Women’s Representation in Automotive Museums – Part 3

Unidentified women in Ford automobile – Ford Piquette Street Plant Museum

I am a native Detroiter, and have spent the majority of my life in car-centric southeastern Michigan. I grew up during the Golden Age of car culture, and spent part of my past life writing car commercials. Once I entered graduate school as a senior citizen, my motor city background and aging second wave feminism led me to the relationship between women and cars as a research focus. My subsequent projects have considered how women negotiate membership in historically masculine automotive spaces as well as how women’s connection to cars is represented in popular culture.

My current project centers on the representation of women in automotive museums. As a historically masculine space, I was interested in whether any effort had been made by automotive museums to integrate women into automotive history. As museums in general have slowly and often stubbornly moved toward a social history model, I was curious as to whether institutions devoted to the automobile had bought into the current museum trend or if they continued to reflect primarily male preferences and influence. As Jennifer Clark writes, ‘motor museums are conservative in style, with an influential – and overwhelmingly male dominated – collecting and visitor base’ (280). The answer to the either or question is, of course, is ‘yes’. Some museums have embraced the new direction while others have dragged their feet. Yet looking closely one can observe female influence and interaction with the automobile in most museum settings. As noted in previous blogs, female representation within the museum falls into categories which reflect women’s various roles in automobile culture. What follows are the three remaining themes I have developed in my observations of 12 automotive museums.


‘Clean, Quiet, and Easy to Operate’ – Gilmore Museum

Women as consumers and drivers are presented in museums through photographs, advertisements, and the cars on display. Much attention is given to the connection between women and electric cars; electrics were advertised as appropriate for women for their cleanliness, quiet, and ease of operation. More than one museum mentions that Henry Ford purchased an electric for his wife Clara – whether Mrs Ford actually preferred the electric or it was acquired to keep her close to home is hard to say. However, the Piquette also features photographs of women driving the gasoline-powered Model T, which suggests women may, in fact, preferred the power and range such a vehicle provided. One of these photographs includes a caption that notes that, although women were routinely ignored by the auto industry, Ford recognized them as an important market for reliable, inexpensive cars. 

Nash advertisement – Wisconsin Automotive Museum

Women’s role as consumer is most evident through the promotional materials displayed at almost every museum I visited. Exhibits at the Wisconsin museum, for example, include post war advertising which features women as Nash consumers, test driving automobiles, and speaking with car dealers. At the Henry Ford, which focuses on car culture rather than particular automobiles, women are very much present as consumers, drivers, workers, and influencers. They are introduced as early proponents of bicycles and the Model T as well as the minivan. They are represented in promotions about style, design, and safety. Women’s changing roles in advertising – as objects, symbols, moms, and adventurers are also addressed.


Clara & Henry Ford – Ford Piquette Street Plant Museum

Women – as individuals who make things happen –  was an understated but underlying theme in many of the automotive displays. Wives of industry innovators – including Clara Ford and Bertha Benz – were often silent but important partners and contributors to their spouses’ success. Clara Ford worked with her husband on what was to be known as the ‘Kitchen Sink Engine Model’ as she helped with its testing in the Ford family kitchen. Bertha Benz not only invested her inheritance in her husband’s business, but through her cross country trip, brought the Benz-Patent Motorwagen worldwide attention and got the company its first sales. The tour of the RE Olds Transportation Museum begins with a focus on the Olds family and homestead. Much of that is devoted to Metta Olds, the wife of the company founder. The artifacts on display –  photos, family trees, furniture, personal items, clothing, and a book focused on the couple suggests that Metta was very much a silent partner and supporter of her husband and his business. While ‘the woman behind the man’ is somewhat of a cliché, the attention to wives of industry founders within multiple museums suggest they were significant contributors to early automotive history.

Emergency Brigade Picket Line – Sloan Museum of Discovery

Women who served the automotive industry in other capacities were also acknowledged. The Sloan Museum recognizes women’s important role as members of the Emergency Brigade during the 1936 General Motors Sit-Down Strike. As noted in Jalopnik, a popular automotive site, ‘Many think of factory work, and therefore a strike in the automotive industry, as something primarily men would do. But it was the members of the Women’s Emergency Brigade, a paramilitary group of women inside the United Auto Workers union, who proved to be the secret weapon in that group’s triumph over General Motors.’

