Women & Cars in a COVID Year

Over the past 10 years, beginning soon after I entered graduate school, I have spent most summers in the field talking to women about their cars. Whether it was classic Thunderbirds, sporty chick cars, rumbling muscle cars, or utilitarian pickup trucks, summer – with its preponderance of car shows and automotive events – provided a multitude of research opportunities. However, the COVID summer of 2020 put a sudden stop to such activities. And while car shows are slowly picking up in 2021, there are family issues which will cause me to stay close to home this summer. These turns of events will keep me from embarking on my anticipated project – women and Jeeps – for another year. 

The lack of ethnographic opportunities, however, led me to consider other types of women-and-car research projects. A few years ago I had presented a paper on women and cars in film at the Popular Culture Association [PCA] conference. As I had already conducted some of the initial research, the pandemic stay-at-home orders provided an open stretch of time for me to pursue the project. Prior to COVID, I had been asked to contribute a chapter on women and motorsports for an upcoming book. I had attended a Motorsports Conference in Watkins Glen in November 2019 and conducted a little research at the IMRRC [International Motor Racing Research Center] while there; this visit gave me both the material and the impetus to tackle the chapter. And after helping an individual with some advertising questions posted to the Society of Automotive Historians, I was approached by the Automotive History Review – the official journal of the SAH – to write an article about my experiences working at a Detroit automotive advertising agency during the 1980s. Suddenly, after wondering how I was going to spend months of lockdown, I had plenty of research projects to keep me motivated and busy. 

Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, and a classic 1955 Dodge Lancer in Grandma

In ‘What Would Miss Daisy Drive? The Road Trip Film, the Automobile, and the Woman Behind the Wheel’, I look at 10 post Thelma and Louise films to examine the relationship between a female protagonist and her automobile. As I noted in the PCA presentation: 

Since women first expressed interest in automobility, auto manufacturers and marketers have directed the female motorist toward the practical ‘family’ vehicle. While men are encouraged to purchase automobiles that reflect power, performance, and toughness, women are expected to drive a safe, reliable, and functional automobile that reinforces the gender appropriate role of wife and mother. Throughout the nearly 100 years since the first automobile rolled off Henry Ford’s assembly line, advertisers and automakers have consistently and determinedly placed the woman driver behind the wheel of a station wagon, minivan, small SUV, or crossover.

Although modern day advertising continues to reflect this longstanding trend, there is one location that occasionally disrupts this pervasive representation. In the female road trip film, the protagonist is likely to drive a vehicle rarely associated with the woman driver. While traditionally presented as a passenger, sidekick, or not at all in the classic male road narrative, when women take the wheel on the silver screen, the cars they drive take on important supporting roles. Whether a classic car, utilitarian vehicle, convertible, luxury sedan or clunker, these cinematic vehicles are significant not only for the meanings they convey, but also for their ability to challenge common woman driver stereotypes. 

The films selected were Grandma, Anywhere But Here, Tammy, Boys on the Side, Tumbleweeds, Cloudburst, Camilla, Bonneville, Manny and Lo, and Leaving Normal. In each of these motion pictures, the type of car – classic, luxury, convertible, utilitarian, clunker, and family – was not just a prop, but rather, was integral to the story and the woman who drove it. As I note in the abstract, “Focusing on the car rather than the journey, the paper reassesses the role and significance of the automobile in film; examines how the woman’s car in film has the ability to disrupt both the dominant road trip and cultural narratives; and broadens the notion of women’s car use to include considerations of identity, agency, reinvention, friendship, family, and empowerment.’ The paper was submitted, returned for revision and resubmission, and accepted for publication in The Journal of Popular Culture.

Powder Puff competitor Dorothy Cokely in #41

In ‘From Powder Puff to W Series: The Evolution of Women-Only Racing’ I embarked on new territory. The only guideline for this project was to write on the history and politics of women in motorsport, a rather broad topic. I chose to focus specifically on the history of women’s only racing in an attempt to address the long standing question of whether women are best served by separate or equal opportunities. When I started the project, I was not familiar with motorsports in general, and other than a few famous names – Janet Guthrie, Lyn St James, and Danica Patrick – had little knowledge of the women who participated in it. However, by the time I completed the project, I had a better understanding of the obstacles and challenges women experience when competing in an historically associated with masculinity and the male driver. As I write in the abstract:

Throughout its storied history, motorsports has been unwelcoming to women. Consequently, it has been necessary for female racers to develop unique strategies to enter what has long existed as an exclusive masculine enclave. While entry can be facilitated through a familial relationship with a male driver, women without such connections often get their start through participation in women-only racing events. Although these races – e.g. Powder Puff, Formula Woman, and W Series – have provided women with the opportunity to enter the track, they have not been without controversy. Detractors argue that women will not be considered legitimate racers unless they compete on the same track as men. Proponents view women-only racing not only as a way to attract more women into the sport, but also as an important source of skill development, support, and community building.

This paper investigates the evolution of women-only racing, from its early introduction as a media stunt, to its current incarnation as a proving ground for serious female open wheel racers. Informed by historical documents, news articles, and personal accounts, it considers how women-only racing complicates, facilitates, and liberates women’s entry, participation, and recognition in the masculine world of motorsports.

The completed chapter was submitted, returned for revisions, then sent off to the publisher. Lives in the Fast Lane: Essays on the History and Politics of Motor Racing will be published in 2022.

The author [right] is pictured with her creative partner [center] and the actor [left]

The last project was perhaps the most fun, as everyone loves writing about themselves. ‘McCann & Me: One Woman’s Experience in Detroit Automotive Advertising’ is a recollection of the three years I spent working in the car advertising business 35 years ago. As I write in the introduction: 

Prior to my (very) late entry into academia, I spent nearly two decades in advertising, as an art director, copywriter, creative group supervisor, and eventually a Vice President. A few of those years were spent at McCann-Erickson, one of the many automotive agencies centered in metropolitan Detroit during this time. My career spanned the 1970s and 1980s, a very different era in the advertising world. It was the pre-digital age –  computers were not yet commonplace; the Internet was not yet public; photographers still used film; and MTV was in its infancy. This recollection should not be taken as representative of a universal experience; rather, it provides a glimpse into Detroit automotive agency culture during a particular moment in US automotive history.

The article was submitted, returned for revision, and accepted. It will be published in the upcoming issue of the Automotive History Review.

The COVID pandemic resulted in serious disruption in the way we all live. I was fortunate to have been able to put that time to productive use. To have three articles written, revised, and accepted for publication in one year is something of which I am very proud. As I enter my second COVID year, I have begun a new non-ethnographical and fun project. ‘Pink Power: The Barbie Car and Female Automobility’, will be presented at the June 2021 virtual PCA conference.

Name That Car

2014 Chevy Camaro 2SS/RS 

In a recent Jalopnik article, auto writer Elizabeth Blackstock expresses frustration at her inability to determine the perfect name for her soon-to-be purchased car. She lists a number of possibilities, but ultimately finds them to be lacking in one way or another. Blackstock implores her readers to come to her aid not through suggestions for her own automobile, but to provide stories of how, why, and what their own cars were named as a means of inspiration. She received a great number of responses – funny, irreverent, and personal – which suggests that car naming is a popular activity among devoted car owners.

In my research focused on female muscle car ownership, I discovered that women often name cars as a way to claim ownership and display a personal identity. As Driving Passion: The Psychology of the Car authors Marsh and Collett write, ‘naming is a particularly strong way in which to announce our attachment to something which is much more than just an object’ (13). Because the muscle car has a longstanding and engrained association with masculinity and the male driver, car naming becomes an important way for the female motorist to proclaim ‘this car is mine.’ In order to assure that ownership of a 1965 red Mustang convertible was attributed to her rather than her husband, a 47-year-old analyst attached a personalized license plate inscribed with a girly moniker on the back bumper. Car naming also allows women to call upon shared automotive qualities to project identities. A 47-year-old teacher had ‘She Devil’ air brushed prominently on both her 1989 RS and 2001 Berger SS Camaros. As she noted, ‘I get the funniest comments about that. “So is that the car or the woman?”‘ A 29-year-old New Zealand native, whose 2010 Camaro SS RS is adorned with bumble bee imagery and carries the license plate ‘Kiwi Bee,’ has taken identification with the car to a whole new level. As the automotive product manager explained, ‘I’m constantly accessorizing myself to match the car. My computer laptop bag is yellow; I have a yellow purse; my fingernails I paint yellow and put black bowties on them.’ [1]While the owner is proud to own an iconic symbol of American muscle, the name on the license plate assures that others know who she is and where she came from. 

1965 Ford Mustang

Women often name cars as a way to connect to an individual from the past, or to establish themselves firmly in the present. A classic Mustang owner often accompanied her father to his job as a mechanic when she was a girl. As she remarked, ‘I remember going into the garage where he worked, and I just loved the smell.’ After his passing, she decided to honor him and his love for cars by using his childhood nickname for her on the automobile’s personalized license plate. The 51-year-old executive director of a non-profit likes to think of herself as a ‘badass’ when behind the wheel of her 1966 Chevrolet Impala. As she exclaimed, ‘I identify my car as female; she has a name and she is a badass, too.’ Marsh and Collett claim that American drivers often use specialized license plates to draw attention to themselves. As they assert, for some drivers the vanity plate ‘serves the role of a personal testimonial, displaying the owner’s sense of humor or his ability to challenge the wits of other drivers’ (75). A 54-year-old 2014 Chevy Camaro 2SS/RS owner calls upon a vanity plate to express the identity she claims  – BANSSHE – when behind the wheel. When a 50-year-old school bus driver pulls into a car show in her Frost Blue 1968 Plymouth Barracuda with a personalized ‘princess’ vanity plate on the front, attired in an ensemble color coordinated with her car, she is not only announcing herself as the owner of the vehicle, but is suggesting she is as ‘flashy and out there’ as the car she drives.

Marsh and Collett argue that the original muscle car served as a ‘standard form of uniform’ for young men; embellishment provided the opportunity to ‘transform the vehicle into social statement”’ (93). The women in this project call upon naming and marking to identify with a category of automobile historically associated with the man behind the wheel. In doing so they make the car their own, and project a revised and reimagined image of the woman driver.

[1] ‘Bowtie’ is the common term used to refer to the Chevrolet logo.

Blackstock, Elizabeth. ‘What Did You Name Your Car?’ Jalopnik.com 3 April, 2021.

Marsh, Peter and Peter Collett. Driving Passion: The Psychology of the Car. 2nd ed. Winchester MA: Faber & Faber, Inc., 1989.