Preemptive Liberation

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It may sound sexist but, as most people know, women drivers are laggards when it comes to starting their cars. A male driver will be outside the parking lot”well before the woman he walked out with starts the engine. That is not because women are putting on makeup or checking their nails; they are most often fishing through their purses for their keys. Women’s clothes are not designed to carry chunky metal objects, as men’s are.

But a marketing gimmick has changed that. My new car allows me to open locked doors just by drawing near the car, and it starts with the push of a button inside, as long as the keys are in the vicinity.

The advantage of this automatic feature isn’t simply to let me scoot out a few seconds faster than someone else. It also makes me safer. Now women can avoid standing in the dark before a locked car, searching for our keys. If trouble is brewing we can zip out of trouble right away.

I don’t know whether this feature was designed for safety or even if it is aimed at women. But markets have a way of solving problems that no single person has yet identified.

In the 1950s, long before the advent of “women’s lib,” manufacturers were pushing new technology that in the aggregate had an enormous effect. In his book “The Hidden Persuaders” (1957), Vance Packard ridiculed motivational researchers for trying to find out why dishwashers and vacuum cleaners weren’t selling well. Apparently they learned that (in Packard’s words) the 1950s housewife was “feeling guilty about the fact that she is not working as hard as her mother.” Modern appliances just added to her guilt. So the researchers came up with more acceptable reasons for buying appliances: they would give women more time to spend with their children, for example.

New appliances did sell, to Packard’s chagrin and to the chagrin of all who disparage advertising. They made it increasingly easy for a person to maintain a clean, comfortable home, and they set the stage for large-scale liberation of women from housework. Without the technological progress forced by the industry’s search for consumers, the feminist movement might never have been successfully launched. I am a beneficiary of that market change, just as I am one of a growing number of women who feel more secure because they can open their locked car door and start the engine with the push of a button, with who knows what results from that new freedom.

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