'Women Behind the Wheel' explores the intersection of gender, culture and cars Author Nancy Nichols says that for men, cars signify adventure, power and strength. For women, they are about performing domestic duties; there was even a minivan prototype with a washer/dryer inside.

'Women Behind the Wheel' explains how cars became a gendered technology

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Women drivers - that was my father's complaint if a woman drove too slowly or didn't signal before turning. Plenty of men on the road aggravated my father too - speeding, jumping stop signs, recklessly passing him. But they were just drivers. They weren't men drivers. My father was nothing unusual. Lots of men of that generation had the same condescending attitude toward women drivers.

My guest, journalist Nancy Nichols, has written a new book about how cars became our most gendered technology. Women weren't considered qualified to drive. Beautiful women were used to market cars in magazines and TV ads. Special clothes were designed for women when they did drive. Cars became bedrooms for teens and adults who wanted to get away from home to have sex. Cars have mostly been designed for male bodies in ways that put women drivers at risk. Cars were major characters in Nancy Nichols' life. She grew up in Waukegan, about 26 miles from Chicago. Her father was a car salesman, mostly selling used cars. Her brother drove race cars on weekends when he was young. When her father was a child, his 6-year-old brother was killed by a car. Decades later, Nichols' father was in a car accident that resulted in a traumatic brain injury that changed his life.

Nancy Nichols has written a new book called "Women Behind The Wheel: An Unexpected And Personal History Of The Car." Her previous book, "The Lake Effect" (ph), was an investigation into whether the elevated cancer rates in her community, including in her own family, were a result of toxic fumes from nearby paint factories and hazardous waste that was dumped in nearby Superfund sites. Nancy Nichols, welcome to FRESH AIR. I really enjoyed your book. What were your preconceptions that you were brought up with about women drivers?

NANCY NICHOLS: My first experience with a car was what I was excluded from. So, Terry, in my high school, I couldn't take shop class. So I'm roughly 65 years old. And when I was a young girl, girls had to take Home Ec, and we had to learn the domestic arts like sewing. And the boys were able to take shop classes and learned about the automobile as if that was just their purview. And ours was something very different.

GROSS: I was in the same situation. I remember nothing, nothing about the sewing class or the cooking classes - zero (laughter). Your father was a used car salesman. Did he sell a lot to women?

NICHOLS: My father most likely was selling more to men. My father sold American muscle cars - the Charger, the Challenger. He would not likely have sold a lot of cars to women. Although he did sell more Dodge Darts than any other man in the state of Illinois when I was young. So those would have been vehicles that might more likely would have gone to women. But even in the venue of the showroom, it was very often the men doing the purchasing. Even if the women were quite significant in making the decision, they weren't always in the showroom.

GROSS: You write about how some salesmen were trained how to sell to women, and it's not good (laughter). Tell us some of what you learned.

NICHOLS: So throughout the history of the car, you can find from manufacturers leaflets that are directed to salesmen, and they're all about coaching the salesmen in terms of how to work with the female. So, for example, certain salesmen were told to go to the home, find out what the woman's favorite color was, then bring a car that was in that shade to the home, a very decked out car that she might feel attracted to, really appealing to her feminine tastes.

GROSS: I remember when my parents would buy a car and I'd be with them when I was young, though when it came time to take out, you know, the booklet of different fabrics...


GROSS: ...That's when my mother was brought into the conversation.

NICHOLS: Correct. So your mother was typical of women of the time. The interior of the car was thought to be particularly female space, place for domestic arts, right? So this is a place where women were involved in picking the fabric of the seats or the floor mats, the interior colors. So the slogan or kind of the watchword from that time would have been he picks the engine, she picks the paint job.

GROSS: Although your father mostly sold used cars, he also sold some new cars, and he would get a new showroom car every week and drive it around, trying to use it as an advertisement for factory workers. Like, look at this great car, you might want to buy it. Did that work?

NICHOLS: I believe it worked. I mean, I was pretty young during the time in which he was mostly active as a salesman, but he supported us, so I have to believe it worked in - and I have memories of, say, going down the street, and we would be in these really outlandish cars. We were very poor people. But because he could drive these cars, we looked like we were something that we were not. And he would drive, like I said, American muscle cars, which in some cases were in very neon colors. So he would be driving a very souped-up Charger with a very beautiful interior. They were loud. They were performance cars. And you'd pull up to the light and people would look, or men would whistle or kids would get excited. And I do think it probably was effective. Yes. I do think driving around in those cars might have helped sales.

