It’s 1987. I’m 30 years old and I don’t have a driver’s license, which surprises many people. What’s even more surprising is that what I do have is a Ph.D. and a full-time tenure-track job in rural Connecticut. The job promises to be everything I’ve wanted and worked toward for five years.
Perhaps most surprisingly of all, I actually own a car, bought for $450 from a family friend. A small and old Corolla. There’s a man in my life who drives it, and that surprises no one because I am and have always been the eternal passenger.
My mother was not a role model when it came to driving; she did not get her driver’s license until she was 35, and until her death at 47 drove only locally and only when necessary. So fearful was she of traffic that, in my recollection, she never made a left turn. She would drive miles out of her way to avoid making a left, even if there was a designated signal. Nobody seemed to find this odd.
All of my uncles had cars. Almost none of my aunts drove them. It didn’t seem strange to me, even by my third decade, not to be able to drive myself anywhere. I’d grown up in the city and suburbs, after all, and there were always boys around. Once I arrived in Connecticut, however, I realized I couldn’t even get a check cashed without using a driver’s license. I didn’t want to carry my passport with me and even my university faculty identification card didn’t seem to be enough to guarantee my legitimacy to local merchants. I was forced to get a driver’s license not to get around so much as to prove that I was an adult.
Driving and being an adult are, in many countries, including America, synonymous.
So it’s not surprising that I’ve been following closely stories about women in Saudi Arabia who have been pressing their government to reverse a policy in existence since 1957 decreeing that women are not permitted to drive. On June 24, women were finally allowed behind the wheel in that kingdom, to the chagrin of many religious clerics who, according to an article in the Los Angeles times, declared that all kinds of hell would break loose, and that the resulting calumny would range from women damaging their ovaries by driving to increased rampant promiscuity brought on by the fact that women could drive.
To citizens of many other modern Western countries, the Saudi laws seemed anachronistic, outrageous and exotic. To me, they seemed straight out of my family’s playbook. My family, like many others, persists in stereotyping “the woman driver” in a way that makes it sound as if we’re still living in 1910, when the manufacturers of electric cars suggested that no woman would want to sit above a possible combustion and so would never be tempted to use a gas-powered engine.
The idea of keeping women pampered, protected and in the passenger seat is to keep them infantilized. But let’s look under the hood of this supposition: It implies that without restraints imposed from the outside there would be no restraint possible from within and that women, like engines, need a governor.
But adults grow weary of being told where they can go and how long they can stay once they arrive. It took me a long time to realize that I didn’t want to date a guy with a cool car but that I wanted to drive a cool car myself. The women of Saudi Arabia are being granted new freedoms, increased independence and autonomy. While I don’t envy the women of that still-repressed regime — they have many battles ahead of them — as a proud and patriotic American, I don’t want to see our country’s laws going into reverse.
I’m worried that America is in danger of forfeiting the rights that women fought hard to secure. We can’t let this happen. You don’t get far in life if the only thing you know how to do is yield, and when you get to a crossroads, you need to make a choice. Often, you need to put your foot down.