A recent article in Autoblog reported on a salary survey conducted by Automotive News regarding the average pay of car dealership employees. The headline – “What Car Dealership Employees Earn: Lots of Money” suggests that working in auto sales is a lucrative career. The article bolsters this claim with the assertion, “multiple respondents […] submitted comments noting they entered the business for the money.” While Autoblog notes that women in the profession make considerably less than male counterparts, the disparity is attributed to a problem with the survey’s methodology rather than any gender inequity within the system.
Jalopnik covered the news with a slightly different take. The article put the significance of the $74,000 pay gap into context by comparing it to the $74,580 income of an average American household. The author notes that the salary gap percentage – 66 cents to every dollar earned by a male dealer – is 17 percent less than that of women in other jobs. The article reveals that when asked, only 6.3 percent of men in dealerships surveyed believe the industry “is not welcoming to women” compared to nearly one third of female respondents. As successful car dealers put in an average of 55 hour weeks, asserts Jalopnik, “the world of car dealerships is truly the exemplary old boys’ club, rewarding long hours and grueling working conditions.” The article cites the response of a 25-year veteran in the business; as she confessed, “I have never been so disrespected and unappreciated in my life. I am mansplained to constantly by customers and coworkers.” Rather than dismiss the $74,000 pay gap as the product of questionable research methods, Jalopnik uncovers responses from the study that provide insight into conditions that influence the incredulous gender pay inequality.
In 2000, sociologist Helene Lawson authored Ladies on the Lot, a comprehensive study of 49 women who worked in car sales from 1987-1999. Although this project was conducted over a quarter-century ago, the conditions under which the women worked, and the obstacles they faced in the field, are eerily similar to those referenced in the recent Jalopnik piece. As Lawson argues, women entered the field for the same reasons as men – they were attracted to the work for the possibility of a high income; they sought car sales as a way to achieve the “American Dream.” However, once on the job the women were subject to sexual harassment, isolation from male colleagues, criticism for perceived “inadequacy,” exclusion from professional training, lack of mentoring, and admonishment for “feminine” style selling techniques rather than the male intimidation practices preferred by male colleagues. As the author notes, the expectation that they would work 12 hour days and 60 hour weeks was problematic, particularly for women with children who required child care. Male managers often positioned female dealers in the back of the sales floor with lower priced vehicles, which negatively affected commissions. Working in car sales, the author asserts, “involves long hours, high pressure, questionable ethics, no salary guarantee, and little job security” (Sacks 780). As Lawson reports, while female dealers who adapted more aggressive, ‘fast-talking’ selling techniques and sacrificed family and social life for the job were happy with the money they earned, the overwhelming majority of women in car sales wound up “chasing an elusive dream of autonomy and economic sufficiency that was just out of their grasp” (Mahar).
Despite the claim of “faulty survey methodology,” the revelation that women in automotive sales earn one third less than male peers indicates conditions that exist within the car dealership culture are disadvantageous if not inhospitable to women for a variety of reasons. While women have made inroads in many aspects of the automobile industry over the past 25 years, today’s $74,000 pay gap within the car dealership collective suggests that gender equity has a long way to go. Or as Jalopnik’s Bradley Brownell blatantly concludes, “the American dealership network system is broken and awful.”
Brownell, Bradley. “The Gender Pay Gap At Car Dealerships Is Way Worse Than The National Average.” jalopnik.com 22 Jan 2024.
Huetter, John. “Auto Retail Professionals Make Great Money — But Men Make an Average of $74,300 More.” autonews.com 20 Jan 2024.
Lawson, Helene M. Ladies on the Lot: Women, Car Sales, and the Pursuit of the American Dream. Roman & Littlefield, 2000.
Mahar, Karen Ward. “An Unbelievably Bad Deal! Women Sales Agents and Car Dealerships in America.” H-Net Reviews, 2001.
Sacks, Nancy Lee. Review of Ladies on the Lot by Helene M. in Gender and Society (Oct 2021) 779-781.
Williams, Stephen. “What Car Dealership Employees Earn: Lots of Money.” autoblog.com 23 Jan 2024.
Numerous studies on automotive preference have determined that more so than men, women put a priority on safety when choosing and operating a vehicle. Although the female driver enjoys performance, handling, and design as much as her male counterpart, the cultural expectation that women are ultimately responsible for children’s well being requires that women consider safety first in automotive choice. This focus on women as safety-conscious in automobile purchase and use has existed since the early auto age and has continued until the present time. Women were, in fact, responsible for many of the current safety features all drivers take for granted. Female engineers and designers invented or contributed to the development of turn signals, brake lights, windshield wipers, rearview mirrors, instruction manuals, and GPS. In turn, female automotive consumers prioritize safety features such as airbags, anti-lock brakes, and stability control. In a study of masculine and feminine automotive behaviors, Smart et al note that as drivers, women reported using turn signals, seat belts, and driving lights more frequently than men. As caretakers, the authors suggest, “women might be more concerned about the safety of themselves and their passengers than their male counterparts.” Women’s determined concern for safety – as inventors and consumers – has not only made them more responsible drivers than men, but has also pressured auto makers to incorporate safety features in automotive engineering and design.
