On the Road : The Woman and the Car (1909) – The Public Domain Review
In the early twentieth century, Dorothy Levitt, née Elizabeth Levi (1882-1922) was “the premier woman motorist and botorist [motorboat driver] of the world”. The first Englishwoman to drive in a public competition, she triumphed during races in the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, defeated all challengers at the Championship of the Seas in Trouville, and set the women’s world record in the Brighton Speed Trials: a whopping 79.75 miles per hour — lightspeed, circa 1905.
In Levitt’s “little handbook”, we find a similar hunger for the fraught freedom of the road that would eventually preoccupy the mid-century American imagination — exploited in novels like On the Road and Lolita, and in films such as Easy Rider — and which continues to provide a mesh of mechanist escapism in the British television program Top Gear:
There may be pleasure in being whirled around the country by your friends and relatives, or in a car driven by your chauffeur; but the real, the intense pleasure, the actual realisation of the pastime comes only when you drive your own car.
Above all else, The Woman and the Car endures as a pamphlet of petro-feminist empowerment:
You may be afraid, as I am, of driving in a hansom through the crowded streets of town—you may be afraid of a mouse, or so nervous that you are startled at the slightest of sudden sounds—yet you can be a skilful motorist, and enjoy to the full delights of this greatest of out-door pastimes, if you possess patience —the capacity for taking pains.
She ends her treatise with a reflection on recent historical progress. “Twenty or thirty years ago, two of the essentials to a motorist—some acquaintance with mechanics and the ability to understand local topography—were supposed to be beyond the capacity of a woman’s brain.” Levitt was not only instrumental in advancing equality behind the steering wheel, she also forever altered the automobile form. Decades before rearview mirrors became standard issue, she recommended that ladies carry a hand mirror, for holding up to the landscape receding in their dusty tracks.