According to a 1965 newspaper article, a backseat driver was “a woman, fluent with apprehension” who was “firmly convinced that without her steady stream of perceptive observations and timely warnings, the driver surely would have an accident.”
The phrase appeared around 1920 and may have originally referred to the way a passenger seated in the back of a limousine gave orders to the chauffeur behind the wheel. The term wasn’t strictly gendered at first. A widely printed syndicated newspaper editorial from 1922 described “The Backseat Driver” as a “man or a woman” who “issues a lot of instructions, gives a lot of advice, and offers no end of criticism.”
By the end of the decade, however, the backseat driver was understood to be a female pariah. Popular Mechanics explored this type in a 1927 story, “Don’t Be a Backseat Driver!” Service station workers Joe and Gus watch as Horace’s wife nags him into a traffic accident. “Every time I hear a woman like that, I’m glad I’m a bachelor,” says Gus. He decides to take the unnamed woman down a notch by asking if she can drive the car back to the service station (Horace has stalked off in anger), which forces her to admit she can’t drive. After asking what’s wrong with the car, a question he knows the woman can’t answer, Gus rattles off a list of the damage, then answers a question she didn’t ask: “But as for what caused it, I’d say it was—you!"
The stereotype was so easily recognizable by the mid-20th century that multiple companies produced novelty backseat driver’s licenses like the one pictured here. These almost always included an unflattering cartoon of a finger-pointing female lunatic, and licensed the bearer to “infuriate, annoy, criticize, nag, and infuriate the operator of a car” or to express “nervousness, fear, anxiety, horror, or indignation” while wearing “a large hat to prevent driver from seeing approaching cars.”
Why were women in the back seat? Rigidly held ideas about gender roles contributed to the fact that, even well into the 20th century, there were comparatively few women drivers. As of 1952, only 28 percent of American women held driver’s licenses; the figure had grown by 1977—but only to 50 percent. Interviewed by The New York Times in 1914, a female driving instructor expressed the belief that her women students feared being considered “mannish” or too frail to drive a so-called “devil-wagon.”
Even women with licenses may have conceded the wheel to males in the household. In Women at the Wheel: A Century of Women Buying, Driving, and Fixing Cars (2017), historian Katherine J. Parkin posits that mothers gave up the front seat to their teenage sons and moved to the back, which “helped contribute to a sense of entitlement and authority, along with a commensurate belief that women took a backseat to men in the car."
By Lynn Peril
Photo: Molly Cranna
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2021 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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