Rozanne Gates and her partner Suzanne Sheridan drive a cozy red 1998 Toyota Corolla (gas mileage: 34 mpg), decorated with bumper stickers espousing a variety of progressive political causes. One day four years ago they were trying to back out of a parking space at their local shopping mall in suburban Westport, Connecticut, and found that they couldn’t see in any direction. They were hemmed in by two massive sport utility vehicles whose drivers—both women—seemed to peer from on high behind the security of their steering wheels.
“Rosie, there is a phenomenon going on—teeny, tiny women in a huge car looking down over everybody else,” Sheridan said to Gates. “I wonder what this is about.”
Gates, a former entertainment agent who sees the artistic potential in almost everything even though it is Sheridan who is the singer/songwriter in the family, replied, “That’s a great idea for a song!”
Once they got home, they pounded out a country-and-western-style tune:
There’s someone a waitin’
To take your parkin’ spot
She’s hell on wheels
She’s the new big deal
She’s America’s true sweetheart
Oh, she’s a
90 pound suburban housewife
Drivin’ in her SUV
Talkin’ on her cell phone
Oblivious to you and me
Kids in the back seat watchin’ the little T.V.
She’s a 90 pound suburban housewife driving in her SUV.
Gates and Sheridan thought they were parodying a phenomenon that was largely restricted to the suburban towns of Fairfield County on the “gold coast” of Connecticut, where they live. “We thought the song would be obsolete two years down the road,” says Gates. “But the cars kept getting bigger and the ladies kept getting smaller. No matter where we went, whether it was California or Arizona, we saw them!”
Flash forward to 2006. The price of gas was rising, global warming was finally making an impact on the national consciousness, and even President George W. Bush was touting the advantages of alternative fuels. And Sheridan and Gates’s song, “90 Pound Suburban Housewife Drivin’ in her SUV” was becoming a minor national sensation. What had started as a “lark” four years before received its first airplay on National Public Radio’s popular show Car Talk in January. By March, Gates and Sheridan had landed on CNN, the Today Show, and the pages of the New York Times and a host of other newspapers. Within two months, starting in March, they had received 288,000 hits on their website, which provided a link to the iTunes store where visitors could buy the song.
“It has never happened before that a song breaks on NPR, then gets up on iTunes, then goes to the Associated Press,” Sheridan boasts. “We have only a demo, we have no one publishing it, we have no well-known person covering it. And it is going places on its own steam. I have been writing songs for a long time, but this is a wild ride.”
In reality, it took a while getting started. “90 Pound Suburban Housewife” had its first “test drive” when Gates and Sheridan performed it at the Unitarian Church in Westport, where the two women are active members. Then came a less-than-broadcast-quality recording with a honky-tonk piano, and, through music industry connections, another recording by an unknown Nashville “demo” singer. Finally it aired on Car Talk, better known for its wisecracking discussions about leaky transmissions and over-inflated tires than as a launching pad for a musical hit. After that, it all came with a rush.
Today, Gates, 60, and Sheridan, 54, are mini-celebrities. Sheridan provides the artistic side, the voice and spirit of the couple. Gates is the business manager, the organizer, the more politically minded. The two women solemnized their relationship at a commitment ceremony at the Westport church late last year.
They are “a couple of balls of fire” with a “wonderful energy and innocence and childlike quality,” says the Rev. Frank Hall, senior minister at the church, who has known them for many years. With a down-to-earth charm, two self-described “chubby lesbians” from a Connecticut suburb have suddenly emerged as light-hearted advocates (although they don’t like the term) for the hot-button issue of the hour—America’s perilous addiction to oil and its most visible manifestation, the SUV.
To them, SUVs “with their tons of steel and four big wheels” are more than just an annoyance, though. With their notoriously low gas mileage, the vehicles are a dangerous example of the American tendency to “live in unreality,” says Gates. “We know that fossil fuels are a limited resource, and we are acting like they are forever.”
The two women see the song’s message as very much consonant with UU values. “As Unitarians, we don’t want to see resources wasted,” Gates continues. “We don’t say that people who drive SUVs are wrong. We say make the cars a little smaller, make them more efficient, make them go at least 25 miles a gallon. The car manufacturers have the technology, and they’re not using it. That is the Unitarian part.”
And even though issues like energy efficiency and climate change are very serious subjects, Gates and Sheridan feel that being funny is the best way to reach people. Humor eventually leads to seriousness, they believe. Their goal is to get people talking, without making them feel defensive from the outset. “If you are in a relationship with someone and you want to say something serious to the other person, you do it gently,” argues Sheridan. “In the same way, when you have something serious to talk about as a country, you have to step into it gingerly, with care and with as much light-heartedness as possible to get the conversation going.”
That same approach extends to another issue they are passionate about—same-sex marriage. The two are legal partners under Connecticut’s newly enacted civil union law, which grants gay and lesbian couples many of the same rights as married heterosexuals. In their media appearances, Gates and Sheridan have been absolutely open about their relationship, but always in their trademark disarming manner. When a CNN reporter noted that they were “a couple,” Gates quipped, “Couple of what?”
In all this, they are trying not to lose sight of the values that are at the heart of the song. “If you believe certain things,” says Sheridan, “you have to act on them, to move into the three-dimensional world. The song does something about stuff we have been frustrated about. That is why it is hitting the chord it is hitting.”
Meanwhile, they are having fun, appearing on various radio shows and receiving a stream of emails and letters. Two fans have contacted them with the promise of “turning in” their SUVs. And Gates and Sheridan, always on the lookout for a song, have come up with a sequel to “90 Pound Suburban Housewife Drivin’ in Her SUV.” They plan to call it “He-Man in a Hummer.”