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During lockdown, I have become addicted to old 1950s/60s Perry Mason series. I am struck by the number of women, from all walks of life - waitresses to wealthy matrons - who owned and drove their own vehicles. I am wondering how authentic this picture is, but humbly admit I have no idea where to even start looking.

By contrast, my experience in the UK during the same and later period was that many, if not most, British women did not drive. In fact, possession of a car was a key factor in a young man's attracting a girlfriend. I realise with the greater distances travelled in the USA a car would be more desirable/necessary, but does that in itself explain it? the 50s/60s weren't included in my school history course, because they were the present/recent past :-)) ! And I'm not talking about privilege/right/permission, I'm talking about custom, financial resources, and other socio-economic factors.

Any help from members more conversant with USA social history, even if only where to look, would be great.

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    I'm sure many women who hadn't driven before started doing so when their men went off to war, 1941-1945. And I know my mother was driving prior to 1964.
    – WGroleau
    Jul 1 at 6:34
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    @WGroleau - that's an interesting point. Probably less so in the UK, since petrol was severely rationed during WWII. If you didn't have a good reason to drive, you weren't able to. :(
    – TheHonRose
    Jul 1 at 10:52
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    apropos of nothing, Miss Daisy was forced to stop driving by her son, in 1948, after years of driving.
    – CGCampbell
    Jul 2 at 12:38
  • @BillyC - 'Significant' modifies 'number' - not 'women'. Women are always significant. :-))
    – TheHonRose
    Jul 3 at 0:27
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    @C.M - I am not rephrasing a question which has 6 answers and 32 up votes! That's frankly silly!
    – TheHonRose
    Jul 3 at 19:32
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Looking at driver's licenses held by women and considering that manufacturers were aiming certain car models specifically at women, female drivers were not uncommon or unusual in the US in the 1950s and 1960s, or even before that. As you allude to in your question, this is in marked contrast to the UK.

In the 1950s in the US, about half of adult women had a driver's license. In 1960, with 39% (or 34 million) of registered drivers being women (compared to 53.2 million men), around 55% of women had a license. By 1965, 40.8% (or 40.2 million) of registered drivers were women (compared to 58.3 million men). In the 1960s in the UK, on the other hand, men were more than twice as likely as women to have a driving licence.


There was certainly nothing unusual about women being behind the car wheel. Even in the early days of the automobile, women were making their mark as drivers - see Alice Ramsey's 1909 trip across America, for example.

As early as 1916,

The Girl Scouts initiated a “Automobling Badge” for which girls had to demonstrate driving skill, auto mechanics, and first aid skills.

The US car industry recognized the importance of women drivers from at least the 1920s:

Beginning in the 1920’s and 1930’s many major automobile manufacturers recognized the growing trend of women driving for fun and necessity. They began to gear their print ad campaigns to women...

Source: Antique Automobile Club of America Museum, 'Women's Automotive History Highlights'

Even in 1926, Ford was advertising its Model T Tudor Sedan for women, claiming that

Inquiries reveal why women are so highly enthusiastic about the present Ford car

enter image description here

In the same year, another advertisement says the Model T Coupe

is an ideal car for women's personal use

enter image description here

In 1954, Nash motors specifically targeted women with their Nash Metropolitan, described as a “commuter/shopping car”. This came a little before the Dodge La Femme, shown below at 1956 Chicago Auto Show.

enter image description here

"In this close-up view of a Custom Royal La Femme 4-door hardtop, at the Dodge exhibit space, the car is on a raised platform with a rotating floor. Two female models are next to the vehicle, while a spokesman at left points to the car. Note the open umbrella, which was part of the accessory package that came with the La Femme model--unabashedly aimed at women." Text and Image source.

As today, the level of car ownership and usage was not evenly distributed among social groups, and it also varied among urban, suburban and rural households. Already in the late 1940s,

Driving was becoming a necessity for most suburban housewives ... because of the location of postwar housing and of retail and industrial developments.... traffic engineering encouraged the growth of suburban communities that favored safety and privacy but were unfriendly to walking and to transit systems (Jones 2008, 120-2). Already in the 1950s, strip developments on roads and then shopping malls were constructed to centralize retail outlets. Supermarkets expanded to embrace a full range of food and then to add other household commodities such as stationery, toiletries, and white goods. Even if these centers were accessible by bus, women could not carry large loads, especially if accompanied by young children. They could not function effectively as household managers if they were stranded in spread-out suburbia.

