In early September, 2023 Amelia Earhart was once again in the news. However, it had nothing to do with her flying prowess or her unsolved disappearance over the Atlantic in 1937. Rather, it had to do with a certain 1937 Cord 812 Phaeton convertible that was owned by Earhart, lost, rediscovered, and put on display for a week during the annual ‘Cars at the Capital’ exhibition in Washington DC. As it turns out, while Earhart is known for her way around an airplane, she was also an avid enthusiast of exceptional automobiles.
The unique Palm Beach Tan Cord convertible that made its way to the National Mall is just one of the many automobiles connected to the celebrated pilot. It became famous in a 1936 photograph, parked in front of Earhart’s Lockheed 10E Electra, the airplane she would take on her final flight. The Phaeton was produced by the Cord Automobile division of the Auburn Automobile Company and introduced at the 1935 New York Auto Show to great acclaim. It has been suggested that Earhart was drawn to the Phaeton not only for its style, luxury, streamlined airplane design, and innovative engineering, but also for its impressive performance capabilities. Earhart’s desire for adventure, not to mention her love of power and speed, was reflected in her many transportation choices.
I first learned of the 1937 Cord while visiting the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum in Auburn, Indiana. While the museum does not have a 1937 Phaeton on display, the famous photo of Earhart and the car is part of a video exhibit assembled to honor the marketing genius and business savvy of company founder Ernest Lobban [E.L] Cord. Although Earhart’s cars are absent, there are other references to the pilot in the ACDM. Information accompanying a 1932 Auburn 12-160A Coupe in the museum places the vehicle into context – ‘this year in history’ – by citing Earhart’s solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean. As I discovered during my recent visits to automotive museums throughout the Midwest, Earhart’s fame, as well as her fascination with cars, is often summoned to bring attention to a particular automotive manufacturer or model as well as to invoke a significant moment or event in automotive history.
The Wisconsin Automotive Museum in Hartford, Wisconsin, includes newspaper clippings of the famous aviator driving a Kissel Gold Bug Speedster, which Earhart often referred to as the ‘Yellow Peril.’ Legend has it that, finding the idea of a cross country train trip boring, Earhart purchased the car to travel from California to Boston with her mother in tow. The yellow car was no doubt an attention-getter as Earhart made her way across the country collecting tourist stickers and enthusiastic fans along the way. As Earhart remarked, ‘the fact that my roadster was a cheerful canary color may have caused some excitement’ (Forney). The Kissel Kar Company, a manufacturer of cars and trucks from 1906-1931, was founded in Wisconsin; the Kissel family was instrumental in the development and maintenance of the museum. While the original car is located in the Forney Museum of Transportation in Denver, Colorado, the Wisconsin Museum does have a similar vehicle on display. The Gold Bug was a popular choice among celebrities of the time. As a Wisconsin-based manufacturer, Kissel made use of the connections to famous individuals, including Amelia Earhart, to bring attention to its line of popular sports vehicles.
The Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and the Stahls Automotive Collection in New Baltimore, Michigan each exhibit promotional material focused on Earhart’s connection to the Hudson Motor Car Company’s aviation-themed Terraplane brand. The Detroit auto manufacturer called upon Earhart’s celebrity and aviation know-how to introduce its latest offering in 1932. The news articles featured at both museums show Earhart at the Hudson plant christening the first Terraplane off the assembly line with a bottle of champagne. Earhart’s association with the Hudson Terraplane continued for the life of the brand; photos of Earhart with various models appeared in a variety of publicity releases, often accompanied by Terraplane’s tagline: ‘On the sea that’s aquaplaning, in the air that’s aeroplaning, but on the land, in the traffic, on the hills, hot diggity dog, that’s Terraplanning!’ The Ypsilanti museum features a Hudson Terraplane in its exhibit; Stahl’s does not, suggesting that the mention of Earhart in association with an automobile is often reason enough for the aviation pioneer’s inclusion.
Earhart was also called upon to promote the Autoped, a lightweight vehicle marketed as fitting the needs of women while offering them a taste of freedom. Promotional materials included the claim that Earhart often relied upon her Autoped for commuting and working.
The inclusion of Amelia Earhart in museums devoted to the automobile, with or without a vehicle, suggests a number of things. First, it recognizes the importance of celebrity – particularly a high-profile individual with a recognized automotive interest – in automotive advertising and marketing. However, I also believe that, due to the overwhelming male domination of the auto industry since its inception, any connection to women in relation to the automobile is worth considering. The majority of auto museums I have visited appeared to have made a conscious effort to represent women in the exhibits, even when that connection is somewhat tenuous. However, while the incorporation of high-profile women such as Earhart in museums devoted to the automobile is admirable, I believe the inclusion of ordinary women, as important automotive consumers, drivers, and influencers, needs to be considered as well.
