On Board the Society of Automotive Historians

I have just been notified of my election to the Society of Automotive Historians board of directors. I hesitated to run for this position as I am not a historian nor do I have a deep knowledge or technical understanding of automobiles. However, because I come to automotive scholarship from a cultural rather than historical perspective, and because my research interest is the relationship between women and cars, it was suggested that I might offer a new point of view to what has long been a male-dominated and technologically-focused discipline. So here I am. I am both excited and nervous to embark on this endeavor. I join a group of well-respected and accomplished individuals that includes academic scholars, automotive journalists and publishers, museum and library professionals, educational and cultural organizations, car collectors and restorers, and auto enthusiasts. I hope that I can contribute to this organization and the research it fosters. I look forward to serving alongside my fellow car chick Carla Lesh. I hope our presence will encourage others – whose gender, age, or sexual orientation has placed them on the margins of automotive history and research – to contribute to and become part of the SAH as it celebrates its 50th anniversary.

What topics should organizations such as the SAH address? What kind of activities should they sponsor? For information on what the Society of Automotive Historians does now, and what needs to be done to grow the future, I encourage you to visit SAH online.

Driving to Congress

A political ad for Valerie Plame

A former coworker of mine – who once worked at the ad agency for Chevrolet – posted this political advertisement on her Facebook page. She commented, ‘Great political ad from an awesome woman. And for my Chevy friends it’s not a bad car commercial either.’ The spot features Valerie Plame, a former CIA officer running for Congress as a Democrat in New Mexico. In the commercial, Plame tells her story: while working as a covert for the CIA, Plame was outed by then Vice President Dick Cheney’s Chief of Staff Scooter Libby, who was later convicted of lying to investigators. Bush commuted Libby’s sentence and in 2018, Libby was pardoned by Trump. Plame’s appeal to voters focuses on her experience with the CIA, her betrayal by Republican politicians, her toughness, and the need to ‘turn the country around’ on national security, health care, and women’s rights. She makes her pitch by driving very fast – in reverse – in a Chevy Camaro.

Whether or not your political leanings side with Plame, the car is an interesting and important component to Plame’s message. While the ‘country going backward’ metaphor may be a little heavy-handed [or heavy-footed, as the case may be], the way in which Plame handles the Camaro provides an insight into her character, ambition, and fortitude. The fact that she is driving a modern and iconic American muscle car reflects on Plame’s past and present dedication to country. And because the muscle car has a long association with masculinity, it announces Plame as someone who can play tough with the big boys. While there may those who suspect a stunt driver was involved, Plame dispels that notion when she declares, ‘Yes, the CIA really does teach us how to drive like this.’ 

As my work focuses on the relationship between women and the automobile, I found Plame’s deliberate use of the car in this non-car commercial to be significant on a number of levels. First of all, the Plame/Camaro pairing disrupts the longstanding notion that women’s interest in cars is centered on practicality. It dispels the myth that high-horsepowered muscle cars are only for men. It calls upon the characteristics of the car – power, performance, boldness, noise, and outrageousness – to define the woman, rather than the man, who drives it. And it suggests that – unlike the popular perception – women may also call upon the automobile as a source of identity, agency, and empowerment.

Do you think cars in non-automotive advertising, or in other media including films and television, have the ability to suggest something about the individual who drives it? Your comments are welcome below.

Women & Trucks

Wendy Marquis in her studio. Louise Johns for the WALL STREET JOURNAL

Much of my research stems from the time-worn notion that women’s interest in cars is focused on practicality. It is a common belief that the female driver views the automobile primarily as a means of transportation or as a vehicle for the performance of domestic tasks. However, in my investigations into various car cultures I discovered that this was not always the case. For there are a good number of women who are not only passionate about cars and the driving experience, but who view the automobile as a symbol of identity, agency, and empowerment. In one of my recent journal articles, I discuss women who own and drive pickup trucks, a vehicle long associated with toughness, durability, strength, and masculinity. The women I spoke with not only loved their pickups for what they allowed them to do, but also for who they allowed them to be. A pickup, noted many of the women interviewed, provided the opportunity to present oneself as a hardworking, adventurous, deserving of respect, exceptional, and empowered female driver.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal by AJ Baime focuses on a woman who not only drives a pickup, but finds artistic inspiration in it. After moving to Montana, artist Wendy Marquis was looking for something to paint when she came across an old Chevy pickup in an overgrown field. As she noted, upon completing the portrait ‘I found myself looking for other trucks to paint. I got hooked.’ Folks in Montana hold onto their trucks for a long time. Consequently, each old pickup has a history, which can often be discerned in its idiosyncratic scratches, dents, tired paint, and worn interior. Wendy discovered that painting the trucks of her neighbors often opened a window into their individual lives, as most had interesting truck stories to tell. Getting personal with the trucks and their people prompted Wendy to get a pickup of her own. She is now the proud owner of a 1960 Ford pickup. So for Wendy, the pickup has become a source of transportation, inspiration, and connection to others in the community.

Human interest stories such as this suggest the connection between women and the automobile is a genuine one; they inspire me to continue on with my research on the relationship between women and cars. 

Are you a woman with a truck? What does your truck say about you and how does it make you feel? Feel free to share a car story or two in the comments section.