Source: Margaret Walsh, 'Gender and Automobility: Selling Cars to American Women after the Second World War'. In Journal of Macromarketing (August, 2010)


Comparing the US and the UK in the 1960s

In the US in 1960, approximately 55% of adult women had a driver's license; his percentage had increased slightly by 1965 (calculated from data here and here). In contrast, in the UK in the 1960s, the figure for women was less than 20% of adult women. Even in 1975, women held less than 30% of driving licences (i.e. 70% for men) in the UK.

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    Confused by the girl scouts. Isn't that for children? Were children driving cars?
    – gerrit
    Jul 1 at 10:10
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    @gerrit I can tell you that in rural (farm) settings, the boys would typically learn to drive a tractor by the time they were 12 and a car (truck) by 13. In 1916 there was not the modern common set of rules/laws about "learner's permits at 16" etc. However, even after those rules became standard there were explicit exceptions made for farms. As a child in the 60 and 70's I recall that as long as they stayed on the farm (private property) many 13-16 year-olds I knew were allowed to operate farm equipment, including pickup trucks without a license. Jul 1 at 12:59
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    @RBarryYoung Yes, I was brought up on farms in Denmark and France from the mid 1970s to the early 1980s and I started driving tractors at around 11 or 12. Even on the odd occasion in France when the police saw me on the road passing through the nearest town, they thought nothing of it. Jul 1 at 13:05
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    @gerrit in addition to the lack of age restrictions on driving, the Girl scouts also run programs for older teens who can legally drive today. girlscouts.org/en/our-program/grade-levels/… Jul 1 at 14:25
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    @RBarryYoung You're still allowed to drive motor vehicles on private property with no license. Not just "farm" and not just "farm equipment", generally any property that 1) you have permission to drive on and 2) isn't open to public drivers. There are race car drivers in their early teens. legalbeagle.com/… Jul 1 at 17:19
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The description reads as authentic.

Of course, we need to differentiate quite a bit.

The more rural it gets the earlier female adoption of driving automobiles is observed.

It seems that by 1940 most young and middle–aged farm women who were interested in mobility could and did drive the family car.

— Margaret Walsh: "Gender and the Automobile in the United States, Gender and Automobility: The Pioneering and Early Years", University of Michigan: Automobile in American Life and Society, 2004.

Then with the boom in suburbanization after the war, and the parallel destruction of most of public transport in many areas, for those living in suburbian hell, it also became a necessity.

Life in the suburbs—and by 1965 55% of those with incomes over $10,000 were suburbanites—was isolated and miserable without access to facilities. Commuting became a way of life for millions. Although these Americans were differentiated into particular communities by economic and racial discrimination, they all needed to move back and forth for work, school, shopping, running errands, and travelling to group events, whether these were religious, child-oriented, or recreational. Public transit, whether older modes like trains and streetcars or the newer bus, could not meet new individualistic aspirations and demands. The private car was the obvious practical answer, and soon there was an automobile parked on every suburban drive. Indeed, by 1960 15% of families registered ownership of two or more cars, a figure that had risen to 28% a decade later.

— Margaret Walsh: "Gender and the Automobile in the United States. Gender and Automobility: Consumerism and the Great Economic Boom", 2004. (Quotes here kept very short, go & visit.)

Of course, the very wealthy, and very poor did not drive, the former were driven, the latter driven out of participation. And in cities with good enough infrastructure kept, like New York, self-driving is somewhat optional.

Without watching Perry Mason just to check this, typical TV series depict mostly quite well-off upper middle class people. Those were at the timeframe given freshly sent to and bred in various suburbias. So they at the same time had to drive themselves, and of course another necessity: if they wouldn't have done that, we would have never seen one of those female drivers on screen as hey would have been hidden in hideous small homes, far away from any action a camera or screenwriter is usually interested in…

