Emma Cowing: Stand back Stirling - we’re in the fast lane

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HEARD the one about the woman driver? If so, you might want to tell Sir Stirling Moss. In a recent Radio Five Live interview Moss, who won 16 grands prix in his heyday and is without a doubt one of the world’s greatest living racing drivers, made something of a boo-boo when discussing Formula One and the fairer sex.

Quoth Moss: “We’ve got some very strong and robust ladies, but, when your life is at risk, I think the strain of that in a competitive situation will tell when you’re trying to win. The mental stress, I think, would be pretty difficult for a lady to deal with in a practical fashion. I just don’t think they have the aptitude to win a Formula One race.”

Mental stress, ladies, it’s difficult to deal with. Got that? Or maybe you’d like to have a little lie down first before you fix your mind on it. Because of the stress.

Susie Wolff, the 30-year-old Formula One test driver and a fellow Scot, said his comment made her cringe.

“I think we’re in a different generation,” she said. ‘For Sir Stirling, it’s unbelievable that a female would drive a Formula One car, which is fair enough. In the days they were racing, every time they stepped into a car, they were putting their life on the line. But F1 is much more technologically advanced – it’s much safer than it was.”

Of course Moss is 83 and thus no longer in the first flush of youth. He should, perhaps, be forgiven for possessing attitudes that are not entirely up-to-the-minute when it comes to women. I doubt, for example, that Moss is a regular reader of the online feminist magazine Vagenda.com, or has scanned the pages of Caitlin Moran’s modern feminist text How To Be A Woman. And at 83, perhaps he has earned the right not to.

But at the same time, believing women do not have the “mental aptitude” to drive a car properly is hardly the sort of radical, out-there, militantly feminist notion that still struggles to find a mainstream audience. It’s just plain wrong. And offensive. And, when it comes out the mouth of someone as respected and loved as Moss, damaging.

Last year, a US Republican politician and pro-lifer named Todd Akin was asked if he supported abortion in the case of rape. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” he declared, demonstrating about as much understanding of how the female body works as an adolescent rhesus monkey.

It amazes me that in 2013, attitudes like this are still around. That women are weaker, that their brains are smaller, that their bodies are unfathomable. It’s not old-fashioned. It’s medieval.

Formula One is an incredibly male world, and as with every professional sphere that has traditionally been dominated by men (that’ll be all of them then), it is a long road to the top. Every time a woman breaks the mould in a man’s world, they do so by being better than the men, because it’s the only way the men will ever pay any attention to them. Racing driving is no different. Wolff, and, ironically, Moss’s own sister Pat, one of the most successful female rally drivers of all time, are two in just a handful of exceptions.

Today, Britain will bury an 87-year-old woman who would have had Moss’s guts for garters had he suggested she lacked any sort of “mental aptitude” to do anything at all, whether it be run the country, destroy the mining industry or drive a Ferrari in a fetching white headscarf. Love or loathe Margaret Thatcher, you could certainly not deny her the fiendish intelligence she displayed on a daily basis at the dispatch box. Nor the fact that she had to claw her way up the ranks of a man’s world and did so simply by being better than them at the job.

It shouldn’t be this hard, in 2013. Women are tired of fighting the old prejudices, of having to prove that we’re better when we’re constantly being told that we’re worse, when all we want is to be treated equally, and given the same opportunities as men. Having someone with the gravity of Moss make such a backwards statement is immensely discouraging to every young woman who aspires to be as successful as him, and has every right to do so.

There is one joke about women drivers that Moss might not like. It goes like this: “nothing confuses a man more than a woman driver who does everything right.”

Hopefully, that means there are going to be a lot of confused men in Formula One in the future.