On my father at the wheel

It’s one of those throw-away quips in our culture (or comments of outright misogyny) that women are worse drivers than men.

Not in my family! My father’s driving grew increasingly erratic the older he got. Pointing over his shoulder at distant architecture that had caught his attention whilst merging into 70mph motorway traffic; absorbed in emphatic monologue whilst negotiating crowded junctions; ignoring the horns and rude gestures directed at him by other drivers and the small noises of alarm from his passengers… none of it phased him. He even insisted on driving in the UK, on the ‘other’ side of the road. My mother reminisces about how terrifying she found this experience, how deeply relieved she felt when they survived intact and finally returned the car to the hiring agency. It’s a mercy that he died in a bed surrounded by his loved ones rather than in a car wreck of his own making.

Over the years, the number of incidents grew in frequency, yet we didn’t confront him over this issue, not to my memory anyway. As in much else, we indulged him, rather than provoke a conflict. His place at the steering wheel imposed itself upon us as an unspoken rule, and to question his driving ability would be too close to making an offensive remark, too much of a challenge.

Hang on – a challenge to what? His authority? His control of a situation? His freedom to go where he wished, unhindered? His pride?

His masculinity, perhaps?

To question his driving would be to question his judgment, to imply its weakness in matters of concentration and visual perception. We would rather risk our own safety – literally – than challenge him over his traditional place at the steering wheel.

I say “we” but can really only speak for myself. I ventured to challenge my dad (unsuccessfully, for the most part) on a number of issues, but not on this one. Challenging someone isn’t easy, especially when that someone is used to having things their way, and when the established power dynamics set a fixed pattern of behaviour and expectation.

But where else might the process of rebalance begin? The task of a challenge is to reframe assumptions and open one’s perception to other interpretations – what feminist theory terms ‘consciousness raising,’ and what I am beginning to think of as ‘tuning in and listening to a different voice.’ The different voice contains a challenge simply by existing, by asserting an equal right to participate and influence and to sit at the steering wheel.

Reflecting on the early development of feminist thinking (circa 1970s) bell hooks points out that

When women first organised in groups to talk together about the issue of sexism and male domination, they were clear that females were as socialized to believe sexist thinking and values as males” (Feminism is for Everybody, p. 7)

Too right. I am absolutely guilty of sexism. I have deferred to, accommodated, and even obeyed men against my better judgment, and in doing so have expected them to carry a burden of responsibility on my behalf.  Some part of this concerns a lack of awareness – self-awareness – beyond social assumptions; but equally it involves a lack of confidence. Confidence is a precious commodity to those who don’t have it, and a significant lesson of my own life has been to realise that confidence is only ever healthy when earned through one’s own efforts – not when it is bestowed as a privilege.

I know what I’m talking about: I was raised with class privilege – unlike my father. The foremost work and achievement of his life was to leave his working class background and enter the professional middle class, where he consolidated this legacy by raising his children in the context of his social aspirations. My parents both worked hard to conduct a decade long project of educating their children in fee-paying private schools, and we all of us exceeded their expectations by excelling academically and moving on to university and postgraduate degrees.

I’ve spent much of my adult life in questioning my upbringing and the assumptions of class privilege it provided. I’ve challenged myself on this matter in the most painful and self-critical ways, stripping myself of the confidence that I understood to be a purchased gift, and struggling badly without it. I’m only gradually gaining a foothold again, and rebuilding confidence in myself – in my abilities and my values, in my voice and my judgment.

In doing so, I am learning to contain within myself the paradox of who I am by upbringing and who I am by awareness and choice and experience. It’s all any of us can do, if we want things to change. We all together share the responsibility for where we’re headed, and that means taking turns at the wheel and sharing both the driving and the riding.