Sue Macy is the author of a new book for older kids, Motor Girls: How Women Took the Wheel and Drove Boldly Into the Twentieth Century. Her other books include Wheels of Change and Miss Mary Reporting. She worked at Scholastic, Inc., for 16 years, and she lives in Englewood, New Jersey.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Motor Girls, and how did you select the women to include in the book?
A: My previous young adult book, Wheels of Change, looked at the liberating influence the bicycle had on women’s lives, but as I was researching it I kept coming across ominous signs that the automobile had the opposite effect in the early 20th century. I wanted to investigate that further.
I’d also been keeping a folder on women and cars for decades, throwing articles in when I came across them. I decided it was time to look into automobile history and the motor car’s impact on women once and for all.
There were a few groundbreaking women who had to be included, such as Alice Ramsey, the first woman to drive across the U.S., and early auto racer Joan Newton Cuneo. I chose the others as I did my research.
Q: In the early years, what were the prevailing attitudes about women drivers, and what obstacles did women have to overcome to drive?
A: At the beginning of the automobile age, driving a car was a dirty, physical business, and many people thought it was inappropriate for women. Some also thought women weren’t emotionally equipped for the quick decision-making necessary to drive.
Many men, and some women, felt that if women had to drive, they should choose electric cars, which had a smaller range per charge and lower maximum speeds than gasoline-powered vehicles. Fortunately, women who enjoyed the challenge and thrill of driving gasoline cars persisted.
Q: Of the various women you researched, were there any that you found especially fascinating or surprising?
A: I loved learning more about Alice Ramsey. She came from Hackensack, New Jersey, two towns away from where I live, and she was such a dashing figure in her goggles and duster. I’m amazed at the confidence she had as she drove across unpaved roads and repaired her own vehicle all along the way.
I also was inspired by Nell Shipman, the Canadian silent film writer, director, producer, and star, who played daring women in automobiles in some of her films, and did all the driving herself.
Q: The book also includes amazing photos and memorabilia from the early 20th century. How were they selected?
A: I did the photo research for the book, with help from Lori Epstein, the brilliant photo director for National Geographic’s Kids Books.
Early on, we found the Detroit Public Library’s National Automotive History collection, which is a rich source of images from the early days of the automobile and included wonderful shots of Alice Ramsey, Joan Newton Cuneo, and other female drivers. I would say that was our go-to source, although I was constantly looking for images to supplement what they had.
For example, we tried to show ads or photographs of specific cars I mentioned in the book, and sometimes I found those through private collectors. It was an exciting treasure hunt done mostly online, but also at the Library of Congress and the Benson Ford Research Center in Dearborn, Michigan.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m writing two picture books that are taking me away from women’s history for a little while. One is on a cat sanctuary in New Jersey and the other is related to Yiddish!
I’m also hoping to follow women’s history into the 1920s in another young adult book, but I’m not quite ready to talk about it. More will be revealed.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: The other day I took part in a public radio program on women and automobiles that readers might like to hear. It was on WOSU-FM in Columbus, Ohio, but it’s available here.
Hosted by Ann Fisher, the program also featured retired Indy car driver Lyn St. James and Chris Cozad, a woman who’s had her own auto mechanic shop for several decades. I learned a lot!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb