The stereotype of the 'bad' woman driver is ubiquitous. She is the woman who crushes the car bonnet or scrapes a wing as she attempts to enter the garage, is incapable of extricating herself from a tight parking spot without crashing against the boot of the car ahead, or holds up the traffic by driving slowly in the fast lane. Despite the persistence of the stereotype, research shows the picture is false, with women no more likely than men to engage in this much-touted conduct. Women drivers have fewer accidents, and where women at the wheel of cars bear major responsibility, the accidents are far less likely to be of the magnitude of any male-driver generated car crash.
This false picture of the woman driver not only has traction as a staple for the stand-up comedian and jokes around the water-cooler but women and driving have industrial and political implications.
Saudi Arabian women, because of conservative readings of Sharia law, are denied the right to drive – whether it be bicycles, motor bikes, or motor cars. While police as far apart in geography as France and Aotearoa/New Zealand lament the difficulty (as they see it) of dealing with women drivers who persist in wearing the chador, burqah or niqab, Saudi police occupy themselves with determining not what the woman is wearing at the wheel, but whether she is at the wheel at all.
Some years ago, a group of Saudi women defied the ban, driving in convoy down the main highway into Riyadh. This year the first week of June saw Saudi women launch a Change.org petition demanding the dropping of charges against Manal al-Sharif: she was arrested for driving her car in public in protest against the ban on women motorists. With thousands of signatures from around the world, the petition succeeded in gaining Manal al-Sharif's release, the charges being annulled.
Next came a petition calling on Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State, to publicly support Saudi women's right to be on the road and in the driver's seat. More than twenty-thousand signatories had an impact. At a press conference, Secretary of State Clinton affirmed: 'What these women are doing is brave, and what they are seeking is right.'
This week, Saudi women have launched further online campaigns, one in the name of Oprah Winfrey, asking for cars to beep their horns in support of Saudi women drivers, another calling on car manufacturing company Subaru to take a principled stand by withdrawing all its operations from Saudi Arabia until the right of women to drive is acknowledged in Saudi law and practice.
Saudi women have reason to believe that their campaigns will result in success, for the battle has its precursors in successful struggles by women the world over.
In Melbourne, women were refused the right to drive trams. The Tramways Board encouraged women applicants, but the union stood in the way, aiming to retain tram-driving for men only. Women campaigned from 1956 through into the mid-1970s, when Joyce Barry became the first woman tram-driver. In Sydney, women fought for the right to become bus-drivers. With unionist June De Lorenzo as principal advocate, this campaign ran through the 1960s and into the 1970s. At the turn of the decade, the first woman drivers took the wheel. Ten conductors ('conductresses' as they were then known), transferred from their previously held jobs, to become drivers, with June Lusk the first to drive rather than collect fares.
The fight for women to be able to become commercial airline pilots occurred again in Melbourne. Deborah Lawrie Wardley held premier qualifications, having flown privately since the age of 14 and totting up more than the required number of flying hours. Her grades were exemplary, and she passed all tests with no score under 90 percent and most in the high 90s. Her psychology tests undertaken by Chandler & McCleod were paid for by Ansett – who paid for psychological testing for all 'top' applicants. She scored in the highest group.
It was her performance in the test that ironically proved decisive in her case. Despite her outstanding performance rather than receiving a 'yes, please join us' letter from Ansett, she received a 'don't call us, and we won't call you' letter. Fortunately someone in Chandler & Macleod had previously congratulated Deborah Wardley's mother on her daughter's success. As the message contradicted the Ansett missive, the strength of Deborah Wardley's case against the airline company was clear.
This, the first claim to go to the Equal Opportunity Board under the newly passed Equal Opportunity Act 1977 (Victoria), resulted in a landmark win. Ansett was ordered to take on Deborah Wardley and she flew Ansett planes for years without incident. It was only with the Pilots' Strike under the Hawke Government that she wound up her employment with Ansett, transferring to KLM.
The arguments against women as bus-drivers, tram-drivers and commercial pilots have all been identical. Women were said to lack the 'necessary' strength – albeit strong women applied and, despite the 'strength required' mantra, strength was not necessary.
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She is also Visiting Fellow, Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge.