Harriet Edquist

I first ‘met’ Harriet Edquist when presenting at Wheels Across the Pacific: Transnational Histories of the Automobile Industry, a virtual conference organized jointly by the AHA [Automotive Historians Australia] and the SAH [Society of Automotive Historians]. The objective of the symposium was to explore ways in which the Australian and North American auto industries shared parts and components, staff, expertise and skills, engineering, design and studio practices, business and management structures, and advertising and trade practices. Dr. Edquist, a professor of architectural history at RMIT [Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology] and Director of RMIT Design Archives, was both an organizer and presenter. She was also, as it turns out, an integral presence in my own paper, which focused on women’s automotive history scholarship in both the United States and Australia. As I noted in my presentation, automotive history has been slow to incorporate the influences and practices of women. It wasn’t until the later part of the twentieth century that women’s absence from the automotive archives was noticed and addressed. Feminist scholars in Britain, the US, and Australia took upon the arduous and important task of writing women into automotive history. Edquist is one of the more recent contributors to this critical chronicle of women and the automobile.

Although Edquist’s research projects focus primarily on architectural and design history, her automotive interests have broadened the scope of her scholarship to include automotive design and women’s participation in the Australian auto industry. Through her investigation of women’s automotive experience in the early decades of the twentieth century – women as drivers and mechanics; their opportunities as production workers; and as designers and engineers – Edquist has effectively built on the research of fellow Australians Kimberley Webber and Georgine Clarsen to bring attention to the various ways women have engaged with the automobile over time. “In Women in the Early Australian Automotive Industry: A Survey“, co-authored with Judith Glover, Edquist calls upon variety of sources – photographs, newspaper articles, mail correspondence, RACV archives, online resources, automotive forums, journal articles, dissertations, and automotive design archives and publications – to recover Australian women from automotive obscurity and bring attention to how they experienced automobility as workers and drivers. 

In this engrossing essay, Edquist and Glover examine women’s efforts to become recognized as legitimate drivers through long distance auto tours and participation in the growing sport of auto racing. Both automotive activities provided opportunities for women to gain proficiency not only behind the wheel, but under the hood as well. The authors cite Clarsen’s argument that the media’s fascination with female drivers ‘criss-crossing’ the continent was an important component of nation-building as well as a means to present Australia as modern and civilized. This was particularly interesting to me as an American, as women’s long distance tours in the US during this time served primarily as marketing tools for various auto manufacturers. Edquist and Glover also call upon case histories and recovered photographs to illustrate women’s participation in the car industry as production workers as well as automotive engineers and designers.

The recent work of Edquist and Glover presents new evidence of Australian women’s engagement with cars as drivers, workers, and designers. Important in its own right, the study also suggests the possibilities of further research into women’s automotive history and hopefully prompts additional investigative projects in both Australia and the United States.

The ‘First Ladies’ of Oldsmobile

R.E. Olds Transportation Museum in Lansing, Michigan

I continued my investigation of women’s representation in automotive museums by stopping by the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum in Lansing, Michigan. As I work my way through this project, I am discovering that the focus of a particular museum is most often determined by the interests and intention of its founders. While the museums I have visited thus far have been structured around either a place or a collector’s interest, the Olds Museum – like its name – is an automotive collection assembled based on a major car manufacturer and the man who lent it its name. The layout of the museum reveals its two identities: first, as a [literal] road through early Oldsmobile history, and second, as a looser collection of more recent Olds automobiles, additional REO endeavors, artifacts, related businesses and industries, and a bit of 1950s car culture. While the first section of the museum is tightly organized, the large back ‘dealership’ room is a little more hodgepodge, encompassing a wide variety of Olds, GM, Fisher Body, and tangential industry paraphernalia.

Oldsmobile Girls Club Artifacts

Because the museum is centered on a man and a car, women are not well represented. Like many of the museums I’ve visited, [visual] references to women are primarily related to fashion. There are many female mannequins placed throughout the museum garbed in the styles of a particular time related to the automobile. Other references to women include those who have donated vehicles to the collection, advertisements and promotional material, photos of [unidentified] female factory workers, and ephemera [such as employee nametags]. A glass case includes a small display of items related to the Oldsmobile Girls Club – a 1950s-60s women’s community organization – that includes photographs, programs, mugs, sewing kits, charm bracelets, vanity items, ashtrays, and a cookbook.

Metta Olds Reading Desk

While women – as workers, drivers, and club members – take a back seat to the major automotive leaders on display, there are two that are named, and thus deserve special attention. The first is Metta Olds, who was married to Ransom, popularly known as ‘R.E.’ The tour through the museum begins with a focus on the Olds family and homestead. Much of that is devoted to Metta – photos, family trees, furniture, personal items, and clothing. Metta was very much a silent partner and supporter of her husband; a book titled Loves, Lives, and Labors was written about their strong relationship and Metta’s roll as ‘woman-behind-the-man’. While, as the wife of the founder, Metta could easily be referred to as the ‘First Lady of Oldsmobile’, that title was, in fact, bestowed on Helen Earley, a longtime employee who, through a number of positions, created a position for herself as the resident Oldsmobile historian. Automotive historian Robert Tate writes that Earley, as a scholar, historian, and archivist, ‘contributed a great deal of knowledge to the automotive community.’ During her career, Earley and another retiree helped establish the Oldsmobile History Center. She also co-authored two books on Oldsmobile history: Setting the Pace: Oldsmobile’s First 100 Years written with James R. Walkinshaw, and Oldsmobile: A War Years Pictorial. Earley was also one of the founding task force members responsible for creating the R.E. Olds Museum; she also served as a board member for the National Automotive History Collection, the Library and Research Center for the Antique Automobile Club of America, and was a recipient of the prestigious James J. Bradley Award from the Society of Automotive Historians. This award recognized the ‘Outstanding contributions to the preservation of historical materials related to the automobiles produced by Oldsmobile and for the spirit of helpfulness to writers, researchers, historians and restorers’.

Despite Earley’s importance to Oldsmobile history and the museum, one has to search to find out anything about her. There is her name over the board room, a portrait on the board room wall, and a card clipped to a driving outfit on one of the displays. I finally discovered a glass case containing some photos and her self-authored obituary in a hidden away corner of the ‘dealership’ room. Although recognized as the designated ‘first lady’, Earley receives what can be described as second-class attention.

Helen Earley ‘The First Lady of Oldsmobile’

The RE Olds Transportation Museum was an interesting stop on my tour of automotive museums. While the collection focuses on a specific individual and the company he founded, women’s unique contributions to Oldsmobile can be uncovered if one looks hard enough.