Earlier this week I was fortunate to attend the second annual Women in Motorsports event co-hosted by the Automotive Hall of Fame and WIMNA [Women in Motorsports North America]. There was a large group in attendance composed of women and men in the industry, aspiring female racers, sponsor representatives, and folks like me who were curious to hear about the current state of women’s motorsports. The evening was divided into three segments: the first was a screening of a new documentary – Undaunted– that focuses on the career of racer Paula Murphy; the second was a panel composed of women involved in racing in some capacity, including the legendary Lyn St. James; the third included the producers of Undaunted in a question and answer session. The evening was capped by refreshments and the opportunity for those in attendance to network with fellow female motorsports enthusiasts.
Undaunted was produced by the same team that released Boundless – a documentary about racer Betty Skelton – in 2022. As Pam Miller, one of those involved in both films, explained, the goal in these documentary projects is to tell stories of women who had been erased from motorsports history. Paula Murphy’s story, for example, is a fascinating one. Referred to as the ‘Women’s Lib Pioneer’ in the LA Times, the ‘World’s Fastest Woman’ in the west coast motorsports world, and ‘Miss STP’ on the racing circuit, Murphy took every opportunity available to further her racing career. From the late 1950s to the early 1970s, Murphy made important connections which allowed her to drive a variety of cars in multiple motorsports events on all sorts of tracks and racing conditions. Interviewed for the project at 94 years of age, Murphy’s personal observations and eye-opening revelation brought the documentary to life.
The panel composed of automotive and motorsports industry women offered both insight and advice to those interested in a motorsports career. Lisa Boggs, who leads motorsport marketing and sponsorship activities for Firestone Racing, encouraged those with motorsports goals to ‘always raise your hand’ and do what others don’t want to do. Katie Henninger, a 15-year-old racing phenom, advised young racers to take as many opportunities as possible and to be patient in achieving goals. A common theme among the panelists was the importance of building networks as means to contacts, self-promotion, and opportunities as well as to be a good member of that network. Strategies to deal with the dominant male environment of motorsports at every level was also part of the discussion. It was noted that many men in motorsports have a fear of replacement; i.e. their spots will be taken over by women. As Beth Paretta, director of Grace Autosport, succinctly expressed, ‘I don’t want your seat at the table. I want a longer table.’ The female panelists also noted the importance of reclaiming the good ole boys network to women in motorsports; i.e. supporting and promoting each other rather than have a singular focus on oneself. Lyn St James, who developed WIMNA as a means to support opportunities for women in all aspects of motorsports, emphasized the importance of looking for individuals with mentorship mentality to help grow women’s involvement in the motorsports arena.
The Second Annual Women in Motorsports at the Automotive Hall of Fame event endeavored to highlight, celebrate, connect, and inspire the next generation of female motorsports participants. Based on the reaction from the enthusiastic audience, the project is off to a promising start.
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.
Since the beginning of the auto age, women’s driving has been subject to both restriction and ridicule. In the early twentieth century, when the gasoline-powered automobile made its debut, female motorists were purposefully and insistently directed toward the electric vehicle. While its cleanliness and ease of handling were promoted as perfect for the woman driver, the electric car’s lack of power and range assured that the lady behind the wheel never ventured too far from home. Such efforts to constrict women’s driving were based on the fear that the freedom and opportunity automobility promised would lead to the abandonment of women’s traditional gender roles.
Once women dismissed the electric in favor of the faster, more powerful gasoline driven automobile, the female motorist became a subject of ridicule in the popular press. In an attempt to curtail and question women’s driving ability, the stereotype of women as too weak, nervous, mechanically inept, and distracted to safely and effectively handle an automobile was indelibly instituted into American folklore. As Michael Berger writes, ‘The development and support of a stereotype likely to limit the number of women on the road and the mileage they drove, together with the folklore that accompanied it, were reasonable developments from the perspective of those who sought to minimize the impact of the automobile as a vehicle for the liberation of women’ (259). A century later, women’s driving skills continue to be denigrated through the recirculation of women driver stereotypes. And women drivers continue to be directed toward safe, spacious, and reliable vehicles that fulfill the role of wife and mother rather than to the rugged, powerful, and performance driven vehicles typically marketed to men.
However, while efforts to constrain women to gender-appropriate vehicles continue well into the twenty-first century, there have been periods within the past 100 years in which such restrictions have been temporarily lifted. And that is during periods of war. During the two World Wars, women from the US and abroad were called on to take jobs not only in home town factories producing munitions, building ships, and airplanes, but also overseas as drivers of fire engines, trucks, buses, jeeps, and ambulances. They delivered medical supplies, transported patients to hospitals, and drove through artillery fire to retrieve the wounded. Suddenly, the weak, incapable, and timid women – as described in the ubiquitous stereotype – were deemed eminently suitable if not necessary to carry on the transportation needs of countries at war.