GROSS: Anyone who's ever owned a new car knows that new car smell, which smells pretty exciting because it signifies this car is new. So you grew up with that new car smell all the time when you were young, because you had a new car every week from the showroom. You later learned what that new car smell results from, so let us know.

NICHOLS: So the new car smell is probably a amalgam of many different kinds of off-gassing, and especially when you talk about the car, you need to be a little careful because there are many different makes and models and many different kinds of fabrics, plastics, polyvinyl chlorides involved in the production of an automobile. So that new car smell could be many different off-gassing materials or fabrics. And generally it is not considered to be healthy, although some people do seem to crave it. And what I found fascinating, Terry, when I was writing the book, is that there are companies that actually make air fresheners to mimic that smell. I don't particularly find it attractive. It gives me a headache, and I'm also very concerned about its health effects.

GROSS: Back in the really early days of cars, before electric ignition, you had to, like, crank up the motor, right?

NICHOLS: Correct.

GROSS: Was that a very strenuous thing to do? Did that require a lot of strength? I'm wondering if that had anything to do with how women were kind of not drivers early on.

NICHOLS: So the early cars, Terry, were hand-cranked, and that was part of why they were very difficult for women to drive. They were very hard to start. Also, they didn't have power steering. They didn't have power brakes. There were some models in which it was very difficult for women to even reach the pedals. It wasn't until 1910 when a man named Charles Kettering developed an electric starter for the car. And this was a real game-changer for women because it allowed women to start the car without a great deal of personal strength, and it greatly expanded their ability to use the car when there weren't men around.

GROSS: So did women start buying their own cars after that or driving their husband's cars?

NICHOLS: So the advent of the ladies' car - let's start there. In the first instance, the ladies' car was an electric car. It was meant for women who were largely very wealthy. For example, Clara Ford drove a Detroit Electric. She did not drive a Ford. That's because, in the early days, these combustion engines were thought too difficult for women to start and drive, and also too dangerous. There was also some concern that the combustion engine would create unwanted sexual excitement for women.

GROSS: Wait. Stop there. I think you need to explain how.

NICHOLS: So they vibrated.


NICHOLS: And so they were not allowed to have them. Wealthy women, by and large, had the electric. They were kind of like golf carts today. And they drove them for their own, you know, social - they drove them around their estate. They drove them to their friends' for social engagements. So the ladies' car in the first instance was an electric vehicle, but an electric vehicle didn't have the range that women needed. So about after - between the periods between World War I and World War II, let's say, the idea that a woman would have her own car became much more normalized. And a lot of that had to do with the creation of the electric starter that Charles Kettering gave women, essentially this enormous gift for women, because now women could easily start these combustion engines. They could more likely have a vehicle that gave them great range that we saw with the combustion engine.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Nancy Nichols, author of the new book "Women Behind The Wheel." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Nancy Nichols, a journalist who's the author of the new book "Women Behind The Wheel: An Unexpected And Personal History Of The Car." I want to ask you about clothes that were designed for women who were going to drive or maybe even just be a passenger in a car. I'll tell you to kick it off that when I was in high school, my winter coat was a car coat. And it was - that's what it was called. It was a car coat. I never thought, like, what does that mean? Why is it called a car coat? But I am wondering, why was it called a car coat? You know, it was around three-quarter length. Was that supposed to be more comfortable for a car as opposed to maybe a longer, wider coat?

NICHOLS: Yes. I mean, the short answer to that is yes. The car coat was designed to help women get in and out of the car. And there's a very long history of women and clothing and cars that I got fascinated by. And when I was researching the book, I went to the New York Public Library, and I found from Saks Fifth Avenue a catalog. It was about 200 pages, and it was all about helping women adapt to this new car culture, which was really very new, right? So early cars were open. They didn't have roofs. Women got dirty. They were cold. Women were sold ermine blankets. They wore goggles.