While not as prominent as the mostly male movers and shakers of the automotive industry, women on the sidelines often created important roles for themselves, as influencers and agents of change in the home, on the factory floor, and on the picket line.


Carriage to Cars Exhibit – Sloan Museum of Discovery

Transportation museums often honor those responsible for the preservation, maintenance, and promotion of automotive history. Women have served in these roles; their contributions are found in glass cases, museum walls, and foundations and positions bearing their names. The Dunning Carriage to Cars Exhibit in the Sloan is funded by the Margaret Dunning Foundation. Dunning, known for her love of classic cars, established the foundation to nurture the preservation and teaching of automotive history for all Sloan visitors, but in particular for residents of the county in which the Sloan resides. The exhibit is an important component of the museum’s interactive History Gallery, which intertwines local automotive history with stories of Flint life, employment, neighborhoods, schools, housing, and tourism. Helen Earley, the First Lady of Oldsmobile, was a long time RE Olds Museum employee who created a position for herself as the resident Oldsmobile historian. As a scholar, historian, and archivist, Earley established the Oldsmobile History Center and co-authored two books on Oldsmobile history. The museum ‘board room’ bears her name and her likeness; further information is contained in a glass case hidden holding a few photos and a self-authored obituary.

Many of the museums I visited – Automotive Hall of Fame, Saratoga Automotive Museum, the Henry Ford, Wisconsin Automotive Museum, RE Olds Transportation Museum, Stahl’s Automotive Foundation Museum, to name a few – have installed women as directors, managers, trustees, and other decision-making positions. This is a hopeful sign that continued efforts will be made to incorporate and include the contributions of women – as drivers, consumers, workers, and influencers – into the annals of automotive history.

Saratoga Automotive Museum Officers

The categories provided here represent my initial observations on the representation of women in automotive museums; as I delve deeper I will certainly uncover more. What this examination has uncovered is not only that women are vastly underrepresented in these locations, but that women have, in fact, contributed to automotive history in varied and important ways. As Knibb writes, ‘the absence of women’s history from the permanent galleries of a museum does not necessarily mean that the museums’ collection is weak in objects relating to women’s lives.’

Automotive history has been long been documented as an account of powerful men and male machines. Because women’s relationship to the automobile differs from that of men, and because women are most likely to be judged against male achievements, women’s history with automobiles has been considered less legitimate; consequently, it is less likely to be recorded. As I hope to demonstrate in this project, automotive museums, as collections of objects and artifacts related to the motor car and its industries, provide an important, if not imperfect, resource for the recovering of women in automotive history.

Clark, Jennifer. ‘Peopling the Public History of Motoring: Men, Machines, and Museums.’ Curator The Museum Journal Vol 56 Number 2, April 2013, 279-287.

Knibb, Helen. ‘Present but Not Visible’: Searching for Women’s History in Museum Collections.’ Gender & History Vol 6 No 3, November 1994, 352-369.

Marquis, Erin. “‘Women That Would Gladly Give Their Life’: How The Paramilitary Women’s Emergency Brigade Battled GM At The UAW’s First Big Strike.” Jalopnik 9 Oct 2023

Women’s Representation in Automotive Museums – Part 2

As someone who has been immersed in car culture from a young age, I have visited a fair number of automotive museums. However as I became increasingly focused on the women-car relationship in my research, my car museum experiences became more analytical, particularly when considered through the lens of gender. As I made my way through the rows and rows of automobiles, and numerous historical displays that poured accolades on the great white men of the automotive industry, I continually asked myself, ‘where are the women?’ This question served as the impetus for my current project: an examination of women’s representation in museums devoted to the automobile.

Women as symbols of safety – Sloan Museum of Discovery

Women are almost absent from the motoring story presented in museums. As Jennifer Clark writes, ‘the motor vehicle is still seen as an object of male interest and is mostly displayed with that perspective foremost’ (286). Yet the reason for this absence is not due to lack of female automotive participation but rather the value placed on women’s automotive roles by male automotive institutions. Women’s relationship with cars, and female participation in car culture, differs considerably from that of men. Because of that difference, women’s engagement with cars – more social than technical – is regarded as less worthy of attention by the male museum establishment. As Clark argues, ‘women need to be rediscovered in the motoring story – and with them, the stories of families, holidays, personal independence, social and economic change’ (286). The themes I developed in this project draw attention to the numerous and varied roles women have occupied throughout automotive history. While I considered both the exceptional and famous women in a previous blog, there are other roles that emerged from my examination of a dozen museums that are of equal, if not greater, significance.