Women who could not only drive but also work on vehicles were especially valuable. Many mechanically-inclined women left domestic chores behind to serve their respective countries through the maintenance and repair of wartime trucks and jeeps. Perhaps the most famous of these volunteers was the late Queen Elizabeth II. Dubbed the ‘gearhead monarch’ by a few automotive writers, the young Princess ‘donned a uniform and learned not only how to drive heavy trucks for the war effort but also how to wrench on them’ (Strohl). At the age of 18, Elizabeth joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service, a branch of the British Army as a second subaltern, eventually earning a promotion to Junior Commander. She was, in fact, the first woman from the royal family to serve in the military. As part of her training, the young Elizabeth had to pass a driving test, learn to read maps, and take instruction in vehicle repair and maintenance. Dubbed ‘Princess Auto Mechanic’ by the British Press, Elizabeth took her military roll seriously, driving army ambulances and learning to repair heavy trucks on the battlefield. Her wartime experience led to a lifelong love of trucks [particularly Land Rovers] and driving; she reluctantly gave up driving public roads in 2019 at the sprite age of 93. [Here’s a video of the Queen behind the wheel on the royal estate.]
Although discouraged from engaging in men’s work after the war, there can be little doubt that many of those women who fulfilled similar wartime roles as the ‘Princess Auto Mechanic’ emerged with a sense of purpose as well as a newfound confidence in themselves and their capabilities. As historian Kathryn Atwood writes, ‘[…] most of these women – the famous and the obscure – had one thing in common: they did not think of themselves as heroes. They followed their consciences, saw something that needed to be done, and they did it.’ Despite a century of attempts by auto manufacturers, marketers, and the media to restrict and demean women’s driving, women have demonstrated time and time again that they are not only capable if not exceptional drivers, but when called upon can draw upon inherent mechanical and driving skills in the service of their countries as well as to serve and empower themselves.
Atwood, Kathryn. Women Heroes of World War II: 32 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue. Chicago: Chicago Review Press (2019).
Berger, Michael. ‘Women Drivers!: The Emergence of Folklore and Stereotypic Opinions Concerning Feminine Automotive Behavior.’ Women’s Studies International Forum 9.3 (1986): 257-263.
Strohl, Daniel. ‘United Kingdom’s First Truck-Driving Queen Dies at 96.’ hemmings.com
I was recently asked to submit a chapter on women and motorsports to include in an upcoming collection of essays on motorsports history. As the subject is quite broad, I chose to focus on women-only racing. What follows is an excerpt from the upcoming ‘From Powder Puff to W Series: the Evolution of Women’s Only Racing’ from Life in the Fast Lane: Essays on the History and Politics of Motor Racing. This particular extract addresses the W Series, the most recent, prominent, and perhaps most promising women-only racing series.
In the early 2000s, the women’s racing series emerged as an alternative all-female racing concept, created to address the lack of women in the higher echelons of motorsport by providing more openings for more women to develop the skills and experience necessary to move on to the next level. While earlier attempts at the women’s racing series met with varying degrees of success, the most recent and most promising format is the W Series, which just completed its second successful season.
The W Series was introduced in October 2018 as “a unique ground-breaking free-to-enter single-seater motor racing series for women drivers only” (W Series). The all-female Formula 3 championship series was conceived to promote female drivers into Formula One. The W Series objective, notes organizer Catherine Bond Muir, is not only to provide top notch racing for spectators and viewers on a global scale, but also to “equip its drivers with the experience and expertise with which they may progress their careers.”
In its inaugural season, 18 drivers representing 13 countries – chosen from nearly 100 of the top female drivers across the globe – participated in six races at some of Europe’s premier Formula 1 racing venues. Prior to taking the wheel, the women were required to participate in rigorous training programs centered on driving techniques, simulator exposure, technical engineering approaches, fitness, and media, conducted by instructors with Formula 1 experience. Efforts were taken to address the inequalities that plague many of the world’s premier racing series. Drivers were not expected to attain sponsorships in order to participate nor to shoulder any of the financial responsibilities; rather, all expenses were covered by the series organization. The women competed in identical series-owned Tatuus T-318 Formula 3 cars rotated after each race to remove any hardware advantage from the competition. Not only was the series free to enter for all its drivers, but awarded significant prize money [total of $1,500,000 US] all the way through to 18th place in the final standings.
The 2019 series was a modest success; it experienced an increase in viewer interest and ratings after each race. By the end of the first season, the W Series was being broadcast in over 50 countries reaching up to 350 million households. The first W Series champion – Britain’s Jamie Chadwick – took home a $500,000 prize and was subsequently named as a development driver for the Williams Formula 1 Team. At the end of the season it was announced that in 2020, the top eight drivers in the championship would collect points toward an FIA Super License, an important entryway into Formula 1.
The COVID pandemic cancelled the 2020 W Series. However, it was announced that as part of a new partnership with Formula 1, the W Series would be on the support bill for eight Grands Prix in 2021. The partnership not only lends legitimacy to the all-female series, but further underscores the W Series’ role in the preparation and promotion of female racers into the upper tiers of motorsport.