Yet although women’s influence has ultimately resulted in safer vehicles, the primary benefactors of these improvements are male drivers. As an IIHS [Insurance Institute for Highway Safety] study concludes, even though crashes involving men are more severe – due to behaviors including speeding, alcohol-impairment, and drowsy driving – women are more often critically injured or killed in crashes of equal severity. As late as 2019, crash test dummies were modeled on a male body; the female crash test dummy did not exist. As Consumer Reports asserts, “that absence has set the course for four decades’ worth of car safety design, with deadly consequences” (Barry). Although the majority [71%] of crash deaths in 2017 were male, females are at greater risk of death or injury when a crash occurs. As CR reports, it is well understood in the industry that male and female bodies perform differently in crashes; however, “the vast majority of automotive safety policy and research is still designed to address the body of the so-called 50th percentile male—currently represented in crash tests by a 171- pound, 5-foot-9-inch dummy that was first standardized in the 1970s” (Barry). Although regulators requested a female dummy in the 1980s, it wasn’t until 2003 that NHTSA developed one for crash test use. However, rather than reflect the physical differences between male and female bodies, the ‘improved’ dummy was just a scaled-down version of the male model. As Consumer Reports notes, although advances in automotive safety have helped all vehicle occupants survive crashes, “decades of damning crash statistics and pleas from safety advocates have not been enough to change the rules to make vehicles safer for women” (Barry). In 2022, a group of researchers at the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute introduced a new female crash test dummy – the first to represent the average women since car crash tests were instituted over a half century ago.
This lack of attention to female bodies by auto manufacturers became tragically evident with the introduction of airbags. In the late 1990s, once the installation of airbags became compulsory, women and children were dying in low-impact collisions that shouldn’t have been fatal. As Eve Epker of Forbes notes, “the culprits were the airbags, which aimed to keep a male in the 50th percentile of height and weight in his seat – and didn’t adjust their force for a woman or a child.” Consequently, rather than keeping women and children safe, the airbags were actually leading to an increased number of fatalities in the non-adult male population. What these two examples demonstrate is that despite society’s emphasis on the importance of women as family caretakers, the auto industry continues to produce auto safety innovations that “benefit men and men only” (Epker).
Women are not only less safe when involved in crashes, but a recent report in the New York Timesreveals that women endeavoring to escape an abusive partner are often stalked and terrorized through the use of apps that remotely track and control cars. As author Kashmir Hill notes, “modern cars have been called ‘smartphones’ with wheels because they are internet-connected and have myriad methods of date collection.” Former partners with automotive access [and violent histories] can not only track the female driver but can control the vehicle’s functions. Abusers have been known to follow, stalk, and surprise their victims. Heaters and air conditioners are also remotely turned on to make the victim uncomfortable and feel as though she has lost control. Writes Hill, “domestic violence experts say that these convenience features are being weaponized in abusive relationships, and that car makers have not been willing to assist victims.” Auto manufacturers have denied responsibility for harassment and have evaded taking any kind of action, citing joint phone, car ownership, or insurance policies as impenetrable barriers. Judges have dismissed auto companies from lawsuits, often questioning the victim’s reliability. As one such official incredulously remarked, “it would be ‘onerous’ to expect car manufacturers to determine which claims of app abuse were legitimate” qtr. in Hill).
Women possess over 50% of driver’s licenses in the United States and influence nearly 85% of automobile purchases. Yet throughout automotive history, a concern for women’s safety and autonomy has been a distant second to that of the man behind the wheel. One can only hope that with the rise of women in the ranks of automotive decision makers, women’s interests and influence will be considered seriously and action will be taken to keep women out of danger when in the ‘safe haven’ of the automobile.
Barry, Keith. “The Crash Test Bias: How Male-Focused Testing Puts Female Drivers at Risk.” consumerreports.org 23 Oct 2019.
Carlier, Martha. “Number of U.S. Licensed Drivers by Gender” statista.com 14 Mar 2023.
Covington, Taylor. “Men are more confident drivers, but data shows women are safer.” thezebra.com 20 Dec 2022.
Esker, Eve. “Fasten Your Seatbelts: A Representative Female Crash Dummy is Here.” forbes.com 12 Sep 2023.
Hill, Kashmir. “Your Car is Tracking You. Abusive Partners May Be, Too.” nytimes.com 31 Dec 2023.
McElroy, Nicole Gull. “Women Buy More Cars. So Why Are the Designs So Macho?” wired.com 6 Dec 2023.
Smart, Birgit, Amanda Campbell, Barlow Soper, and Walter Buboltz, Jr. 2007. “Masculinity/Femininity and Automotive Behaviors: Emerging Knowledge for Entrepreneurs.” Journal of Business and Public Affairs 1 (2): (n.p.).
Wood, Johnny. “Can the World’s First Female Crash Test Dummy Make Driving Safer for Women?” weforum.org 7 Dec 2022.
A road trip vacation focusing on minor league ballparks in the northeastern United States brought me to an auto museum nested in an out-of-the-way place I might have never visited otherwise. The Saratoga Automobile Museum is located within the beautiful 2,500 acre Saratoga Springs State Park. Often referred to as ‘the Queen of the Spas,’ Saratoga Springs was a frequent destination for those seeking the health benefits of its mineral springs. Fittingly, the museum is housed in a 1935 neoclassical building that began its life as a health spa after which it was converted to a bottling plant before it was reformatted to hold an impressive collection of cars. The museum covers two floors of the building – the first floor is reserved for special exhibitions; the second holds two permanent collections focusing on New York’s role in the automobile industry, motor racing, and car culture.
As I have discovered while working on this project, auto museums centered in ‘place’ [as opposed to manufacturer] are very much reflective of a particular automotive culture. The Saratoga Museum is no exception. The exhibit ‘East of Detroit’ – which takes up half of the museum’s second floor, is a little bit of a snarky look at New York’s role in the early auto industry. Once home to over 100 automobile manufacturers, NY automakers of the time created hand built machines that – in contrast to Ford’s mass produced Model T – were elegant, stylish, and exuded class. The exhibit focuses on the accomplishments of a few notable NY car makers, including Pierce-Arrow of Buffalo, Franklin of Syracuse, and Lozier, manufactured in Plattsburgh.