That evolved as the car became more enclosed and, say, women in the 1914, 1915 kind of time period were advised by the Ladies' Home Journal, for example, to wear gloves, to have a hat with a short veil, because the act of driving a car is performative, and it's always been expected that women dress a certain way and look a certain way. So, for example, Ford had coats that were made to match, use the same material in the interior of the car to create matching handbags, matching coats. So it was a very coordinated thing. And very directly, your car coat came from our experience of having to be in the automobile, getting in and out, and that was a new experience. And we don't often think of the car as a new kind of technology. And just as we've adapted to our phones, we had to adapt to that technology.

GROSS: What was car culture like when you were growing up in terms of how people related to cars? What do you remember of car culture from your early years?

NICHOLS: So that's really interesting. The car for men has always been about adventure, about power, about strength, about a performance of their own masculinity, right? The car for women is really very different, and this was in my experience as well. The car for women was about making sure that you could take care of your domestic duties, so what you needed to get done for your job as a mother or your job as a housewife. So there are these dual narratives between how the men use cars and how women use cars.

GROSS: But so much revolved around cars. Like, a lot of men would wash the car by themselves and then wax it, 'cause cars used to be made out of metal and they'd rust unless you waxed it. So, like, a shine, you know, was a really important thing on a car aesthetically and to prevent rust. And, I don't know, people really bonded with their cars. It was a big identity thing. And men often fixed their cars themselves. And now, as you point out in your book, bodies of cars are made out of some kind of plastic, so you don't have to wax them anymore. They're not going to rust. They'll crumble, maybe, but they're not going to rust. And also you can't - like, with computerized cars, you can't take them apart in your garage unless, like, you really know a lot about computers. It's different than it used to be.

NICHOLS: What you're saying is exactly correct. The car culture has changed dramatically, and I think Saturdays for a man to spend in the driveway washing and buffing his car - it was a very ritualized and common experience, certainly in my growing up. Some scholars have argued that that was kind of a love-making, that that was a time that men made love to their cars, that they cleaned them inside, they worshipped them. And as you also suggest, they were able to work on them. And that's just not true today. Unless you have a very specific car, it's very unlikely that you're going to pop the hood and do some kind of major repairs in the driveway 'cause you don't have the tools, or you wouldn't have access to the kind of knowledge that you would have to have and the software that you would need to do the testing on that vehicle.

GROSS: You write about cars as a place for romance. You write almost as soon as they hit the road, cars were used for sex. And you point out something that maybe I'll sound naive, that I never thought of, that fold-down seats in the front were marketed to young men for romantic reasons, and I immediately thought, yeah, but there's often, like, a stick shift or something in the middle of the two seats which would prevent the kind of romance that the car was supposed to be designed for.

NICHOLS: I think you need to use your imagination a little, Terry.

GROSS: (Laughter) OK.

NICHOLS: So the car that you're referring to that was marketed as the young man's car was a bench seat, and it had a...

GROSS: A bench seat? Oh, OK.

NICHOLS: ...Lever that you could very quickly turn it into a flat seat. When I say cars have been used for romance from the beginning, that is so true and pretty well documented that people would use the running boards. They would put pillows and blankets and use the early vehicle in that way. Later on, the cars had bench seats that they dropped down or absolutely enormous back seats. This was so prevalent, in fact, that Henry Ford, who was a very conservative man socially, didn't like it, tried to engineer his car so that that would not happen.

GROSS: But what did he do to try to prevent it?

NICHOLS: He made the back seat smaller and smaller.

GROSS: It's really small now, at least in my car.

NICHOLS: (Laughter) So car critics now have said it may be almost impossible to have sex in a car unless you are a completely acrobatic.

GROSS: Nancy, how do you think boomers and hippies changed car culture and the kind of cars that they drove?

NICHOLS: So it's interesting in that context, Terry, to look at the minivan, right? The hippies used the van as a kind of roving space for romance, right? And so they would have on their vans, you know, if it's a-rockin', don't come a-knockin', because these were intimate spaces that were designed for intimacy. They had specific mood lighting, they had wine racks, they had shag rugs. So that's kind of how we think about the hippies using the minivan.