The 2021 season came to a close in October, with Jamie Chadwick once again finishing at the top of a very impressive group of drivers. However, despite the growing success of the racing series, there remains a bit of controversy not over the W Series itself, but the role it plays – or not – in the development and promotion of female drivers. W Series entered the racing arena under a cloud of controversy with much to prove. Not everyone – the media, racing organizations, race promoters, and the women themselves – was convinced a woman-only series was a step forward for female racers. W Series opponents argued that since motorsports is one of the few competitions in which women can compete directly with men, female racers should take every opportunity to do so. As male accomplishment is the barometer by which success in any field is most often measured, choosing to compete against women may be considered a sign of weakness, cowardice, or ineptitude. Other objections focused on the prize money offered to female competitors, arguing that the considerable monetary awards could be better distributed. When the W Series was announced, veteran driver Pippa Mann asserted, “I strongly believe, in the firmest possible terms, that this money should be spent helping field those same racers in real cars, in real series, in non-segregated competition” (qtd in Hall).
The debate surrounding the W Series echoes that which has accompanied most configurations of female motorsport since Powder Puffs first entered the racing arena. For much of its existence, women’s racing has been constructed as a frivolous and inconsequential sideshow, a trivial endeavor, a catwalk of second-rate drivers in pink racing suits. Although women’s racing has come into its own in the twenty-first century, it cannot completely escape such long-standing and disparaging associations. It is not surprising, therefore, that many choose to dismiss all-female racing as way to distance themselves from these pervasive and sexist stereotypical representations. Secondly, throughout automotive history, women have been portrayed as inferior drivers. In the early auto age, writes automotive scholar Virginia Scharff, “critics of women drivers […] cited three presumed sources of women’s inferiority at the wheel: emotional instability, physical weakness, and intellectual deficiencies” (26). These assumed biological, gender-induced character deficits have carried over into motorsports, where women are considered less able to perform in a competitive field, or, as Pflugfelder writes, are thought of as “something less than a driver” (417). To be female in segregated racing such as the W Series, therefore, carries the stigma of inferior and ‘less than.’ To prove oneself as legitimate, some contend, it is imperative to compete against men. As Straus asserts, “I didn’t become a race car driver to be the ‘best woman out there’” (qtd in Gilboy).
W Series organizers and promotors have countered criticism by focusing on the increased possibilities such a series offers for female racers. W Series leaders argue this can be accomplished through the reduction of obstacles that hamper women throughout the tiered racing system, the elimination of individual financial responsibility, and the establishment of programs that encourage women’s motorsports involvement at a young age.
Throughout motorsports history, the lack of opportunities for women has greatly limited their participation. A series without men opens up significantly more racing possibilities for female racers. More women racing in high-profile, high-performance events will lead to the normalization of women’s motorsport participation. More women on the track will lead to increased media coverage and publicity, bringing the world of motorsports to new, younger, and female audiences. If women’s racing becomes normalized, young girls are more likely to develop an interest, and more parents may consider karting – the predominately male entryway into motorsports – for their racing-obsessed daughters.
In a recent interview, Chadwick addresses the criticism often directed at women’s racing in general and the W Series in particular. Her repeated success in the W Series has led the media to position Chadwick as a model of women in motorsports, a weight she does not take lightly. As she explained, ‘What [the W Series] does is give massive visibility and exposure to women in motorsport, giving us the opportunity to be racing at such a high level. […] Without W Series, there’s a handful of drivers that wouldn’t have that opportunity. […] And to be completely honest, I think I would have struggled to see my career progress […] without W Series because I think the season’s racing helps for sure” (Southwell).
W Series organizer Catherine Bond Muir notes, “Women in motorsport are something of a rarity today, but with W Series as a catalyst, we hope to transform the diversity of the sport—and perhaps even encourage more girls into professions they had not previously considered. That will mean as much to us as helping develop a female Formula 1 world champion” (qtd in Gilboy).
Gilboy, J. (2018a) ‘W Series: Everything to Know About the Women-Only Racing Championship’, The Drive. 13 Oct.
Hall, S. (2019) ‘3 reasons we should be paying attention to the W Series’, Autoweek, 3 Jul.
Pflugfelder, E. (2009) ‘Something less than a driver: toward an understanding of gendered bodies in motorsport’, Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 33(4) pp. 411-426.
Scharff, V. (1991). Taking the wheel: women and the coming of the motor age. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
Southwell, H. (2021). ‘Jamie Chadwick Feels the Weight of Representing Women in Motorsport.’ The Drive, 23 Oct.
W Series (2020) ‘W Series: a game changer.’ 6, Feb.
I was recently asked to submit a chapter on women and motorsports to include in an upcoming collection of essays on motorsports history. As the subject is quite broad, I chose to focus on women-only racing. What follows is an excerpt from ‘From Powder Puff to W Series: the Evolution of Women’s Only Racing’ from Life in the Fast Lane: Essays on the History and Politics of Motor Racing [manuscript in press].
Over the past 70 years, ‘powder puff’ has served as an umbrella term to describe women-only competitions in sports – football the most notable example – traditionally associated with male athletes. In motorsports, the phrase most often refers to contests performed in a variety of venues and vehicles in which women compete separately from men. The use of powder puff to describe ladies-only auto races appears to have its origins in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Small town newspapers, reporting results from the local racetrack, would call upon the term to qualify and single out women’s participation.The special ladies races were created to address a number of concerns. Women who accompanied boyfriends or husbands to the track often had little to do once arriving but watch and wait. In the masculine world of motorsports, women served primarily as uniform washers, picnic lunch makers, and cheerleaders to their male companions. Or they might be assigned to [unpaid] duties as ticket takers, award presenters, or disc jockeys who changed music between races. Given that race officials often treated women as ‘less important than the cars in attendance,’ it is not surprising that female interest in the race experience soon began to wane (Cabatingan, 2013).