As the New York automobile industry suffered upon the rise of mass-production, the area does not have a history of women as factory workers or consumers as do locations in southeastern Michigan and the surrounding auto centric states. Thus the only reference to women in the exhibit is in the advertising, where high society women are called upon to lend an aura of class, elegance, and refinement to the automobiles they adorn. There is a certain sense of elitism in the exhibit; i.e. New York got out of auto manufacturing before the dirty business of mass-production took over, becoming instead, a major importer of European-made cars. In fact, the museum has a very ‘European’ bent; most of the non-NY manufactured cars in the building are of non American origin.
The ‘Racing in New York State’ exhibit, which occupies the other half of the second story, expounds on the history of auto racing in New York state, which dates back to 1896. Cars of note in New York’s motorsport past and present are on display accompanied by information about the numerous races, drivers, cars, and innovations with deep ties to the state. In terms of women, New York stakes claim to drag racing legend Shirley ‘Cha Cha’ Muldowney, who got her start on the streets of Schenectady. The history of Watkins Glen, a sleepy town that emerged as an epicenter of road racing in the United States, holds a place of prominence in the exhibit.
The special exhibit on the first floor was devoted to the cars of James Bond films. Women’s relationship to the various automobiles in these locations included the predictable as well as surprising. As might be expected, the majority of featured cars served as vehicles which aided Bond in the rescue of women. In Casino Royale, for example, Bond relies on his 2006 Aston Martin DBS to give chase when Vester Lynd is kidnapped. Also included in the 1997 BMW 750LI display is a reference to the automobile’s onboard assistant which was given a female voice so that ‘Bond might pay more attention.’ Perhaps the most surprising inclusion in the collection of Bond film cars was the 1969 Mercury Cougar XR-7, owned and driven in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service by Bond’s wife Tracy Draco. In perhaps a nod to 1960s feminism, Draco ‘shows off her driving skills along treacherous, icy mountain roads’ as she helps Bond escape Blofeld’s henchmen. In a film chronology that often relies upon the automobile to reflect Bond’s daring, inventiveness, aggressiveness, and masculinity, in which women serve primarily as an impetus for the car’s use, it was somewhat striking to see the Cougar featured so prominently in the first floor display.
Just as I was leaving the museum, disappointed but not surprised in the lack of female representation, I noticed an automotive art exhibit in one of the corridors. The artist, Lyn Hiner, is an internationally recognized palette knife painter. Her auto themed work ‘attempts to capture the essence of fine cars on canvass’. Upon doing a little research, I discovered that Hiner is not only a painter of automobiles but is a bonafide car enthusiast with a special fascination for Porsches. As Hiner wrote of one of her paintings, ‘I can hear the motor as it crests the road, smell the familiar scent of leather wrapped seats and distinct oil and gas.’ More than an exhibit of intriguing automotive art, the collection of Hiner paintings suggest that women can, in fact, have a relationship with the car that goes beyond stereotypical associations of practicality and reliability. Hiner has a visceral connection to cars which is very much reflected in her work. As it turns out, the acting executive director and director of events and programs at the Saratoga Auto Museum is female and, I suspect, had some influence over the inclusion of Hiner’s work. While it can be difficult to alter the automotive inventory of a museum that depends on [mostly male] donations, Hiner’s engaging automotive art provides a unique opportunity to view women not just as symbols of elegance and class, but as auto enthusiasts in their own right as well.
This past weekend my automotive museum project took me to the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant in downtown Detroit. Constructed in 1904, the Piquette Plant was the second center of automotive production for the Ford Motor Company. From 1904 until the end of 1909, the facility assembled Ford car models B, C, F, K, N, R, S, and T [known as the Ford alphabet cars]. The most famous is the Model T, the car credited with initiating the mass use of automobiles in the United States. The Model T was initially produced [station to station assembly] at the Piquette Plant in 1908; it was subsequently mass produced when the company transferred its operations to the Highland Park Assembly Plant in 1913. After Ford vacated the Piquette building, it had a series of owners before being sold in 2000 to the Model-T Automotive Heritage Complex, Inc, which restored the plant and now operates the historic site as a museum.
Automotive museums, as I’m discovering, most often reflect the interests and inspirations of the founders. While there are many institutions devoted to a particular automotive manufacturer, the focal point of the Paquette one specific model – the Model T and the alphabet cars that preceded it. There are 60 cars of various provenance on two floors; the building also houses a reconstruction of Henry Ford’s office and provides a good deal of background on the daily operation of the factory back in the day. Many of Ford’s early automotive projects which took place at the Paquette are documented and on display.
As to be expected in a museum housed in a former automotive factory, which operated during a time when the automotive industry was owned and operated almost exclusively by white men, women’s presence as consumers, drivers, or workers is limited. However, if one looks hard enough at the various exhibits women’s influence surfaces in both stereotypical and unexpected ways.
Clara Ford, Henry’s wife, is referenced often in the museum. Perhaps most impressive is her role in the testing of what became known as the Kitchen Sink Engine Model. As Ford lore would have it, on Christmas Eve, 1893, the apparatus was placed over the sink in the Ford family kitchen while Henry worked the ignition and Clara fed gasoline into the intake valve. As noted by auto aficionado Bill McGuire, ‘when the simple, hand-built engine sputtered to life over the sink, Ford’s earliest dream was realized and his remarkable automotive career began.’ Clara is also mentioned in connection to the museum’s non Ford electric vehicle. This story, that Henry purchased the electric vehicle from an automotive competitor for his wife, is one that can be found in nearly every Ford exhibit in any museum. Of course, the question of whether Mrs. Ford actually desired the vehicle, or rather it was purchased to keep her close to home, is never answered.
Another interesting exhibit in which women are prominent is that dedicated to automotive inventor Edward ‘Spider’ Huff. Huff helped to perfect the enclosed flywheel magneto – recognized as a major advantage of the Model T over other automobiles of the time. The magnetos were assembled by a team of women in the Winding and Insulating Department, located near Huff’s office and away from the working men. This group of workers were the first women to be employed by Ford. This hidden bit of information also provides a little insight into Ford as a segregated work environment.