So let's fast-forward a little bit to my generation. I'm a boomer. I worked. I have always worked. I had a young son when I was working. So I use my minivan - I drove a Honda Odyssey, and I used it to meet my dual responsibilities as a mother and as a professional woman. And I'm about 65 years old. I was one of the biggest waves. My generation was the biggest waves of women who were trying to meet these dual responsibilities, right? So we would have on our suit and our little high heels and our cute, little bow ties. And we would also be in the grocery store, and we would be dragging kids through the grocery store in those outfits and we would be taking them to soccer. And you have to give the American automobile industry so much credit. They were on every single demographic trend. They fully understood what women wanted and needed, and they were out to make it work for women.

GROSS: I think we need to take another break here. So let me reintroduce you. My guest is Nancy Nichols, author of the new book "Women Behind The Wheel: An Unexpected And Personal History Of The Car." We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


KRIS ADAMS: (Singing) Ladies in Mercedes sip their vermouth where the shade is. How discreet, the way it's played as, how intriguing the parade is. See her driving through the city looking cool and sitting pretty. She's so sleek and chic and suede-y. She's a real Mercedes lady in her jeans by Fiorucci and accessories by Gucci and her feelings under cover - not for husband, not for lover. While some guy whose fortunes made is living on the brink of Hades, how I wonder what your trade is, lucky ladies in Mercedes.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Nancy Nichols, author of the new book "Women Behind The Wheel: An Unexpected And Personal History Of The Car." It's about how cars became our most gendered technology, and it's about the starring role cars played in her own life. Her father was a car salesman. To advertise new cars to factory workers, who were potential car owners, each week, he took a different car from the showroom to drive around. So Nichols grew up with a new car every week with that new car smell that she later learned was likely the smell of toxic chemicals used in fabrics in the car's interior. When her father's brother was 6, he was fatally injured when a car struck him. Nichols' father was in a car accident as an adult that left him with a traumatic brain injury. She's had some very close relationships with her own cars.

Subaru is an interesting story in terms of marketing to demographics. Subaru found out that a lot of lesbians were driving Subarus, so decided to start marketing to lesbians and capitalize on that audience, and they did it through coded language. Can you talk a little bit about the ad campaigns that were designed to sell to lesbians?

NICHOLS: So around 1994, a set of executives at Subaru were having focus groups, actually, here in Massachusetts, in western Massachusetts. And what they realized when they did these small focus groups of eight or 10 people - the people who are buying their cars fell into two categories. One was what we would call kind of an essential worker now. They were nurses. They were EMTs. They had to get out in all weather. There was no chance that they could skip work if the weather was bad. And the other group tended to be lesbians. And they found this very interesting, and they pursued it. And what they realized is that lesbians were very fond of their car.

So they started speaking and trying to encourage more lesbians to buy their car by a kind of coded set of advertisements. So in the advertisement, the license plate, for example, would say, get out and stay out - right? - which is coded language. It could mean, get out into nature, and stay out in nature. But it could also mean, you know, come out of the closet, and stay out of the closet. Or the license plate would say P-Town, and Provincetown in Massachusetts is - has always been a very welcoming place for the gay community. So they started and became the first company to actually get out front and market to the gay community.

GROSS: Why Subaru? What was attractive about a Subaru to lesbians?

NICHOLS: I don't really know the answer to that. I think - I drive a Subaru now. They're incredibly convenient. I think that they were - it was probably part of the price point. I think it was part of being welcoming. Once they saw that this company cared about them, I think it became a relationship, so to speak, where they were saying, OK, if you're going to see me as a consumer, I'm going to support you.

GROSS: As you point out, young people today tend to not care that much about cars or even necessarily want one. So many younger people use bicycles to get around, and, you know, the roads are starting to accommodate to that. There's more bike racks throughout a lot of cities. So that's a totally interesting switch - like, having your identity so intertwined with the car that you drive versus not even owning a car, not necessarily even wanting to.

NICHOLS: So younger people get their license later, and they do less driving than we did as teenagers. And I think that has to do with them feeling not as romanticized about the vehicle. The car today is a dull daily driver. It is not this romanticized piece of technology that is all about performing in terms of excitement or adventure. It really is about getting from one place to another. And I think younger people are very aware of climate change and other concerns about the environment. And - but I have to say this, Terry - that even if they're on their bikes - and I say this because my son loves his bike, too - is that even if we aren't partaking in car culture, we are partaking in car culture because the decision to take your bike is a decision to not take the car. So you're still in conversation with that technology. And, of course, when you're driving - the bike lanes are terrifying in Boston. It's - Boston...