Race promotors – fearful women’s lack of enthusiasm would keep boyfriends and husbands from bringing cars to the track – saw an opportunity to keep the women occupied and in the process, increase the gate. Girlfriends and wives were encouraged to ‘borrow’ cars from male companions and race against each other as a special attraction. On most tracks, the races were often more spectacle than serious competition. Auto writer Standbridge (1988, p. 77) recalls, ‘the women also had to participate in a “Gong Show” type agenda. […] they might have to run so many laps, stop to eat a piece of watermelon, run up into the stands and kiss the man of their choice, then resume the race. Or stop after so many laps to wrestle with a greased pig.’ Powder Puff, notes Cabatingan (2013), ‘were the type of events in which women were treated as less significant and where the men would kindly lend their race cars to women for just a few laps around the track. Clearly, women competitors were not taken very seriously.’
Powder Puff events also served to appease male egos under a pretense of gender equality. While many women desired to test their skills by competing against male drivers, procedures in place often made it impossible to do so. Of women’s SCCA races, contest board representative Ignazio Lozana Jr (qtd in Hull, 1958, p. 104) explained, ‘very few of our women drivers have a car to drive during the men’s races, since they are usually being driven by a man in those events. Should we discontinue the ladies’ races, it would mean we would have at the most two or three women drivers in our program, whereas in the ladies’ races we have had as many as 25 starters.’ While the explanation suggests ladies races were implemented to increase female participation, retaining men’s interest and involvement in racing was no doubt a greater concern.
Powder Puff participants often had very little driving experience, but were encouraged to get behind the wheel to show support for a male companion’s motorsports hobby.  While some men were reluctant to hand over the keys to unschooled wives or girlfriends, most viewed women’s participation as a way to gain approval – if not rationalization – for their own racing addiction. To the majority of 1950s women, taking part in a racing event was a somewhat intimidating prospect. Thus some participated hesitantly, more interested in displaying support than winning trophies. At the Reading Fairgrounds, driver Nancy Delp was loaned a car from a male participant for the Powder Puff competition. As she reminisced, ‘I had to use a sofa cushion so I could see out the window and once the race began, it was easy to realize that racing looks easier from the grandstand. It was fun, but once and done’ (qtd. in Kline, n.d.).
While the majority of Powder Puff competitors were introduced to racing by husbands and boyfriends, a few came to the track with a fervent desire to become competitive and legitimate race drivers. Notes stock car aficionado Ladabouche (n.d.), ‘I can clearly recall the intense interest and pride with which the Catamount Stadium powder puff competitors armed themselves when they would enter one of that track’s somewhat regular female races.’ However, because most tracks prohibited women from racing against men, Powder Puff competitions became the primary way to develop confidence behind the wheel, gain track experience, hone racing skills and strategies, and ‘show the guys that they could do it, too’ (McCarthy, 2007, p. 210).
Women’s passion for racing came from a variety of sources. Some were exposed to cars through male family members. Women connected to men in the sport had a distinct advantage over those who did not, particularly when it came to acceptance within the motorsports community. Explains Kreitzer (2017, p. 210), ‘female racers relied heavily on male relatives who were already accepted as racing insiders to help jump start their racing careers.’ Others, while growing up with a love of cars, did not consider racing until the opportunity presented itself. Vicki Wood – after watching an all-woman’s race at the Motor City Speedway – was convinced she could drive better; she subsequently entered a race on her husband’s dare. Auto journalist Denise McCluggage, writes Roberts (2015), ‘persuaded her editors that she could better report on auto racing from behind the wheel than in the press box.’ Yet due to track restrictions, McCluggage began her racing career in Powder Puff derbies, which, as she remarked, ‘seemed to me rather like mud wrestling, staged as a spectacle for men to chuckle over rather than serious competition. But it was a chance to drive, so I put up with the hair-pull aspects’ (qtd in McCarthy, 2007, p. 147). In the minds of many female racers, ladies races provided the opportunity to ‘earn the respect of the men so they could eventually drive in any race’ (McCarthy, 2007, p. 210).
Powder Puff women had to navigate significant obstacles. Although racing during this period was an amateur sport, it could be expensive. The price of entry fees, sponsorships, equipment, maintenance, and upkeep could add up quickly. Women rarely had cars or equipment of their own, so had to beg or borrow cars, helmets, and any necessary racing gear from husbands, brothers, or complete strangers. Auto maintenance was an issue, as husbands or significant others wouldn’t always be available or willing to help with car repairs or upkeep. Although Powder Puff events varied from state to state, and track to track, they were all regulated by men, who, as Forsyth (2016, p. 174) asserts, kept a tight hold on races and ‘steadfastly refused to let the women have more time or more races.’
