#Senior Seminar John Hight - Trailblazing Women on the Track and Road: The Impact of Interwar Racing and Driving on Traditional Gender Roles

Thu, 04/11/24
John Hight

I have always loved history. I grew up in Portland, Maine, and that area has many historical monuments and landmarks. It’s part of the local culture. I remember a fifth-grade trip to the Longfellow House, for example, which was beautiful and fascinating to me. The last two years of high school, I took a lot of AP History and Political Science classes. I knew that I wanted to major in both subjects. FSU’s location was a big selling point for me, as it would allow me to get internships at the Capitol, and Tallahassee has its own remarkable history.  I graduated early and am now in the Masters of Applied American Politics and Policy program with plans to attend law school afterwards.

Why did you choose this senior seminar?

I took a lot of History classes that I enjoyed, with different professors on different topics. I had heard a lot of good things about Dr. Upchurch as a teacher. I already had a background in British history. The topic he offered, 19th-century British gender history, sounded super interesting to me.

How did you decide on your research topic?

In the beginning, I did not know what I wanted to work on. Dr. Upchurch told us to find a topic that was personally interesting to us. He also said that the topic timeframe of the class was flexible. Since one of my favorite time periods is the interwar period, I decided to focus on that. A lot of things were happening in Britain during that time. A specialty interest of mine is cars and car racing, so I tried to combine my two passions into a topic related to gender during that period.

The domain of car racing was a groundbreaking sphere at a time when cars were still new, the technology was still new, and there wasn’t yet a set notion of how gender norms should operate in the racing world. Men dominated car racing in the beginning, before World War 1 and into the war. When men went to the front, many women got trained to drive so they could fill empty jobs. That meant that women got a foot in the door. When the men came back after the end of the war, women were on more of an equal playing field in society. And with essential changes in fashion, women were more able to participate in driving and racing.

Through my research, I realized that car racing offered an interesting microcosm for changing post-WW 1 gender roles. I explored the years between 1918 and 1939. I did not focus on a specific woman racing driver in my paper because I was more interested in how changing representations of women in motor racing reflected changes in society as a whole.

The racing drivers were overwhelmingly white, wealthy and almost all British. The women who raced were mainly upper class. They had to have access to cars. Some of them were married, but a lot of them were not. Family life had an impact on racing life for many women.

World War II put everything on pause, which meant that my research came to a very hard stop in September 1939.

What sort of sources did you look at?

I was able to use a lot of primary sources through the databases that we have access to in the FSU libraries. I found advertisements, newspaper articles, and was able to read the contributions to a public debate on whether women should be racing at all. The material was very rewarding. Of particular interest was material on women’s fashion, as that allowed me to track tangible changes in the role of women during the period.

What was it like writing such a long paper?

The hardest part was deciding on the topic. Once I had my project idea, I started researching right away. What inspired me especially was the other students in my class. Many of them had great ideas for their own projects, and we discussed all our takes in class. Their passions encouraged me to work on something that felt a bit more ‘unconventional.’

I have written a lot of papers before and so the writing part did not stress me so much. The length of the senior seminar paper was a bit daunting, but I found so much material that I could have written more than the 18-20 pages I did.

Dr. Upchurch asked us to submit a bibliography first which led to my first research exploration. Not all of the sources proved helpful in the end, but it was a great base to start from. One source often led to another, and in following them, I narrowed down my topic to look at changing women’s fashion, gendered advertisements, and media depictions of gender in the racing world.

What surprised you about your research?

The really surprising thing for me was the number of fatalities and injuries incurred in racing. I had not thought of racing as an overly dangerous thing or even a very physically intensive thing. That’s because modern cars are much easier to drive. But then cars were a new technology and difficult to handle. There were fires, crashes, explosions, brake failures. Race car drivers had to deal with a raw car – no power steering, no fancy suspension, no computer assistance. This element of danger was a central point brought up when people were arguing that women should not be involved in car racing. But many strong, determined women argued back and were insistent: “We can do this too.”

What was a major challenge?

Time. I was taking a lot of classes as I was getting ready to graduate. That meant I did not have the time I would have liked to have had. It was nice to be able to devote a whole semester to the project. With a month or two more though, I could have produced a more polished version, but I am still proud of the final product.

What advice do you have for students thinking about doing the senior seminar?

The most important thing is to pick a class that deals with a topic you care about. Otherwise, it can be difficult to put the in the necessary time or effort. Also find a professor that you know you can work well with.

Another important thing is don’t be afraid to talk to your classmates. They are one of your biggest resources in a class like this.

And finally, don’t wait too long while considering topics and doing research before you start writing. The end of the semester will come sooner than you think and starting the writing process earlier will allow you more time to make important adjustments to your project.