GROSS: Oh, in Philly, too.

NICHOLS: Yes, it's just terrifying. And in my book, I actually tell a story where my son got into quite a little to do with a woman in a Prius because he was not - in her view, not in the lane where he should be. It's just so frightening to me sometimes to think about the interaction between cars and bicycles because I don't think that the roads are engineered always in a way that makes that an easy interaction.

And one thing that people don't think about is that the vehicle is getting bigger and bigger and bigger every year. And the roads were not always created - and I'm sitting in Boston, Mass., so I have to be very specific about where I live. The roads here were not engineered for very, very large vehicles and certainly not engineered - would easily accommodate a very large, let's say, big pickup truck and a person on a bicycle. So it's really not, for me, a political issue. It's more of an engineering and a space issue, and it's very frightening. We lose about 40,000 people a year to - in car accidents, right? And that's quite a lot of people that we're willing to sacrifice because we're not always thinking carefully about how we either drive our cars or engineer our vehicles or think - plan our roads.

GROSS: So when you say there's 40,000 people a year who die in car accidents, does that refer to all car accidents or just car accidents with bicycles involved?

NICHOLS: That would be all accidents.

GROSS: Well, it's time for another break. So let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Nancy Nichols, author of the new book "Women Behind The Wheel." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Nancy Nichols, author of the new book "Women Behind The Wheel: An Unexpected And Personal History Of The Car."

Although your book is, you know, largely about cars and car culture since the history of the automobile, there's also the theme of death throughout the book because there's been a lot of death in your family that you experienced. Your mother died in your arms when you were 10. Your father's brother was hit by a car when the brother was 6. Your father, when he was an adult, was in a car accident and got a traumatic brain injury. And you were in a car accident where the car was totaled, but you were fine. Oh, and your sister died of ovarian cancer. Your son, when I think he was in high school, when he was around 15, was diagnosed with leukemia.

So there's, like, death and cancer. That's one of the themes through the book. I'm wondering, like, with your father - we'll start there. He was, I think, playing with his brother when the brother was 6. And the brother ran into the street and was hit by a car. But you don't really know what happened because your father told so many different versions of the story.

NICHOLS: I can only imagine how traumatic it was for my father to be present when his little brother was hit and killed. In the first instance, he would tell me that it was an ice truck that killed his brother, then he would tell me it was a school bus, then he would tell me it was an army truck. So there were many, many versions of this. And I think it was probably that first lie that he told about the accident with his brother that started him on the path to really lying about everything. He would lie about what grocery store he went to. He would lie about whether there was oil in the burner. He - lying became a way of life for my dad, and I think it played into his professional identity as a car salesman. But I didn't understand all this when I was a young woman. I - would take me many years to unravel it. And it was only really through the miracle of the internet that I was finally able to find the news report about my uncle's death at 6 years old and really put the story together in a way that I think is most likely related to the facts.

GROSS: What happened?

NICHOLS: It's hard for us to think about this now, but my uncle, as a young boy, ran out into the street in front of a school bus. Whether my father was taunting him or playing a game with him or was responsible for taking care of him, my father was likely somehow involved in a probably not positive way. At the same time, Terry, what we don't understand, and what I've come to understand through the process of writing this book, is that there was a time when vehicles really took over the roadway. When my uncle was killed, he was doing what little kids do all the time. He was playing and he was running. And maybe he was running from his older brother. We don't really know.

And what happened was that the vehicles started to create and become dominant on the roadways, and they pushed pedestrians to the side. But there was a tremendous amount of carnage that happened as that became the course, as the norm in our society, that cars on the street - prior to that, pedestrians on the street. So I think it's a complicated set of circumstances with my father, his brother and the vehicles.

GROSS: A couple of observations. Your father became a kind of chronic liar. You went to journalism, where fact-checking is so important. And also, your father was traumatized by his brother's death, but he became a car salesman. And so much of his life revolved around cars.

NICHOLS: All that is true, right? Was my father trying to work out something that happened to him as a youngster? Perhaps. Certainly I can speak to my own experience. It was very healing for me to be a journalist. I loved being a journalist. I love being a writer. I love checking and rechecking facts. I like working on the written page. I love having a book. I can just open it up and check again and recheck again. And I love to edit because things are fixed and facts are fixed. And that is very comforting to me.