Yet despite the barriers women encountered, racing often had a positive and powerful effect on their lives. Interviews conducted by Hull (1958) with fellow SCCA members suggest that women raced not only to support male companions, but also to expand social networks, gain confidence, and escape from everyday lives. Powder Puff provided women with the opportunity to develop advanced driving skills, make important contacts, gain a little notoriety, and prove themselves as serious racers. Many female racers of this era who went on to achieve a number of ‘firsts’ in women’s motorsports – Louise Smith, Vicki Wood, Denise McCluggage, Josie von Newmann, and Sara Christian – began racing careers in Powder Puff.
Other than premier events such as the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR championship, American postwar racing was primarily an amateur pastime. Races were run for trophies; cash prizes were banned, as were donations from sponsors, car makers, owners, or local businesses. It was up to each driver to finance his or her racing habit. While the conditions under which men and women raced were not the same – women received less track time and had fewer and shorter races than male counterparts – all racers were held to the same restrictions in terms of sponsorships and financial remuneration.
As the decade concluded, top drivers from the sports car circuit were being lured by the considerable cash prizes of Formula 1 and international competition. US racing organizations fought back by creating racing events with comparable financial awards. Smaller venues – losing top drivers and paying crowds – sought sponsors in order to stay in business. While the move toward the commercialization of motorsports affected all amateur racers regardless of gender, it was ultimately responsible for the decline of all-female racing. Powder Puff events – and the women who participated in them – were not regarded as legitimate and as such, were unable to attract commercial support. Without amateur ladies races, women lost an important platform from which to gain experience and exposure.
 In 1882, Ellene Alice Bailey was granted a patent for the powder puff, a soft, cosmetic pad used to apply powder to the skin from which the women’s race drew its name.
 In his collection of stock racing memorabilia from the 1950s, Easton (2014, p. 27) includes a ticket admission stub from the Big Flats Airport Speedway in which ‘Ladies Powder-Puff Race’ is listed as a special event alongside the ‘rollover of a stock automobile off a ramp!’
 Women’s race result documents from pre-1960 auto racing in Kansas from collector Bob Lawrence (n.d.) make note of vehicles shared by husbands and wives. As an example, ‘Harriett M. (Knauf) Lewis of Dighton, Kansas placed in fifth place in a Powder Puff Derby at McCarty Speedway in Dodge City on June 2, 1956 driving car #97 normally driven by her husband, Lyle E. Lewis.’ Powder Puff racing could also lead to romance, as indicated in this notice: ‘Betty Ann (Gibson) Trahern of Sublette, Kansas drove in a Powder Puff Derby run at McCarty Speedway in Dodge City, Kansas on June 2, 1956. She also finished fourth of eight cars that competed in a 10-lap Powder Puff Derby at the Grant County Fairgrounds at Ulysses, Kansas on August 8, 1958. In both of these races, she was driving a #80 jalopy normally driven Stanley Trahern whom she married between those two race dates.’
The Gong Show was an amateur talent contest which aired for 13 years on American television. Three celebrities auditioned a series of acts – many of them outrageous – and unceremoniously dismissed the ‘losers’ by striking a large gong.
 SCCA racer Mull (1958, p. 11) writes, ‘there is no use denying the fact that most women who go in for racing do so because their husbands or someone they are fond of is interested in the sport and, rather than have another woman snap up their men or be a sports-car widow, they go along.’
 As an example, Ileen Merle Dessie (Forrest) Goodman, grew up in a family – 3 brothers and an uncle – of prominent auto racers. She started competing in Powder Puff races in 1949 at Cejay Stadium in Wichita, Kansas, becoming the woman’s champion that year. (Lawrence, n.d.).
 While Powder Puff events are still held today, the majority are fundraisers for charities such as Races Toward a Cure [breast cancer] and the American Cancer Society.
Cabatingan, M. (2013, April 23). Race to equality: history of women in racing. Sports Car Digest. Accessed September 9, 2020 .
Easton, F. (2014) Stock car racing in the ‘50s: pictures and memories from Western New York and Northwestern Pennsylvania. Kiernen, J. (ed.) Ford Easton.
Forsyth, D. (2016) Denver’s Lakeside Amusement Park: from the white city beautiful to a century of fun. Boulder: University Press of Chicago.
Hull, E. (1958) Women in Sports Car Competition. New York: Sports Car Press.
Kline, B. (n.d.) Mountain folklore: Remembering the Powder Puff races at Reading Fairgrounds. Reading Eagle Accessed June 4, 2020.
Kreitzer, A. (2017) Masculinity, whiteness, and technological play in dirt track automobile racing, 1924-1960, Dissertation, University of Delaware.
Ladabouche, B. (n.d.) Powder Puff races were a sign of past times in local car racing. Bill’s Back in Time. Accessed June 4, 2020.