Other references to women include photos of women behind the wheel of Model Ts as well as operating bicycles. Tucked into a corner on the second floor is a photo of women drivers with 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.
One of the more interesting options of 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.
We arrived at the museum in time to join the last tour of the day. The tour was a bit rushed, as the facility was being set up for a wedding later that evening. While the tour guide was quite knowledgeable, he was also a bit sexist, embellishing or perhaps even fabricating stories about women’s preferences for particular automobiles. According to this gentleman, 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], its extensive use of glass [so that women could be ‘seen’], and the seats arranged in living room fashion to ease conversation. None of this was documented in the museum; I suspect it was the guide’s attempt at being ‘funny’ to a captive audience.
The Ford Piquette Avenue Plant is an interesting and historically significant building that provides a unique chapter in the history of the Ford Motor Company. It is certainly worth a visit if you find yourself in downtown Detroit.
I’ve been writing about the relationship between women in cars since first discovering the topic in graduate school nearly 15 years ago. Since that time I’ve addressed the woman-car connection in a variety of contexts. Some of my work focuses on women who participate in car cultures associated with the male driver, including muscle cars, pickup trucks, chick cars, and motorsports. Other projects speak to the representation of women’s connection to cars in popular culture locations such as film, music, and children’s toys. While literature on women’s automotive history and participation has increased since I first embarked on the topic, it tends to fall into two camps. The first is a critique of how auto manufacturers and marketers have traditionally erected obstacles to women’s full engagement with automobiles, and the second is the focus on exceptional women in automotive – women who have successfully challenged barriers to become successful in venues such the auto industry and motorsports.
In my own work, I have focused primarily on ordinary women – in popular culture as well as real life – in order to uncover the complicated, productive, positive, as well as empowering aspects of women’s relationship to cars. In each of these contexts, I attempt to reveal the potential of the automobile to enrich women’s lives. Although I often address the barriers to women’s participation in various car cultures, the major focus is on how women successfully negotiate membership in male dominated automotive spaces not to become famous, but rather to become stronger, more confident, and more powerful versions of themselves. In popular culture settings, I try to examine how cars hold special meanings for women that differ from those found in dominant male narratives. My goal in each of these projects is to give the woman driver a voice that has historically been silenced.
During this past week I came across an article in Advertising Age developed from an interview with Janique Helson, head of brand marketing at Volvo Car USA. As the article points out, Helson ‘has made combatting sexism in the automotive industry a tenant of Volvo’s marketing strategy.’ One of the ways this has been accomplished is through the unique female-friendly messaging that has made its way into Volvo advertising and promotional material since Helson took the helm in 2020. Some of these efforts include creating safety messaging that is more emotional, making a connection between feeling safe to the ability to endure challenges. Another is a collaboration with Girl Gang Garage as a means to ‘elevate, encourage, and champion women’s entry and advancement within the automotive and skilled trade industries.’ However, what was most interesting to me was a video created by Volvo last year for International Women’s Day. The recording features snippets of conversations with 26 female Volvo owners discussing the connections they have with their cars. The diverse group of women talk about the car’s ability to strengthen relationship with family members; the pride in owning something so strong and beautiful, how the car contributes to a woman’s personality and identity; how owning a Volvo can lead to a safer and cleaner environment for future generations; the ‘specialness’ of driving a vintage Volvo; how Volvo makes mothers and caretakers feel more safe; the car as an intimate space; and over a dozen other powerful vignettes that demonstrate the significance of cars to women’s lives. As Helson notes, ‘these women have this massive love for cars and the way they talk about it is very different than how men talk about their love for cars.’
As few in academia write about women and cars as a relationship that is both positive and empowering, I often feel as though I am working in a vacuum. The work Helson has overseen since her appointment as brand marketing head in many ways serves as a legitimization of my own. [On another note, it also emphasizes the importance of having a woman in a position of power within an auto company]. Although Helson operates on a much grander scale and is therefore capable of a much greater reach and influence, we are in agreement regarding the importance of providing women drivers with a platform. As Helson asserts, ‘obviously we need more women working in automotive, but we also need to put women’s stories at the front and center of how they feel about cars and how they feel about driving.’ I am grateful to Janique Helson for the impetus to continue my own exploration of women’s relationship to cars.
Schultz, E.J. “Volvo’s Marketing Head on Fixing Female Representation in Auto Ads.” Advertising Age. 3 May 2023.
In honor of International Women’s Day, the Ford Motor Company has introduced a rather unconventional marketing campaign which is creating a bit of a buzz. The 30-second commercial, narrated by Brian Cranston of Breaking Bad fame, introduces the Ford Explorer Men’s Only Edition as a completely reimagined vehicle.
Although the advertisement appears to be fairly typical, with running footage of a shiny black vehicle driving down winding roads, it soon takes an unexpected turn. For the special men’s edition is lacking a few important parts, notably windshield wipers, turn signals, a rearview mirror, brake lights, heaters, and GPS, innovations that were, in fact, developed by women. As a nod to women working in automotive industry Ford takes this opportunity to bring attention to the invisible female inventors, engineers, and designers over the past century who have made important contributions to the automobile. As the company website notes, ‘to support the campaign throughout the month, Ford will highlight the achievements and contributions of female innovators of the past and present on Ford.com and across the company’s social media accounts.’
The Ford campaign has made headlines in both the general and automotive press. The reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. Auto journalists refer to the campaign as humorous, tongue-in-cheek, and clever. Many of the articles bring attention to the women responsible for these contributions, including Hedy Lamarr, Florence Lawrence, Dorothy Levitt, Dorothee Pullinger, and Dr. Gladys West. Women in particular are charmed by the commercial, referring to it as ‘10/10 advertisement,’ ‘perfection,’ and ‘makes me even more proud to be a Ford owner.’ As a former advertising person myself, I applaud the Ford ad agency that created a commercial that is not only creative, memorable, and fun, but one that celebrates women without disparaging men.