Patti’s Met – Antique Automobile Club of America Museum


The automobiles which line the halls of car museums are often accompanied by placards that provide information on the model, year, and the donor. Often these cards are accompanied by a bit of history regarding the individual who owned the car and how the vehicle arrived at the museum. While the number of cars donated by women is small, the stories they tell reveal women’s relationships, driving histories, and love of automobiles. A 1940 Mercury on display at the AACA museum was donated by the owner’s daughter, who wrote, ‘This car is special to me because it was part of my father’s collection that he loved so much.’ A Berkshire Green and white 1961 Nash was a surprise Christmas present for a woman who had expressed admiration for Metropolitans while at a car show. The restored vehicle sports a front license plate with the words ‘Patti’s Met.’ A bright blue 1950 Nash Statesman Super Airflyte at the Wisconsin museum was purchased by a woman with the goal of learning to drive. Despite the woman’s good intentions, however, that never came to pass; the car sits on the museum floor with just 61 original miles.

While narratives regarding men and their machines are commonplace, the stories that accompany vehicles call attention to the hidden relationships forged between women and their cars. Whether a connection to an absent parent, fulfillment of a lifelong dream, or a project of good intentions, the origin stories suggest there is are histories of women’s automotive interest and love for cars worth investigating.


Promotional postcard – Wisconsin Automotive Museum

Much of women’s presence in automotive museums is found in advertising and promotional materials. Luxury brands in particular often relied on female imagery to lend sophistication, glamor, and elegance to their automobiles. Using female imagery to sell automobiles is a long standing practice; as evidenced by museum materials such selling tactics began as soon as women took the wheel. Women in early automotive advertising were also called upon to demonstrate qualities of the automobile believed to be important to the female driver, especially cleanliness, quiet, safety, and ease of operation. The Wisconsin Automotive Museum includes a selection of postcards that conflate female characteristics with the 1913 Kissel. Accompanying photos of winsome women employ headlines such as  ‘They are good to look at’ to entice potential Kissel buyers.

The museums also call upon larger than life photographs of women as backdrops to the automobiles on display. These images are often accompanied by mannequins costumed in the latest fashion. Such imagery not only provides a historical context for the vehicle, but also equates the physical automobile with a certain level of success and class.

Women as symbols – Gilmore Car Museum


Stereotypes of the woman driver have existed since women first got behind the wheel of the automobile. Not only has women’s driving behavior served as a source of criticism and humor, but women have also been sexualized as a means to sell product. Items in the museums often reflect the stereotypical ways women have been portrayed throughout automotive history. This is most evident in advertising, where women – due to their presumed lack of automotive acumen – are called upon to promote easy-to-operate vehicles, directed toward family rather than performance cars [because women’s place is in the home], and have bodies called upon as promotional tools. Women driver stereotypes, as it turns outs, are also reflected in the naming of particular automotive features. One of the more interesting options on some of the early Fords was the ‘mother-in-law’ seat, a fold-down, single-person rumble seat in the rear. The commonly used term for this feature no doubt reflects some of the ‘back seat driver’ stereotypes of the time. Such automotive features were also a part of museum tours. For example, according to a [male] guide at the Piquette Plant, women were attracted to the 1907 Model R Runabout for its extensive ‘bling’; to the 1911 Brush Runabout for its easy ride and affordability; and the electric car for its high roof [to accommodate women’s hats], and its extensive use of glass [so that women could be ‘seen’]. While the majority of museum references to women were positive, the negative representations demonstrate that stereotypes regarding women and cars have, and continue, to exist.

Mother-in-law seat – Ford Piquette Avenue Plant Museum

While these categories offer new ways to consider women’s role in automotive history, they are only a few of the many I was able to discern from the ‘almost absent’ museum artifacts. What these and other roles suggest is that women’s contributions to automotive history and car culture are greater and more varied than previously imagined.  

Clark, Jennifer. ‘Peopling the Public History of Motoring: Men, Machines, and Museums.’ Curator The Museum Journal Vol 56 Number 2, April 2013, 279-287.