A recent survey published by money.co.uk about the prevalence of truck references in country music inspired a number of articles on what can only be described as the “truck song.” Although the percentage of songs with truck references over the years has varied, it has always been a popular theme. The truck song reached its height during the 2010s in a genre referred to as “bro country.” As described in a 2013 article in Entertainment Weekly, this country category is “basically a bunch of guys singing about trucks, headlights, rolled-down windows, jeans, alcohol, moonlit makeouts, and sex on the river beds beside old dirt roads” (Jones). The common theme in these songs is the ways in which a man’s truck serves as a site of sexual conquest. Bro Country represents a rather stereotypical and good ol’ boy type of masculinity. In these renditions, women [most often referred to as ‘girls’] do not drive the trucks; rather, they are prizes to be seduced by a bro in a lifted Chevy Silverado or Ford Super Duty F-250 King Ranch.
What is surprising, therefore, is that two of the top five streaming truck songs on Spotify are by women artists – Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats”, and “Automatic” by Miranda Lambert. In 2020, Detroit auto journalist Mark Phelan noted, women were responsible for about half as many truck songs as “the good ol’ boys.” But the messages found in songs composed by women differ from those of male country singers. Like singer-songwriters in a variety of genres, country music artists create songs out of their own experiences. As I argue in my work on the women’s car song, female artists alter the meaning of the automobile to fit their own life events. As I wrote, “car songs based on women’s experience […] contest the exclusive relationship of the automobile to masculinity as well as provide alternative and multiple ways to consider the meanings women ascribe to cars” (163). This would certainly hold true for songs about the pickup truck, a vehicle historically associated with masculinity, particularly of the ‘bro’ variety. Underwood and Lambert, country legends in their own right, provide two examples of the truck song created from women’s experience.
As I note in my work on female pickup owners:
Of all the vehicles produced for the American driver, perhaps none is more strongly associated with masculinity than the full size pickup truck. […] pickups are often accessorized with ‘decorative’ additions – women’s garters hanging from rearview mirrors, plastic testicles dangling from trailer hitches and mud flaps featuring large breasted women – to mark the vehicle as a male space. Pickup advertising often relies on masculine tropes and gender stereotypes with headlines such as ‘A diamond for her hand, a hemi for his foot’, and ‘Yeah, it’s good to be King’. Marketing has traditionally called upon terms such as hardworking, tough, strong and powerful to describe the truck as well as the man who drives it (136).
In “Before He Cheats,” the pickup is not only the site of a man’s infidelity, but serves as the physical embodiment of his masculine identity. To seek revenge for unfaithfulness, Underwood desecrates that which will hurt her lover the most – not his person, but the object through which he identifies. The vandalization of the truck is not a simple act of passion or rage; rather, each verse in the refrain describes a specific action intended to destroy a fragment of her lover’s manhood.
When Underwood sings, “I dug my key into the side of his pretty little souped-up four-wheel drive,” she is returning the hurt she endured through her man’s cheating. So as not to forget the woman he wronged, Underwood “carved my name into his leather seats,” to leave a permanent and unmistakable reminder of the man’s indiscretion. “I took a Louisville slugger to both head lights” has Shakespearean overtones. Shakespearean characters are often made blind – literally have their eyes ripped out – in order to prevent them from inflicting harm or engaging in wrongdoing. Underwood wants to insure her betrayer can no longer look upon nor be tempted by the “bleached-blond tramp” singing some “white-trash version of Shania karaoke.” And finally, Underwood belts, “I slashed a hole in all four tires,” an action taken to strip away the freedom and mobility his souped-up truck provides.
Miranda Lambert’s “Automatic,” on the other hand, is a nostalgic look at the past. As Lambert reflects in a Songfacts interview, the song is “about slowing down, taking a breath and remembering what it’s like to live life a little more simply.” The truck is a stick-shift, 3-on-the-tree, 55 Chevy in which Lambert’s father taught her to drive [and which she still owns.] It is a metaphor for a slowed-down life, in which folks took their time, did things by hand, waited in line, and had patience in relationships and love. Automatic, of course, refers to the easy-driving, effortless transmissions found in over 98% of cars on the road today (Wiesenfelder). It also suggests a life carried on without too much thought, where getting things easy is the norm. “Automatic” reflects on Lambert’s own road to success; she hangs on to the truck so as not to be forgetful of the road her life has taken and how she got there.
As these two examples suggests, unlike the bro country truck song, which centers on sexual prowess, braggadocio, and other characteristics of what could be described as a “redneck” masculinity, women’s experience, automotive and otherwise, is what drives the message of the songs women sing about trucks. Women’s lives, and their relationships with cars and trucks, differ from those of men. Those unique experiences are often reflected in the country woman’s truck song.
Lezotte, Chris. “Born to Take the Highway: Women, the Automobile, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.” The Journal of American Culture 36.3, (2013) 161-176.
— “A Woman and Her Truck: Pickups, the Woman Driver and Cowgirl Feminism.” European Journal of American Culture 38.2 (2019) 135-153.
One of my current research projects came to me as a request to examine the history and politics of women in motorsports. Because this is a rather broad and unwieldy topic, I decided to focus specifically on 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. I am looking at how and why these women-only events and/or ladies categories were formed; who participates in these activities; what kind of competitions does the women-only category encompass; as well as the reception such races have received from drivers and the racing community. As I knew very little about motorsports in general and women-only racing in particular when embarking on this project, it has been interesting to learn about the various events and how they have attracted a female following.
