Women have made huge inroads over decades in many fields long — and unfairly — considered the exclusive territory of men. Print and broadcast journalism, of course, come immediately to mind. It’s also hard to imagine a time when all bartenders were men; it’s been well over a hundred years since the infamous 1892 crackdown in St. Louis that targeted “saloon keepers who employ women as attendants.”
Six people, The New York Times then reported, were indicted in that sweep “for employing females in ‘dramshops.’ ”
How times have changed.
One profession, however, has been largely avoided by women: taxi driver. According to The New York Times, just 5 percent of current limo, car service or livery cab drivers in New York City — and just 1 percent of medallion yellow cab drivers — are female. I think I can easily explain why: Men can be threatening.
No one can tell me women have a natural aversion to operating commercial vehicles; they’ve already been driving school buses for decades. In fact, most all of my grade school bus drivers were women.
What the bus driver phenomenon does show us is that women don’t mind driving kids around. Ferrying strange men back and forth between work or the store — or worse, home from the bar — is another story. And yet, when it’s the other way around — women hopping in the back of a car driven by a man — it always seems normal and safe, at least to us men, who really don’t think about such things.
Talk to some women, though, and many will tell you jumping in a cab is never without risk. Many won’t take a taxi alone, especially out here. That’s not to say all men are potential sex offenders; just that most sex offenders are men. And consider the criminal behavior among cab drivers that’s been reported in these publications. Riverhead Town has even created its own tax driver registry in an effort to keep criminals from driving local residents around. I certainly don’t blame women for being nervous.
This all amounts to another under-reported challenge for millions of women across this country, in both the city and the suburbs. Just for a second, forget equal pay for equal work — and the other important provisions of the state’s stalled New York Women’s Equality Act. The fact is that men don’t have to worry about sexual assault as they travel to and from work or school or if, God forbid, they lose their friends at a party or club and have to find their way home alone.
This issue has inspired one company to offer a new mobile phone app and service that will help provide female taxi drivers for female riders and, with that, offer some peace of mind. News of the service, which is supposed to launch later this month in Long Island, Westchester and New York City, broke earlier this week. Legal experts have raised concerns: It’s clear, for example, that under federal law, female cabbies won’t be able to refuse male passengers. Still, this is a common sense approach to a real issue and I would urge the company, SheTaxis (shetaxis.com), to offer its services on the East End.
As all of us on eastern Long Island are aware, this ain’t New York City, and those among us who use cabs to get to work or do chores are often disabled or down on our luck. So let’s agree that women in these situations already have a tough enough go of it. At the very least, they should feel safe. If Albany lawmakers can’t cooperate to protect the health and safety of women, at least some in the private sector are stepping up.
Michael White is the editor of The Suffolk Times and Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at [email protected] or 631-298-3200, ext. 152.