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    @LangLangC - thank you, that's very helpful and I appreciate the link. I have been puzzled on occasions.. Mason is famous for taking poorer clients, and I was particularly struck his asking a waitress in a LA diner - not if she had a car, but what model. His secretary Della Strete drives, and while she is a senior secretary, I suspect few such women in, for instance, 50s/60s London, would be able to afford the running costs.i recall the news item in, probably, late 60s,when District Nurses were first supplied with cheap Minis as opposed to bicycles! The attitude was indulgent amusement.
    – TheHonRose
    Jun 30 at 20:05
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    NOT "freshly sent to ... various suburbias". AFAIK, almost everyone who moved to suburbia did so willingly, even eagerly. The few exceptions would probably have been couples, where one spouse wanted to move but the other didn't. E.g. the theme song from the '60s(?) TV series "Green Acres": "You are my wife/Goodbye, city life!".
    – jamesqf
    Jun 30 at 21:02
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    Uhhhh, there is no use of the word coercion or coerce in the answer, and I do not see any edits.
    – Obie 2.0
    Jul 1 at 8:45
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    @TheHonRose I should mention that LA at that time was famous for the very high percentage of adults who owned cars and drove. The usual explanation was that there was virtually no mass transit available and so, in order to work and hold a job it was a practical necessity. Jul 1 at 13:06
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    @TheHonRose - We had other car habits in LA too. For example - it was strictly verboten to touch another car when parking. You could get into fights. I mean, getting closer than 4-5" was "touching" as far as the other car owner was concerned. Boy was I surprised when I moved to Boston and learned that driving - not just parking - was a contact sport! (This was a logical evolution of the Code of the West: You do not mess with a man's horse!)
    – davidbak
    Jul 1 at 17:21
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Yes, at least in non-urban areas. Certainly among high school aged women (because I'm going from personal experience). Basically everyone drove as soon as they legally could (sometimes sooner :-)). Those with enough money would have their own cars, otherwise they'd use the family car.

One thing that might give something of a wrong impression is that when there was a couple in a car, it was almost always the male driving. (That's still often the case today.) Even if the woman had her own car, for social occasions (e.g. dates) it was more acceptable for the man to use his.

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  • the same in the UK. Women still to an extent drive short distances - the school run, shopping, school sports etc. If a couple or family go further afield, the man tends to drive. I still remember jokes about men not wanting to let a woman drive them, because she probably couldn't!
    – TheHonRose
    Jun 30 at 17:47
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    This was regional though! In a very few backward and benighted US regions driving was not the norm. I was quite surprised when I met my (future) wife in college to learn she had no driver's license. I thought everyone had a driver's license! But she grew up in NYC ... (I still think NYC is backward and benighted: They didn't even have garbage disposals in their kitchen sinks until 1997 if you can believe that!)
    – davidbak
    Jul 1 at 17:12
  • @davidbak, ...part of why I chose to move to a major city was wanting to be rid of the prominent/societal view that anyone who didn't drive was obviously lower-class (causing bike lanes, transit, &c to all get short shrift -- and injuries caused by reckless drivers to often be disregarded by juries). Your comment above is giving me flashbacks to the reasons I left Texas. Jul 1 at 20:37
  • @Charles Duffy: Well, that's you, and Texas :-) Plenty of other (non-urban) places where biking and bike lanes (or decently wide shoulders) are common. I wouldn't expect the biking situation to be all that great in major Texas cities.
    – jamesqf
    Jul 2 at 4:14
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My mother (born 1936) certainly drove in the 50's and 60's. Until the mid-70's my parents had only one car, and she was the primary driver (my father could take the train to his work while she had to drive).

My mother-in-law drove across the country in 1967 with her three children in a station wagon pulling an Airstream trailer, taking them to meet with my father-in-law who did a summer sabbatical.

My grandmother and grandfather only owned one car, but both could and did drive it as needed.

Yes, more teenaged boys than girls (in my experience) owned and worked on cars (mainly because they bought cheap cars that needed work). But everyone learned to drive.

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  • In my high school in the early 60s, driver's education was offered to all around age 15 and was effectively mandatory in the sense that no one wanted to be the kid without a driver's license (even if they didn't have a car.) Having both parents driving was the norm. (Having two cars wasn't.) ((OTOH, neither of my grandmothers (born 1880s) drove.))
    – Mark Olson
    Aug 30 at 11:35
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As I remember, my family had one car at a time during the 1950s and 1960s. My mother drove the car, as my father never learned how to drive.

I don't remember when my bothers and sisters learned to drive but all except me learned to drive before 1980, and my sisters were married and one of my brothers living eleswhere, by then.

One of my grandmothers drove and had her own car, separate from her husband's, by the 1970s, and contnued to drive in the 1980s. My other grandmother didn't have a car of her own except for relatively short periods, but I remember her driving in the 1960s and the 1970s.