GROSS: Not right now.

NICHOLS: (Laughter).

GROSS: Facts are not fixed anymore.

NICHOLS: All right. In my world...

GROSS: (Laughter).

NICHOLS: ...Facts are fixed.

GROSS: Your mother died in your arms when you were 10. I can't imagine how upsetting that was. A lot of kids at 10 don't even have a grasp of what death is. Do you know what your mother died of?

NICHOLS: Oh, I know very specifically what my mother died of. She had a massive heart attack, essentially, and died probably right there. It was very traumatic. It's hard to overestimate how hard that was for me as a young girl. It became very hard for me to focus. It became very hard for me to - not speak exactly, but certainly to speak in a way that was communicative. It was a hard time for me.

GROSS: Excuse me for pursuing this line of questioning about death and illness, but it's just - it's a theme through your book. Your sister died of ovarian cancer. And then you were diagnosed with a cancerous pancreatic cyst.

NICHOLS: Correct.

GROSS: How old were you when you were diagnosed?

NICHOLS: Roughly 43, 44.

GROSS: Yeah, you know, I've been reading that more younger people are getting cancer and everybody's - you know, a lot of people are investigating why is that. But you have a theory about why you and your sister had cancer.

NICHOLS: My first book was called "Lake Effect," and it was a history of the Great Lakes, specifically the area where I was born and raised. I was raised in Waukegan, Ill. There were three Superfund sites in my hometown.

GROSS: Why don't you explain what a Superfund site is?

NICHOLS: A Superfund site is where there are known toxic chemicals. The government has taken over that property, come to some sort of a complicated agreement with the owners of the property and the people who are responsible for the pollution, and begun some sort of a phased cleanup. So there were three of those sites in my hometown of Waukegan, Ill. I spoke to one scientist in my previous book, and she said to me that every toxic chemical known to man was in one of those sites. It was a heavily polluted area. It was, in some ways, a vestige of the auto manufacturers, but more likely, there was a steel plant there. There was, as you said, a factory that made paint. There was an asbestos manufacturer there or a plant that used asbestos material. So there were many different manufacturing sites along where I grew up. And all of those had some sort of chemical that we might now consider or either federal or international authorities might consider to be, if not cancer-causing, at least involved in the processes by which cancer occurs.

GROSS: And you weren't aware at the time when you were growing up that you were being exposed to this, were you?

NICHOLS: I don't think anybody knew at the time that I was growing up what these chemicals did. They were emitted directly from the factory floor to the Great Lakes. So the Great Lakes is about 20% of our world's freshwater supply. Nobody was doing that to poison people. It was done as a matter of course in factories all over the country, and it was just the way business was done then. Things have changed dramatically since then.

GROSS: When you had cancer, were you afraid that you were going to die knowing that your sister had died as a result of cancer?

NICHOLS: Oh, of course. I was very concerned. I had a very serious form of pancreatic cancer. I knew that my sister had died of ovarian cancer. I was terribly scared that I would die.

GROSS: Were you already a mother?

NICHOLS: I was. My son was about 8.

GROSS: I'm sure you were worried about leaving him.

NICHOLS: Yes. I was totally worried about leaving him. But on the other hand, I also was a person who had lost her mother when she was young, so I had great faith and great confidence in him. I knew he would be OK.

GROSS: And then your son got leukemia.

NICHOLS: He did.

GROSS: And you were afraid of losing him.

NICHOLS: Yes. I was terrified of losing him. And I talk in my book about how I turned my car at the time into a kind of church where I played the rosary constantly. I'm happy to report that my son is quite healthy now, and he's in medical school here in Boston.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Nancy Nichols, author of the new book "Women Behind The Wheel." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Nancy Nichols, a journalist who's the author of the new book "Women Behind The Wheel: An Unexpected And Personal History Of The Car."

You bring up a subject in your book that's really important to me, and that's about safety concerns in cars. And as you say, no matter how much a car is designed for safety, it's not necessarily designed for a woman's safety because it might be designed for men's safety. And men's bodies and women's bodies are different. And especially women who are short, everything's, like, not proportioned. Like, just speaking about seatbelts, if I'm not wearing, like, a winter coat, the seatbelt will strangle me if I'm in an accident because, you know, try as I will, it usually ends up going across my neck or being close to my neck.