However, not all who viewed this advertisement are pleased. The comment sections on many of the news sites are filled with complaints from those offended, with remarks that suggest the advertisement somehow threatens one’s masculinity. The posts include the unoriginal and expected ‘what is Ford doing for International Men’s Day?’, as well as many that engage in tired gender stereotypes, such as ‘the woman’s only version would only be a small pile of useless parts,’ and ‘since a man invented the internal combustion engine, I’m guessing the women’s addition [sic] would be a static display.’ Some argue that Ford got its facts wrong, with the claim, ‘all of the things mentioned were actually invented by men years before.’ Other individuals go further, admonishing the auto manufacturer for its wokeness and ‘confused’ sexual identity.
Certainly the comments reflect convoluted logic and a lack of critical thinking, investing in the notion that praising women’s achievements somehow discredits men. Yet what is most troubling in these remarks is the culture they represent. The association between masculinity and the automobile has a long and entrenched history. In the early auto age, in order to perpetuate this ‘natural’ relationship between man and his machine, it became necessity to frame women as poor drivers, mentally incompetent, and technologically ignorant. While the ‘woman driver’ stereotype was developed nearly a century ago to degrade women’s driving ability and automotive competence, the barrage of negative comments incited by a 30 second car commercial suggest such beliefs remain common among a significant [male] population nearly 100 years later. This is worrisome for an individual interested in pursuing an automotive related career. It suggests that the automotive culture remains unwelcoming to women no matter the credentials, work ethic, or job performance. It intimates that despite the efforts within the automotive industry to address the underrepresentation of women, there is still a significant group within it that considers women as less. The sexist commentary not only brings renewed attention to the incredible obstacles faced by women in the automotive industry a century ago, but reveals that in the twenty-first century, many of those barriers stubbornly remain.
Ford is to be commended for celebrating women’s automotive achievements in this clever and thought-provoking ad. It provides the opportunity for all of us who drive – men and women alike – to appreciate and respect the automotive innovations contributed by women in a historically male-dominated industry.
To the majority of folks, Jay Leno is a former stand-up comic who had a very nice 20-plus year run as host of The Tonight Show. However in automotive circles, Leno is recognized for a very different television offering. Since 2015, Leno has used his celebrity status to encourage interest in automotive history through “Jay Leno’s Garage,” the Emmy winning series in which Leno offers car reviews, automotive tips, and shares his automotive passion and expertise through his extensive and expensive collection of automobiles. Viewers to his show are treated to test drives of vehicles of every persuasion, from the common to the obscure, powerful to mundane, excessive to pedestrian. However, as noted in a recent article in The Drive, there is one automotive model that is notably absent from Leno’s car collection. Leno refuses to own a Ferrari not because of any particular automotive feature, but because of the arrogance and rudeness of Ferrari dealers. As Leno explains, “This is not an indictment of the car; it’s just that you’re spending a tremendous amount of money. You should be made to feel like a customer’”(qtd. in Tsui).
In his interview with The Drive, Leno appears incredulous that someone of his celebrity and status is treated in such a disrespectful manner by dealership personnel. As a white and [extremely] privileged male, Leno has most likely never had to deal with offensive and patronizing automotive dealers and service representatives. Although Leno is now recognized as someone extremely knowledgeable about cars, I suspect that due to his race and gender, he has been treated as a car savvy individual for most of his driving life. Therefore I find it interesting, and somewhat amusing, that Leno finds poor treatment at car dealership unconventional and surprising, particularly since rude and insolent behavior at car dealerships has been – and continues to be – an all too common experience among women drivers.
In 2014 – in an examination of women’s online car advice sites – I discussed women’s common experience at automotive dealerships, drawing particular attention to how it contrasted to that of men. As I wrote:
To the majority of car-owning women, visiting an automotive dealership or service establishment is an unpleasant, unnerving, and frustrating experience. When seeking to purchase or service an automobile, women are often subject to sexist, dismissive, and patronizing behavior from automotive personnel. Women must often tolerate unwanted invitations or inappropriate comments regarding their appearance or sexuality, are withheld crucial information due to an assumed lack of basic car buying knowledge, and are ignored or dismissed when accompanied by a male companion. Although women influence nearly 85 percent of new car sales (Muley), the experience of women at automotive dealerships differs significantly from that of male drivers. Not only are women subject to inferior treatment, but they also often wind up paying considerably more for a vehicle than a male customer (Ayres). It would seem that such insolent behavior—as detrimental to future car sales—would be discouraged in those who sell and service cars. However, its continued existence suggests it is part of a broader strategy to maintain masculine control of the auto showroom as well as to limit and contest women’s financial and automotive competence.
This inferior treatment, as I noted, is based on a number of underlying factors. The first is the longstanding association between automobiles and masculinity. The second is an outdated but ingrained automotive sales technique which has its origins in horse-trading and its tradition of male contestation.
Antiquated notions of masculinity and femininity have traditionally linked technological expertise with the male gender. During the early years of automobility, this association was effectively applied to cars. While early automotive accounts reveal a growing female curiosity in the gasoline-powered automobile, fears over what women might do with a powerful machine created anxiety among male keepers of the status quo. Consequently, attempts were made to stifle women’s interest in automobiles, often through the association of driving ability with physical strength and mechanical expertise, qualities considered lacking in the woman driver. As historian Julie Wosk remarks, “men had long been portrayed as strong and technically able, women as frail and technically incompetent, or at least unsuited to engaging in complex technical operations” (9).