Of course, I don't know how similar to an average, typical, normal, US family we were in the 1950s and 60s.

Going back even earlier, looking through advertisements in, say, National Geographic, indicates that quite a few women drove themselves even in the 1920's onward. They seemed to be the target of advertisements of automatic transmissions.

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    thanks, that's interesting. I left work in 79 to go to university as a mature student, and at that time very few 20-something women drove. By the time I reentered the workplace mid-1980s, most did. In the Perry Mason series, it is assumed that even low-status women will have transport, but I suspect this is writer's licence. As @blacksmith37 says, car ownership was expensive.
    – TheHonRose
    Jun 30 at 17:41
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Most young women drove, by young I mean under 50. Many did not have cars because of cost so may not have routinely driven. In those days reliability of most cars was crap and if you did not do your own work, it was very expensive. Although low income/ in college, I normally had two cars from about 58'. Then when one did not run , I used the other until I repaired it. Every year a car needed tires, brakes, plugs , points and maybe a water pump, fuel pump, voltage regulator, starter solenoid, shocks , tie rod ends, etc, etc. Not something young women were generally interested in. But it gave opportunities ; I gave a few girls driving lessons. I has a stand trans ,mild hot rod. "Give it more gas, first gear and let the clutch out , it will go, steer it ", basic lesson. Of course British cars had electronics made by Lucas, the "Prince of Darkness", so that may have been more difficult. Forgot , most older cars did not have power steering or brakes. Urban parallel parking with manual steering could be a workout , another reason why women did not routinely drive.

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    Electrics, not electronics. Cars back then did not have electronics, other than perhaps a radio - and I don't recall any of the British sports cars of that era that I owned had one.
    – jamesqf
    Jun 30 at 17:35
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    My bad , the only Lucas I ever had was in a Fiat spider ( crap ignition). Jun 30 at 18:28
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    Heh, about 1980 I worked for a private software consultancy ... one of the cofounders had a company car - a new leased Jaguar! Looked great in the parking lot - when it was there ... he had to beg rides from us with ordinary cars every other week 'cause his beautiful Jag was in the shop ...
    – davidbak
    Jul 1 at 17:17
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American women in the 1950s and 1960s mostly DID drive cars, so the shows are authentic. The obvious reason was that the American standard of living in those days was about 50% higher than that of the UK. A more important reason, perhaps, was subtle differences in the social roles of American, versus say, British women.

American men were the "CEO's" of their families, in those days, but women were "Vice-Presidents," and treated as such. They seldom had final decision making authority, but they were accorded "backup" roles, including the right to act for their husbands when they were absent or incapacitated. That included the right to drive cars (as in the case of MA Golding's family). The anecdote in Lars' answer about girl scouts getting the "automotive" badge bears this out.

American families of the time were what I call "one and a half" car families. That is to say, there was a larger "family" car, usually driven by the husband, and a smaller car for the wife. This would allow her to drive around to get groceries, and to take children to and from school, one or two at a time. Besides being driven to the office, the "family" car would be used for taking the whole family on weekend excursions or long vacations, usually with the husband doing most of the driving.

The smaller "wife's" car was often a "hand me down." Let's say that a couple bought a family car in 1957, the year I was born. Earlier, they would have owned a smaller car purchased in 1953 or 1954, which was the "family" car in those years, and became the "wife's" car in 1957. Around 1960-1961, the cycle would be repeated, with that year's model being the family car, and the 1957 model becoming the wife's car.

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Society was very different between the USA and the UK at that time, and might account for why your observations are so different from what you saw on American TV.

My parents for instance emigrated from the UK in 1957. They were about 30 years old, but neither of them had ever driven a car.

Public transit was excellent in the UK so there was no real need for them to have learned to drive. Richer people would have had personal cars, for status or because they had houses in more out of the way places. And some people (almost all males) would have needed vehicles for their jobs (e.g. salesmen). But there was almost no need for any female to drive a car (QE-II being an obvious exception).

In Canada and the USA, except in the largest cities, an automobile was effectively a requirement of life. Post WW-II suburban communities (e.g. Levittown) were designed with the assumption that everyone had their own car. Even in many cities where there used to be useful public transit, Big Auto had managed to have these systems shut down.

My father soon learned to drive here. My mother never did get her licence.

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