NICHOLS: So one thing that was fascinating to me when I researched the book was looking into the history of what we call crash dummies, right? And the original crash dummy were - was about a six-foot man with a hat on, and it came from dummies that were created to test for pilots to eject out of their planes. So those dummies - those crash dummies were modified and began to be used in the manufacturing of automobiles.

So there's two ways in which these dummies are used. And one is the federal government has their standards, their crash standards, and they have their dummies. And those dummies historically have been made for men, and they don't take into account smaller women. To their great credit, automobile manufacturers now test their vehicles using many different kinds of dummies, but the actual ratings they get come from these dummies that are used by the federal government. And there's been a push by women legislators to try to get that changed. And there's been some movement, but it's still quite concerning. And as a result of that, women are more likely to be injured in a crash because their musculature is different.

GROSS: Also, as you also point out, a lot of women are shorter than the average man. And so, like, someone like me - you have to - you know, I'm short. You have to sit closer to the steering wheel so that you can reach the steering wheel so that your legs can reach the pedals. And that means, you know, you're more likely to, in a crash, hit the steering wheel or to be injured by the airbag. That prevents you from hitting the steering wheel. So it's not good.

NICHOLS: I would say this. I think that manufacturers are doing more than they did in the past to try to make cars safer for women. I don't think women historically have always been the priority. And I think that - what I say to you, Terry, personally - try to push your seat back a little bit more, for sure. But also, I think that is a general rule for women. One of the reasons I wrote my book was because we're at this really important point in the life of the automobile where we're going to have autonomous vehicles. We're having electric vehicles. We have women legislators who are arguing for better, more inclusive kinds of safety dummies, right? So I want women to be aware of all these aspects of the car, right? The car is a domestic space. The car is a place where you can really be injured. And I want them to just kind of take ownership of this, right? We are active consumers in the automobile world. Try to not force women but actually encourage women to get involved in these topics.

GROSS: When you buy a car, what do you like in the showroom?


GROSS: What's your approach?

NICHOLS: I have never bought a car. I am married to a litigator, and my husband - I have my husband buy the car. And I think that that is a vestige of my understanding what - the way car dealerships work and maybe me feeling a little uncomfortable because I have so much knowledge about it. I think that this will get better for women, right? I think that the internet has created a lot more transparency for pricing for women. There are sites now where you can buy cars directly. I think things will change for women in the dealership, but I'm still quite intimidated by the process.

GROSS: Here's my advice. Would you consider bringing a copy of your book the next time you buy a car to intimidate the person who's selling you? - because it's evidence. Like, I know a lot. I wrote a book about this.

NICHOLS: I don't think this process has to be that adversarial, right? I think that the idea that the salesman is in this adversarial role is probably more historic than current.

GROSS: Really?


GROSS: That's good news.

NICHOLS: I do think that's probably the case, although I will say overall, women spend about 7 to $8,000 more on the car - on their cars over the lifetime of a car than men do. And that's because they lack negotiating skills or power because they pay more for repairs. They pay less in auto insurance, which is kind of interesting. But in general, cars cost women more both in terms of what they pay at the dealership and what they pay in their bodies - with their bodies in terms of accidents.

GROSS: Nancy Nichols, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

NICHOLS: Thank you so much, Terry. I've really enjoyed this.

GROSS: Nancy Nichols' new book is called "Women Behind The Wheel." I want to share some exciting news about our co-host, Tonya Mosley. She has a new podcast, and the first episode dropped today. It's the story behind the disappearance of Tonya's half-sister, Anita, who vanished in 1987, when Anita was 29. There was no trace of Anita until 33 years later, when her body was exhumed in a Detroit cemetery for unidentified bodies. DNA enabled the identification. The podcast follows Tonya and her nephew Antonio, Anita's son, as they piece together what happened. It's also the story of the family's city, Detroit, during the crack epidemic and the broken systems that failed Antonio during the many years he searched for his mother. The podcast is called "She Has A Name." I'm looking forward to listening. Congratulations, Tonya.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.


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