In the years following World War I, industrialization threatened traditional sources of male identity. The physical strength and mechanical ability necessary for the operation and maintenance of automobiles provided a means by which men could reassert themselves as masculine. Linking automobile use to technical expertise established men as more authentic drivers and initiated the longstanding association of the automobile with masculinity. As Clay McShane notes, “when men claimed mechanical ability as a gender trait, implicitly they excluded women from automobility” (156).
The association between masculinity and automotive technology was exacerbated in the years following World War II. Male teens often engaged in hot rod or muscle car culture as a means to further their automotive education and construct themselves as masculine. Aligning masculinity with cars, mechanical proficiency, and risky driving placed young women on the margins of teenage car culture, as either passengers or “avid spectators” (Genat 47). The exclusion of women from these sites of automotive education and practice assured that automotive knowledge would remain in men’s hands. It could be argued that the computerization of the automobile in the twenty-first century has leveled the playing field, as mechanical ability is no longer a prerequisite for servicing automobiles. Yet despite the fact that auto repair personnel are more likely to be diagnosticians than mechanics, the association of technological expertise and masculinity stubbornly remains. Women often feel compelled to bring men along with them to the dealership when purchasing or servicing an automobile, not because a man is inherently more car savvy, but because his maleness is considered unquestioned evidence of automotive knowledge.
Horse-trading and its tradition of male contestation were incorporated into the bicycle and automotive trades that followed. As women were seldom actors in the horse-trading arena, they were unfamiliar with commonplace bartering methods and uncomfortable in the hyper-masculine environment in which such tactics were practiced. While women, in the twentieth century, were increasingly cast in the role of consumer, their experience as buyers was limited to that of one-price retailing. Consequently, most women were totally unequipped to participate in a car buying process that relied on aggressive bartering. Women’s discomfort was intensified by the misogynist atmosphere of the showroom, in which the negotiation process was often framed in the violent language of physical and sexual conquest. Salesmen often called upon such rhetoric to take advantage of the female car buyer, believing that keeping women drivers less informed and more easily intimidated was an effective means to guarantee higher profit margins. While the women’s movement of the 1970s, and the subsequent growth of women in the workforce, may have increased the auto industry’s awareness of women as a distinct and profitable market segment, as Gelber notes, “the message often failed to percolate down to the showroom floor” (158). Although in the twenty-first century, women make up nearly half of automobile consumers (Bird), a lack of automotive knowledge and uneasiness with negotiating techniques ensures they will be treated in much the same manner as their horse-buying counterparts of a hundred years past.
Women have become increasingly car savvy since this article was written, due in part to vigorous automotive research as well as participation on online automotive sites and forums. The rise of women in the auto industry, including an increase in the number of female auto dealers, has also somewhat weakened the association of cars and masculinity, resulting in a more comfortable and less confrontational car buying experience. But there is little doubt that bad behavior against female automotive consumers remains. Therefore, while Leno may be admired for his stance against Ferrari dealerships, he should understand that he is by no means alone. For women have been treated with disrespect not only by fancy luxury car dealers, but by salespeople of all makes and models of cars since the first Model T drove off the car lot over 100 years ago.
Note: portions of this blog are excerpted from “Women Auto Know: Automotive Knowledge, Auto Activism, and Women’s Online Car Advice”.
Ayres, Ian. “Fair Driving: Gender and Race Discrimination in Retail Car Negotiations.” Harvard Law Review 104, 4 (1991): 817–872.
Bird, Colin. “Women Buying More Cars, Favor Imports.” Cars.com 31 Mar 2011.
Gelber, Steven M. Horse Trading in the Age of Cars: Men in the Marketplace. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.
Genat, Robert. Woodward Avenue: Cruising the Legendary Strip. North Branch, MN: CarTech., 2010.
Lezotte, Chris. “Women Auto Know: Automotive Knowledge, Auto Activism, and Women’s Online Car Advice.” Feminist Media Studies (2014 ): 1-17.
McShane, Clay. Down the Asphalt Path: The Automobile and the American City. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
Muley, Miriam. “Growing the 85% Niche: Women and Women of Color.” AskPatty.com. 2008.
Tsui, Chris. “Jay Leno Won’t Buy a Ferrari Because He Hates the Dealerships.” TheDrive.com 4 Feb 2022.
Wosk, Julie. Women and the Machine: Representations from the Spinning Wheel to theElectronic Age. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003..
While working on my master’s degree at Eastern Michigan University in the early 2000s, I devised an independent study focused on my growing interest in the relationship between women and cars. What follows is one of the response papers in which I consider the appeal of non-made-in-America vehicles to female motorists. While this paper focuses on a particular period of American auto history, what is interesting is that, since this paper was written, American automakers have ceased production on small cars and sedans, conceding their manufacture to Asian and European car companies.
As I conducted research on the “chick car” last year, I discovered that the automobiles most often included in this category are foreign models. The Mini Cooper, VW Beetle, Mazda Miata and Toyota RAV4 appeal to women because they are affordable, cozy, well-designed and most important, fun to drive. Therefore, as I read Flink’s recounting of the foreign car invasion in The Automobile Age, I couldn’t help but wonder if the success of the foreign car in this country is based in part on its appeal to a segment of the car-buying public traditionally ignored by the US automotive industry. I wonder, in fact, if women’s embrace of the small, quick, comfortable and affordable foreign car is somewhat responsible for its increasing popularity, as well as for the decline of domestic vehicle sales. While it is certainly an overstatement to imply the bleak state of the US auto industry is due to its inherent patriarchy and dismissal of women’s interests, there remains enough evidence to suggest that the failure to build a car that appeals to women, in the form of a smaller, quicker, more economical and more technologically advanced vehicle, is a contributor to the industry downslide.
