Wednesday, February 15, 2012


("The Goldsmith Ladies in the Bois de Boulogne in a Peugot 'Voiturette' 1897", Julius Leblanc Stewart, 1901, Musee National de la Voiture et du Tourisme, France)

I'll never forget the day one of my Women's Studies professors said:

"Driving vehicles has done more for the ultimate independence of women than anything else - including the 19th amendment which gave women the right to vote."

That's a big, bold statement for sure!

But as soon as I heard those words,  I knew my professor was on to something.


A quick survey of history tells the tale.

The great majority of the world's cultures have been patriarchal societies.

That means, of course, that men have traditionally held power over women, children, animals and property.

In other words, men made the rules.

And everyone else fell in line.

This was certainly true in Biblical times.

Israelite women prayed to be blessed with male children for several reasons.

One of the most important was this:

A woman's eldest son held the power and the responsibility to look after his mother in her old age - assuming the woman's husband preceded her in death.

Under most of the world's social systems, daughters were strictly watched over by their fathers.

If the father died, the daughter's eldest brother inherited that responsibility.

If the eldest brother died, the daughter's next youngest male sibling took on that job.

Eventually, uncles and cousins would be pegged for the job of overseeing the life of a single female relative if the immediate family had no more males to carry out the task.

On and on it went.

Down the line of familial patriarchal responsibility.

It goes without saying that a daughter's husband took over this assignment on the day of her marriage - often at the tender age of 13 or 14 years old.

If we fast forward through history, we discover that little improvement had been made in the societal and political status of women by the time of the ancient Greeks.

In fact, most Greek women of the Golden Age were forbidden to leave their marital homes unless their husbands or other male relatives accompanied them outside to the larger world.

Occasionally, these women would be allowed to visit a next door neighbor - if their husbands knew about their plans in advance and gave their blessing.

In Renaissance Italy, women born into aristocratic families served as little more than bargaining chips in the marriage market.

Daughters were married off for economic and political reasons.

These well-born ladies were told who they would marry and then they were counseled "to make the best of it."

Now let's jump way, way ahead to the Victorian era.

During this period, men reasoned that women should be "elevated" and figuratively "placed on pedestals" due to the supposed moral superiority of the fairer sex.

Male thinking went something like this:

"Because women are moral, gentle, emotional and delicate creatures, they must be "protected" by men from the nastiness of life. The best way to accomplish this is to assure women that their place is in the home - not in the harsh outer world of commerce and business."


That's a sly way of saying the same old thing, isn't it?

The point is this:

Traditionally, men have wanted to keep power in male hands.

Today, power hungry males are alive and kicking throughout the world.

These men use the same old arguments to bolster their case against the freedom of women.

That's why in some modern cultures, women have not been allowed to drive on the world's roadways.

Cars, after all, are the vehicles (no pun intended) that bring education and understanding to the traveling throngs.

Travel leads to the acquisition of knowledge.

Knowledge not only about the greater world around us but also knowledge and enlightenment about ourselves.

Now, in the case of women, we can't have that, can we?

Because if we do have that, female drivers just might want more freedom to move themselves around the world.

If that happens, women are going to possess wider views of the planet they live on.

That could easily lead to the acquisition of new ideas, thoughts and ambitions.

And before anyone realizes what's happened, these world savvy women are going to demand - dare we say it?


(Otherwise known as control over their own lives.)

We don't know whether French painter, Julius Lablanc Stewart, was bothered by the idea of female drivers.

But it certainly looks as if he frankly promoted the concept, doesn't it?

The truth is, of course, that we don't know Stewart's political opinions about women drivers.

But I believe it's safe to say that he was - at the very least - intrigued by the idea.

Stewart was an American artist - he was born in Philadelphia.

Julius's father was a wealthy man who made his fortune in the sugar industry.

He moved his family to Paris in 1865 and became a dedicated art collector.

The fine arts were in the blood of this family.

So it was no surprise when Julius showed an early interest in painting.

He studied with many of the most polished masters of the day at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris.

Because of the family's wealth, Stewart was able to live a  privileged life of his own choosing without having to worry about money issues.

Julius painted what pleased him.

And what pleased him were large scale group portraits of upper society people - people who were often his friends.

Stewart earned his creds in the art world.

He exhibited frequently at the Paris Salon and helped organize the "Americans in Paris" section of the 1894 Salon.

His beautiful painting, "The Baptism," was shown at the 1893 Chicago World Columbian Exposition and it received honors at the 1895 Berlin International Exposition as well.

(The Baptism, Julius Leblanc Stewart, 1892, Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

I had the privilege of viewing "The Baptism" in Los Angeles a while ago.

It is a huge painting.

But that's not what draws you into the piece.

The painting depicts the gathering of a notable, uppercrust family who is experiencing some degree of distress.

The baptism of an infant is taking place in a gorgeous, spacious room at the family's mansion.

Several people are on hand to witness this sacred event.

But the baptism of the infant is not the focal point of the painting.

In the foreground of the work, we see a young mother languishing on a chaise lounge.

Though she is beautiful and well adorned, it is obvious that she is not physically well.

Bringing forth her child into the world has taken its toll on the young mother's health and well-being.

Stewart has expertly placed this woman at the center of his canvas and because he has done so, our hearts are easily drawn to this new mother's trials and personal worries.

As I studied this painting I imagined that this mother might be thinking,  "Will I live long enough to raise my child?"

That would not have been an unthinkable question at that time in history.

For these reasons - and many others -  "The Baptism" is a wonderful work of art.

Now, then.

Let's turn to happier thoughts.

Stewart's painting, "The Goldsmith a Peugeot" is simply an undisputed joy ride, isn't it?

Here we see two young women - I've named them "Sadie" and "Mae" - out on the road with their trusty canine friend - let's call him - "Blaze."

Sadie, looking particularly spiffy in her sienna hued driving coat, is captain of the Peugeot.

She is the driver of this early "convertible."

And there is no doubt that she is in command.

Those eyes of hers are staring straight ahead as she steers that bumpy buggy down the road.

She's taking care of business.

She knows exactly what she's doing!

And even if she doesn't, you'd never know it by looking at her.

Stewart's Sadie is competent and cool under what could be possible pressure to perform well.

What about Mae?

Look at that obvious grin on her lovely face.

She's enjoying every second of this driving experience.

Mae's left hand is grasping the brim of her perky straw hat.

She doesn't want to lose it to the breeze that is kicking up as the vehicle plows through oncoming air.

Mae's right arm is stretched across the back of the seat - perhaps to provide stability and balance for her as the vehicle rambles forward.

That gauzy scarf in her clasped fingertips is flying for all it's worth, isn't it?

Everything about Stewart's Mae says:  "I'm loving this!"

And then we have Blaze riding out front and center.

He's in his element!

Look at that taut torso and those sturdy legs!

His left ear is busy flapping in the wind.

The dog's eyes are virtual slits.

We can't tell if he can see anything at all.

But who cares?

Blaze is living in the moment and enjoying the brisk breeze as it flows across his body.

This animal - his body pressed forward into the wind - knows how to live life!

There's a lesson in this for each one of us.

Just as Sadie, Mae and Blaze are embracing new opportunities - and challenges - in their lives, should we not step forward in our own lives and brave the unknown?

Of course, the answer to that question must be a resounding "yes."

Stewart's Sadie and Mae are literally and figuratively driving into their futures.

Not only that, they are paving the road that will lead to joyful movement and purpose-filled freedoms for all women down through the decades of time.

Drive on, my dears.

Drive on!