Are electric cars really a female thing?

Drivers of alternative-energy vehicles and alternative modes of transportation often have their own little fact from history to share with whomever will listen. Biodiesel fans will be quick to tell neophytes that Rudolf Diesel originally designed his engine to run on vegetable oil. Public transportation advocates will suggest the film Taken For A Ride, which paints GM in a bad light as the company that killed the street car in the middle of the last century. And electric car historians know that from the beginning, many electric cars were targeted towards a specific driving group: women.

The reasons are pretty obvious, as the Automobile in American Life and Society's collection of essays and images reveals. Remember, in the early part of the 20th Century, gasoline cars needed to be started with a hand crank, something seen as decidedly unfeminine. Since EVs didn't need to be hand-cranked, the delicate Victorian woman could drive one on her own. Virginia Scharff, who wrote the 1991 book "Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age," writes:

"The electric car, marketed primarily as a woman's vehicle, provides a striking example of the influence of gender ideology on automotive production. Paradoxically, the electric's failure also illustrates the impossibility of maintaining rigid gender distinctions in motorcar technology at a time when a declining proportion of customers could afford the luxury of his-and-hers automobiles, and where in any case consumers shared certain preferences regardless of sex."

(there's lots more after the jump)
Gas-engine makers were aware of the trend of women to be encouraged to buy and drive EVs, and made their ads with this in mind. In one ad you can view on the AALS site, the gas-powered 1911 Motorette was promoted as so easy to start, a ten-year-old girl could do it.

Obviously, gas-powered engines won the day, but now that the auto world is searching around for alternatives, the women and EVs discussion is worth remembering, and it continues today. For example, there's a two-hour movie called "Women In Electric Vehicles" available and some of the most memorable people that Chris Paine interviewed in his "Who Killed the Electric Car?" documentary were women.

Writing back in 1998, Bill Moore, the editor in chief of EV World, wrote that it was because he was "through male menopause" that he could be "Mister Practical" and favor the Honda EV Plus over GM's EV1. I think I'll just let that one go without more comment.

You can see a current gender-divide in the EV world by the way two bloggers take on Zap!'s Xebra. As I discovered the other day, Chicagoist writer Todd McClamroch thinks the Xebra was hit with the ugly stick, while the female bloggers at Blogher (specifically Jody DeVere), think it's an "Adorable Electric Vehicle." DeVere's introduction to her interview with L.A.-based Zap! dealer Christina Conway is a little deceptive (Conway and her husband run Little Radio EV, which sells the Xebra but doesn't produce it, as the intro implies), but her enthusiasm for electric cars is genuine.

Opinions of the Xebra's aesthetics aside, the EV (and PHEV) world seems to me to be pretty well gender-balanced these days. Prominent names include Chelsea Sexton and Sherry Boschert along with Elon Musk and Ed Begley, Jr. I think we can all agree that gender roles have advanced along with electric car technology. But not all the way. I don't think anyone would call the electric Silence (based on a T-Rex) feminine.

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Which brings me to This site flat-out answers the question of who should drive EVs: girls (well, women, but we won't get into the woman-as-girl debate here). Site author Lynne Mason writes about EVs in a way that will probably make some macho gearheads cringe. On EVs in general: "They're SOO cute." On the Tesla Roadster, which she calls Precious: "As I was saying, the NOISE Precious makes while winding up to her top speed is NOTHING compared to that infernal racket your Jag's dinosaur-swilling 12 bombards you (and your passengers, and your neighbors) with. It's more of a delicious moan, apparently."

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Gushing over every EV is not the only option for women who think about electric cars. Over at Popgadget, the "Personal Tech + Innovative Lifestyle for Women" site (so, shouldn't it be called Momgadget?), Evan - who, I admit, just might be a guy - writes that the Reva EV is so small, "I swear I have a motorized Barbie Jeep bigger than this!"

So, where does this leave us? Clearly, electric vehicles have a gendered history. I'm interested to see what tomorrow brings, not just from the automakers, but the Battle of the Sexes as well.

[Sources:, Blogher, popgadget, AALS]

UPDATE: Diesel's first name corrected.

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