Automobile history tells us that US car manufacturers have traditionally designed separate models for European and Asian markets. As James Flink writes, “like most other European auto manufacturers, and in marked contrast to their American operations, Ford-Europe and GM-Europe both concentrated in the postwar decade in producing small, fuel-efficient cars” (295). The significant difference in cars built for foreign rather than domestic consumption suggests automakers responded to such variations as geography, fuel cost, road conditions and government restrictions rather than on cultural or social requirements and desires. Simply put, US automakers built small cars for foreign markets because the roads are narrow, not because the citizens want or need a smaller, more efficient automobile.
Domestic automakers built big cars for the big, wide open US highways, without taking into consideration that driving conditions do not necessarily dictate what all drivers want. Industry leaders failed to notice that many of the qualities that appeal to foreign car buyers are also attractive to female drivers. US carmakers have historically refrained from developing small cars because, as Flint remarks, “large cars are far more profitable to build than small ones” (284). Such a sentiment ignores the fact that the majority of US automobiles produced before 1990 were simply too large and cumbersome for the average woman to drive comfortably. I know that when I learned to drive, I had to place a pillow behind my back in order to engage the clutch pedal. My sister, who is even shorter than I, sat on a cushion in order to see over the car’s hood. During the 1950s, Christy Borth of the Automobile Manufacturers Association is quoted saying, “it is foolish to use two tons of automobile to transport a 105 lb blond” (Flink 283). While the Japanese may have considered the smaller stature of its citizenry when designing automobiles, American car makers systematically ignored the more diminutive half of its population as it continued to blissfully crank out big, bulky automobiles.
What Flink doesn’t mention, but which bears consideration, are the meanings associated with a “big” car. Not only is “big” associated with masculinity (today’s Ford F150 Trucks are a prime example), but also reflects America’s position of itself, the assumed “big boy” of the world. No doubt US car manufacturers think of themselves as big and male (and the Japanese, on the other hand, as small and feminine, and therefore of less value). Because the US car industry appears to have stock in the axiom “bigger is better,” American automobile manufacturers, as Flink writes, “remained convinced well into the 1960s of their invulnerability to foreign competitors in the world as well as the US market” (294).
In A Nation on Wheels, Mark Foster suggests that such arrogance prevented automakers from considering other options in automobile production. Isolated from both criticism and the real world, auto executives convinced themselves that American car manufacturers “knew all there was to know about making and marketing cars” (143). Cloistered and isolated with individuals very much like themselves, corporate automakers “were seldom exposed to those who might disagree with them, particularly within the corporation” (143). Detroit auto men seemed incapable of viewing the car industry through eyes other than their own. As Flink tells us, while American automakers continued to build one standardized product in the largest possible volume, “Europeans fashioned domestically produced products for very different national market conditions” (299). The Europeans considered the divergent needs, driving styles and economic means of its potential buyers. US auto manufacturers, on the other hand, told consumers what to buy based on their own monolithic vision. European and Asian car manufacturers attempted to appeal to a wide variety of drivers, which of course, included women. Detroit automakers continued to profess they knew what the American public wanted without bothering to ask them.
Foreign cars are often less expensive than equivalent American-made products. Such lower priced automobiles, Flink reminds us, are often “a combination of lower wages, higher labor productivity and a unique system of material controls and plant maintenance” (335). As women have lower incomes than men, the lower purchase price and maintenance costs make foreign automobiles more attractive. And as many women remain responsible for maintaining the household budget, the value of an import often prompts its purchase. Most important, however, is that European and Asian manufacturers have traditionally addressed the needs of its customer base and have offered them options.
In Trouble in the Motor City, Joe Kerr writes, “over-confident from decades of total domination of American markets, the car-makers were still building their unwieldy and antiquated products when the oil crisis hit in 1973” (135). If we consider the masculinity embedded in American car culture, represented not only by the big, unwieldy vehicles but also those who produce them, the reluctance to build a smaller and more efficient car becomes understandable. The Japanese automobile, built by and for those smaller in stature, may be considered feminine and therefore undesirable. While such characteristics may explain why the foreign car has special appeal to women, it also suggests why the US automotive industry has been so reluctant to embrace the smaller automobile. As Bayla Singer, in Automobiles and Femininity writes, “in order to classify the qualities of the automobile driver as fundamentally masculine, thus perhaps allowing even the frailest male office worker to assert his masculinity, female use of the automobile must be classified as marginal or trivial” (39). Thus the disparagement of the foreign car, which includes the category of “chick car,” stems not only from its compact size, but also from the stature of the person who drives it.
Flink, James J. The Automotive Age. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 1988.
Foster, Mark. Nation on Wheels: The Automobile Culture in American Since 1945. Belmont, CA: Thomson, Wadsworth, 2003
Kerr, Joe. “Trouble in the Motor City.” Autopia: Cars and Culture. Peter Wollen and Joe Kerr, eds. Reaktion Books, 2002. 125-138.
Singer, Bayla. “Automobiles and Femininity.”Research in Philosophy and Technology. Vol. 13, Technology and Feminism. Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press, 1993. 31-42.
While working on my master’s degree at Eastern Michigan University in the early 2000s, I devised an independent study focused on my growing interest in the relationship between women and cars. What follows is one of the response papers that addresses the problems of male automotive historians and the woman driver. Written in 1988, The Automotive Age was considered revolutionary in the field of social automotive history; however, its understanding and treatment of the female motorist left much to be desired. Three years later, Virginia Scharff made the first attempt to rectify Flint’s misconceptions in the groundbreaking Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age.
In “Gender Wars,” Clay McShane writes that in the early twentieth century, the motorcar “served as a battlefield in the wars over gender roles” (149). It is interesting, therefore, that auto historian James Flink, in his highly regarded text The Automobile Age, makes little reference to gender except in the most stereotypical of ways. Flink appears to be unaware of the effect of the automobile on gender relations; he fails to recognize how the actions of the auto industry during this time period often reconfigured and reinforced cultural gender roles that remain to this day. Flink’s failure to acknowledge this phenomenon is especially evident in his discussion of two events in early automotive history. The first is his discussion of the manufacture and marketing of the electric car; the second concerns the establishment of the Ford Motor Company’s Five Dollar Day.