One of the annual all-female events that came to my attention is the Rebelle Rally, now in its fifth year. It is the longest competitive off-road rally in the United States, and entries are limited to women. Rather than a race for speed, Rebelle Rally is a test of driving precision and navigation skills, “a unique and demanding precision event based the elements of time, distance, headings, and hidden checkpoints using maps, compass, and roadbook” (Segura). It is a combination of geocaching and off-roading that covers more than 1200 miles in the California and Nevada deserts over eight days; cell phones, GPS tracking devices, and outside assistance are prohibited. The goal is to complete the rally with the most points; checkpoints range in difficulty based on location, how large the geofenced area is, and how difficult it is to get close to it (Bassett). The rally has grown each year with many repeat competitors; the 2020 Rebelle Rally included 36 two-women driver-navigator teams as well as a large support staff.
What I found most interesting about the Rebelle Rally is the way in which it is unabashedly women centered. In an interview for Automobile, founder Emily Miller frames the rally as an empowering event for women. As she explains, “Rebelle Rally is important because it gives women a platform to showcase their driving skills. [My hope is that] through doing the Rebelle, women will become more competent, skilled, and have the confidence to use their voice” (Segura). While certainly the objective of any competition is to win, the Rebelle Rally offers more to its female competitors. The event’s Facebook page promotes it as a source of female competence, confidence, and community. Rebelle Rally is extremely challenging; as such, notes the founder, it provides the means for women to acquire a belief in themselves. While all racing events have the potential to hone and develop driving skills and build confidence behind the wheel, there is something about all-female events such as Rebelle Rally especially beneficial to women.
Motorsports is one of the few competitive venues in which men and women are allowed to compete on a level playing field. Yet the participation of women in mixed-racing events remains remarkably low. Certainly the costs and lack of sponsorship deters women from racing at a high level. And although detractors label women-only racing as demeaning, patronizing, and unnecessary, there are qualities that appeal to a large number of female auto enthusiasts. Perhaps it is because of the camaraderie and community that forms when women tackle a challenge together. Perhaps it is because all-female events allow women to develop skills, knowledge, and confidence without the criticism, intimidation, and yes, sexism, of male competitors. Rebelle Rally provides a way for women to succeed – not only on the road, the course, and on the track – but also in many other aspects of their lives. As founder Miller exclaims, “When these women finish this rally they’ll walk away knowing they can go anywhere” (Bassett).
I first met Katherine Parkin at the 2018 Popular Culture Association National Conference. We were both presenting in one of the Vehicle Culture sessions, and although familiar with each other’s work, we had never connected professionally or personally. Parkin’s Women at the Wheel: A Century of Buying, Driving, and Fixing Cars had just been published, and I was about to release my first book – Power Under Her Foot: Women Enthusiasts of American Muscle Cars. I was honored that Parkin had cited some of my journal articles in her book, and Parkin, in turn, was happy to meet the person whose work she cited. As there are so few of us who write about women and cars in an academic construct, it was both a surprise and pleasure to meet an individual who has contributed so much to the field. Since that meeting we have supported each other in other ways – Parkin has forwarded peer review and article requests to me, of which I am greatly appreciative, and I have cited Parkin’s work in subsequent scholarship.
While I came to academia late in life, Parkin has made it her life’s calling. A professor of history and the Jules Plangere Jr Endowed Chair in American Social History at Monmouth University in New Jersey, Parkin is an historian of considerable accomplishment. Although much of her work focuses on women’s automobility, she is also the author of numerous books and articles on a wide variety of topics, including food, advertising, women in American politics, and family history. As an historian, Parkin’s approach to women and cars differs from my own. Calling upon primary sources such as advertisements, women’s publications, popular music lyrics, and historical records, she combines disparate parts and pieces from a variety of resources to construct an interesting and insightful amalgam of women’s involvement with the automobile. In 2018, Women at the Wheel was awarded the Emily Toth Award for the best book in feminist popular culture; just recently, the Henry Ford Learning and Engagement Center named it one of the most informative and influential contributions to women’s automotive history, serving as a post war bookend to Virginia Scharff’s groundbreaking Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age.
In her most recent women-and-car themed works, Parkin provides an alternative history of Alice Ramsey, and examines the efforts of early manufacturers of luxury vehicles to attract the female buyer. I look forward to her next project, and am thankful we had the opportunity to meet a few years ago.
Below is a list of Parkin’s scholarship devoted to the relationship between women and cars.
“’Bring Them Back Alive!’: Fear and the Macabre in US Automobile Tire Advertising,” Advertising & Society Quarterly 18 (1) April 2017: (published by Johns Hopkins University Press, available through Project Muse).
“Driving Home Class Status: Women and Car Advertising in the United States,” Advertising & Society Quarterly, June 2019.
“The Key to the Universe: Springsteen, Masculinity, and the Car,” in Bruce Springsteen and the American Soul: Essays on the Songs and Influence of a Cultural Icon, edited by David Izzo. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2011.