My 18-month-old granddaughter Eleanor got her first set of wheels on Easter Sunday 2017 — a Little Tykes 4×4 pickup that should make her the envy of her playgroup.
I wished my late father-in-law Bob Lienert, the former editor of Automotive News, could have seen the delighted expression on her face when she saw the toy, complete with a stuffed bunny and colored eggs in the bed. No doubt the love of trucks has been imprinted early on this child.
It made me think of how far the women have come in our family and our world when it comes to driving and vehicles, and how much further we have to go.
Eleanor’s truck is a big step forward from a century ago, when cars essentially ruined the life of her great-great grandmother Mary Lienert, a Nebraska farm wife and Bob’s mother.
In Bob’s 1979 essay “Moving Backward,” he wrote about the effect of cars on his mom with an ironic twist worthy of O. Henry. He said:
“My parents were products of their time and place, and when they were married early in 1906, the automotive age had not yet reached Nebraska.
“My father farmed with horses and gave them up reluctantly when tractors took over, much later.
“As a bride, my mother had her own horse. It was a ‘buggy’ horse. That is, it was not so big and awkward and cumbersome as a draft horse. When she wanted to visit a neighbor or go to town, she’d whistle for her horse and he’d come to the barn.
“She could harness him and hitch him to the buggy and be on her way. As a result, she was more independent than were many farm wives.
“My parents were married about 15 years before they bought their first automobile. For my mother, the car did not lead to freedom or open the way to a mobile society.
“As the family acquired cars and the ‘modern’ age burst upon her, the private ‘buggy’ horse was displaced. And my mother never learned to drive a car. I never asked why. But I recall that riding in a car made her nervous; and it would have been in character for my father to feel that only men drove cars.
“My mother thus had to depend on someone else to take her when she wanted to go anywhere. And since my father didn’t wish to go places, my mother spent a lot more time at home in her mature years.
“The automobile, rather than freeing her, confined her more than ever.”
For Eleanor, the debate in our house was not whether to buy her a truck or let her “drive” it, it was whether to get it in “Princess Pink” or non-gender-specific blue and yellow. Grandpa won that minor skirmish and the pink truck was vetoed.
The truck catapulted me into a somewhat depressing voyage through Google the next day to gauge just how far women have come in the automotive workforce.
The 2016 Catalyst report on the U.S. auto industry notes that although women are almost half of the U.S. labor force, they represent only about one-quarter of automotive personnel.
Mary Barra’s presence at the top of General Motors has given women a major boost in the industry, but there are still miles to go. Men are at the helm of every major automotive publication, including Automobile, Road & Track, Car and Driver and Automotive News. They tend to dominate the conversation when it comes to vehicle reviews and recommendations, even though women influence well over half of all vehicle purchases in the U.S.
Women still are woefully under-represented on the prestigious North American Car & Truck of the Year jury, of which I am a member, perhaps because relatively few cover vehicles on a regular basis.
And while there are a growing number of female automotive professionals like Diane Allen, the exterior designer who worked on the 2016 Nissan Titan pickup, many women with an interest in cars are still in the shadows.
Eleanor’s road will be easier than that of her Nebraska ancestor and we can’t even begin to imagine what a car will mean to her in 18 or 20 years. But I’m going to tell her to hang on tight to that steering wheel.