

“Little Things About a Car.” The Ladies Home Journal, March 1917, pp. 32.

Related Library Books

Auto Repair for Dummies by Deanna Sclar

A reference guide covering the many parts of a vehicle provides step-by-step instructions for automotive repair and maintenance, as well as a list of the ten most common problems.

Girls auto clinic glove box guide / Patrice Banks

A do-it-herself guide to auto maintenance, roadside emergencies, and the real scoop on how women can get honest car service at the garage.

Essential Car Care for Women by Jamie Little and Danielle McCormick

A pit reporter for NASCAR on ESPN joins forces with a “Turbo Expert” from the Discovery Channel to provide this handy guide for women to use to take basic, but essential car maintenance into their own hands.

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Recommended Resources

HathiTrust A partnership of academic & research institutions, this amazing online resource offers a collection of millions of titles digitized from libraries around the world. And if the item you’re looking for is in the public domain, odds are you’ll find it here (like early issues of The Ladies’ Home Journal).

Internet Archive A non-profit library of millions of free books, movies, software, music, websites and more. Also includes a lot of public domain content.

Flipster Free to Library cardholders, this great resource provides instant digital access to a variety of popular magazines 24/7, no wait lists here.

Featured Image Credit: Woman with her new Maxwell car and dog (Shoalhaven, California 1920, photographer Cyrus S. Moss), State Library of New South Wales flickr photostream.

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