Woman as a professional driver: Women’s role in the development of taxi service in Estonia between the two world wars

Riho Paramonov

The study introduces Magda Vitismann, the first Estonian woman taxi driver. The discussion proceeds from a broader process of modernization that affected all aspects of life and social development. As one of the major innovations of the 20th c., the automobile played an important part in the process of women’s liberation and in the re-conceptualization of feminine/masculine values.

By the late 1920s cars had improved to the extent that they could be driven by weaker women as well. By the 1930s most Estonians were used to women driving cars. Cars had become a means of female self-realization. The job of a female taxi driver lacked glamor, but she could still be admired as a heroic/enterprising and therefore modern woman. Professional women drivers challenged the hypermasculine value sphere surrounding technology, proving that a woman could be as good as a man in technical fields.

The workdays of women taxi drivers were long and tiring; one had to be prepared for breakdowns, accidents, unpleasantness from male colleagues or customers. To cope in the harsh struggle for survival, one had to be both physically and mentally strong. The motivations included a decent wage and status, sense of freedom and benefiting from new technology.

Women who worked as taxi drivers can be called impulsors – people who foster the spread of new technology on the grassroots level. As there were few female taxi drivers, each had an impact on people and structures in their network which, in turn, supported modernization and thereby the process of women’s liberation. The key words are overcoming one’s weaknesses and the will to do something in novel ways. The most notable woman taxi driver from this period is Magda Vitismann who embodied many of the traits. As a modern woman in essence, she followed the new value system that made it possible for her to work in an untraditional field.

There were more women taxi owners than taxi drivers. Running a taxi increased women’s enterprise and widened their horizon of activities. Using a car as a taxi gave some women the first major experience with a modern vehicle.

Emancipation is an important element of modernization and women taxi drivers, in turn, play an important part in emancipation. They showed that a woman could be a man’s equal or even superior in a technical field. By proving that women can cope in a very masculine field, the women challenged the dominant gendered preconceptions and became role models for many women who wished to realize themselves in fields that had been inconceivable before.