Of the electric car, Flink writes, “it was especially favored by women drivers, who were concerned foremost about comfort and cleanliness […]” (10). Such a sentiment suggests the electric car was developed in order to fulfill the needs and desires of the woman driver. However, what is more likely is that the electric car was not developed as a women’s car at all, but rather, was marketed to women in order to keep them from getting behind the wheel of the faster, more powerful gasoline powered motorcar. Rather than create cars specifically for male or female consumers, automakers called upon prevailing gender ideology to create ‘natural’ markets for both the electric and gasoline-powered cars.
The gasoline-powered automobile was gendered male from the very beginning. As McShane tells us, “The changes wrought by nineteenth-century industrialization profoundly threatened many traditional sources of male identity” (151). It became necessary, therefore, for new cites of masculinity to emerge. The automobile provided the male population with such a location. The characteristics of the automobile quickly became conflated with masculinity. Not only did the early gasoline-powered motorcar require physical strength and some mechanical ability to operate, but it also provided male drivers with opportunity to exert control over a machine during a time when industrial machines monitored their factory lives. The act of driving soon became defined by qualities – aggression, control, and steady nerves – considered masculine. And it also served as a form of liberation, as men often got behind the wheel to escape occupational and familial responsibilities. As McShane suggests, “men defined the cultural implications of the new automotive technology in a way that served the needs of their gender identity” (149).
The electric car, on the other hand, symbolized that which was not masculine. It was slow, clean, easy to handle, and could not travel great distances. It did not offer the speed, power, driving range and freedom that characterized the gasoline-powered car. As the opposite of masculine, the electric car became associated with femininity, and was therefore considered especially appropriate for the female driver. While the electric car may not have been developed specifically for women drivers, the characteristics that became attached to it, labeled feminine by the automobile culture, deemed it an inappropriate vehicle for men.
While Flink suggests women desired the electric car, it is more likely that the car was marketed to women to prevent them from driving gasoline-powered automobiles and infringing on masculine territory. As Virginia Scharff writes, “Women were presumed to be too weak, timid and fastidious to want to drive noisy, smelly gasoline-powered cars” (37). Flink’s suggestion that women eagerly accepted the electric car and the gender roles that accompanied it is erroneous; the majority of women drivers were aware of the electric car’s limitations and often desired a vehicle that would go faster and farther. However, the gender ideology associated with electric and gasoline automobiles was promoted and encouraged, and soon became ingrained in the culture. The gendering of automobiles not only reinforced cultural notions of masculinity and femininity, but had a profound influence on the development and marketing of automobiles as well. As Scharff suggests, the electric starter, which made the gasoline-powered car almost as easy to drive as the electric model, would most likely have been available sooner had the auto industry been more willing to open up automobility to the female population.
Flink’s second lack of gender consciousness is also evident in his discussion of the family wage and the Five Dollar Day. Flink describes the Five Dollar Day as Ford’s boldly conceived plan “for sharing profits with his workers in advance of their being earned” (121). The Five Dollar Day doubled the going rate of pay while shortening the workday by two hours. Ford’s policy was based on the notion that a worker should earn enough to provide for his dependant wife and children. The Five Dollar Day served to establish and reinforce his conviction that the husband should be the family breadwinner, and that women’s place was in the home. Thus the Five Dollar Day not only served as a form of social control over workers and the work process, but also firmly established appropriate gender roles in both the workplace and home. As Martha May writes in “The Historical Problem of the Family Wage,” “the underlying premises of the family wage made a dependent family essential to a preferred standard and to the notion of ‘normal manhood'” (402). The exclusion of benefits from those who did not fit Ford’s concept of the “family,” i.e. married women with working husbands, served to reinforce, economically and ideologically, proper roles for women and men. The family wage ideology instituted by Ford, and the gender roles that accompany it, has survived as an important element in our culture and our economy. In The Automobile Age, Flink describes the Five Dollar Day as an example of Ford’s role as an “exemplary employer regarding monetary remuneration” (120). What Flink fails to notice, however, is that Ford’s Five Dollar Day has had a lasting impact on how men’s and women’s work is perceived.
While The Automobile Age offers a wealth of information on the automobile and car culture, Flink fails to question or analyze the role the automobile has played in establishing and reinforcing cultural gender roles.
Flink, James J. (1988). The Automobile Age. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
May, Martha. “The Historical Problem of the Family Wage: The Ford Motor Company and the Five Dollar Day.” Feminist Studies, vol. 8, no. 2, 1982, pp. 399–424.
McShane, Clay. “Gender Wars” in Down the Asphalt Path: The Automobile and the American City. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
Scharff, Virginia. Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991.
When I became a member of the board of the Society of Automotive Historians, I was assigned the task of chairing what was to be called – in the absence of a better term – the ‘Brick and Mortars’ committee. Although the SAH has been in existence for over 50 years, it never had a permanent home for its extensive book collection. In fact ovver the years, it became unclear just where those accumulated materials might be. Thanks to the perseverance and detective work of a few SAH members, it was discovered that for a number of years the annual SAH book winners [Cugnot Award] had found their way to the ACD [Auburn Cord Duesenberg] Museum in Auburn Indiana. After a Zoom meeting this past spring with members of the ACD staff, the SAH reached a tentative agreement to form a partnership with the ACD. On August 4, a few of us made the trip to Auburn – joined by a number of virtual attendees – to work out the arrangements. As Auburn is just two hours away, I was happy to make the trip, and was treated to a tour of the facilities by our very gracious and enthusiastic hosts. I look forward to the organization’s new relationship with ACD. And if you have never had the opportunity to visit the ACD museum, it is a trip every auto enthusiast should consider making.