American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations


Have You Heard the One About the Woman Driver? Chicks, Muscle, Pickups, and the Reimagining of the Woman Behind the Wheel

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies

First Advisor

Susana Peña (Committee Chair)

Second Advisor

Catherine Cassara (Other)

Third Advisor

Ellen Berry (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Vikki Krane (Committee Member)


Popular perceptions of the woman driver have long relied upon two persistent stereotypes. The original woman driver stereotype – which depicted the feminine driver as passive, inept, and overly cautious – was developed during the post World War I era in an effort to limit women's mobility. In the decades following World War II, as a means to distinguish women's driving experience from that of men, the woman driver was reconfigured into an individual who called upon the automobile to reaffirm her culturally approved gender identity as caretaker and consumer. Despite women's growing influence as auto owners and drivers in the twenty-first century, the ubiquity of these stereotypes ensures that the female motorist will continue to be regarded in a limited and often negative way.

This project examines three alternative constructions of the woman driver to expose the fallacy of current representations as well as to suggest infinite new possibilities for women behind the wheel. Looking at women who drive chick cars, classic muscle cars, and pickup trucks through the lenses of material culture theory and gender performativity, this investigation considers how three groups of women challenge historical and societal directives in order to create a legitimate and empowering place for themselves as drivers in the hegemonic masculine climate of American car culture. Moving away from historical analysis and representation, it focuses on the automotive experiences of real women through participant observation at automotive events, online observation of various car groups, as well as in-depth interviews with over 100 female motorists. This method of inquiry not only reveals the speciousness of existing stereotypes, but also demonstrates how three populations of driving women have successfully reconfigured, reclaimed, and reimagined the "woman driver" category to make it their own.