With a couple of aging cars and an upcoming change of lifestyle, it was time to replace our modes of transport. I loved my 2015 Golf R, but as a car with little tech [not even Apple Play!] I had driven for 8 years and 45,000 miles, I was ready for something new. I had originally planned on updating it with the 2023 model but the wait time was more than I was willing to endure. Plus, as I tend to own my cars for a long time, I didn’t think it would be safe as an eventual 80-year-old to get behind the wheel of a vehicle that went 0-60 in less than 4 seconds. However, since I love German cars, particularly VWs, I opted for a 2023 VW GTI. And as we were moving to downtown Ann Arbor, with short blocks that can be rather hilly, I quashed my desire for a 6-speed manual and opted for the pretty quick [0-60 in 5.1] 7-speed DSG. With front-wheel rather than all-wheel drive, it is a different driving experience but still a very enjoyable ride. And the tech! After a few months I am still learning all of what my car can do. But most of the things I loved about my Golf R remain – the responsive steering, the compact, perfect-for-me size, the simple yet pleasing design inside and out, the surprisingly spacious cargo area, and most importantly, the elements that make it so very ‘fun to drive.’ We took it on a baseball road trip this past summer and it was comfortable but not cushy, had plenty of space for our gear, and got better gas mileage [on regular rather than premium fuel!] than the R. And since my husband and I will be sharing the car [he traded in his Audi and 2016 R] it was important that we both enjoy it. And we do.
Our other trade in was more utilitarian. For the past 30 years we have owned what we affectionally called a ‘dog’ vehicle. As breeders and exhibitors of bullmastiffs, we always drove a standard van that could carry at least five very large dogs. We opted for a RAM City Wagon a few years back, but traded up for the more spacious RAM Promaster which was perhaps the best canine transportation we had owned in our 30 years of breeding and showing dogs. However, after retiring from the dog world four years ago, we were down to two dogs so desired something smaller and more easy to maneuver in the city. We originally considered a large SUV, but the high entry point and the difficulty fitting two large crates in the back made us rethink our choice. After considering all of the options, we opted for – dare I say – a minivan. We chose a KIA which, as it turns out, has easy entry and plenty of space for two large dogs. It is also way more comfortable and has way more tech than the ProMaster. And most importantly, the ‘girls’ love it.
We have since [very recently] moved from 18 rural acres to a condo in the heart of downtown Ann Arbor. With much of what we do now within walking distance, our dependence on cars has been dramatically reduced. With a carport rather than [multiple] garages, the two new vehicles are fitting well into our new and very different lifestyle.
Shortly after the release of the blockbuster motion picture Barbie, automotive writer Andy Kalmowitz of Jalopnikposted an article about the cars that appeared in the film. While the article argues how Barbie serves as a ‘masterfully disguised General Motors commercial,’ Kalmowitz also examines how the individual vehicles move the story forward. This article was interesting to me for two reasons. The first is that I explored the relationship between women and their automobiles in film in a paper published in The Journal of Popular Culture a number of years ago. In this article I examine ten female road trip films. Focusing on cars rather than the journey, my goal in this project was to reassess the role and significance of the automobile in film, examine how the woman’s car in film has the ability to disrupt both the dominant road trip and cultural narratives, and to broaden the notion of women’s car use to include considerations of identity, agency, reinvention, friendship, family, and empowerment.
More recently, just days after the Jalopnik article appeared, an essay I authored – ‘Pink Power: The Barbie Car and Female Automobility’ – was published online in The Journal of American Culture. The main position put forth in ‘Pink Power’ is the importance of the Barbie car to a young girl’s automotive education and future driving experience. As in most of my writing about the relationship between women and cars, I argue that because the female experience with cars is often unlike that of men, women look at automobiles differently. This difference is often reflected in the roles car play in women’s lives and the myriad of meanings the automobile holds for them.
Therefore as I viewed Barbie in town last night, I paid special attention to the cars. While I noted the role each vehicle played in the narrative, what also caught my attention was how each vehicle represented a specific type of power. These representations were demonstrated not only through the expressions of speed, aggressiveness, and danger, but also by the automobile’s stance, size, color, and signification.
The pink Corvette – the vehicle that literally and figuratively moves the narrative along – is a both a demonstration and source of Barbie’s power. The convertible not only takes her where she wants to go, but is a personal and intimate space in which Barbie is in command and Ken rides in the back seat. In his analysis of the Corvette in American culture, automotive scholar Jerry Passon argues that sport cars in general, and the Corvette in particular, serve as potent symbols of male power and masculine sexuality. He observes that in a variety of creative works—film, literature, popular music –women often call upon the sports car to seize power from the hands of men and take control of their lives. In these fictional locations, Passon writes, “the emotional value of possessing the stylish, powerful machine” makes a woman “feel more ‘in charge’ and able to accomplish her own goals and act on her desires” (153). While the Corvette appears as an ideal car in an ideal world, its pinkness and femininity mask the real power it holds for Barbie and her friends.
The second car to make an appearance in the film is a big, blacked out Suburban. As argued by color psychologists, black is often considered a power color. It implies self-control, discipline, independence, and a strong will; black gives the impression of authority and power. In Barbie, the Suburban serves as the ultimate authority; it is, in fact, the Mattel company car. It is the foil to the pink Corvette; intimidating, unfriendly, and foreboding, it is called upon to transport Barbie away from the source of her power.
Another car with a major cinematic role is the bright blue Blazer SS EV driven by Barbie’s friend Gloria. The small SUV, of which the Blazer is an example, is often considered the ultimate ‘mom’ car. Purposefully and determinedly identified with women by automakers, marketers, and the media, the ‘lifestyle enabler’ vehicle – which also includes the ubiquitous minivan – reinforces the notion that women bear primary responsibility for housework and childcare. However, with Gloria behind the wheel with daughter Sasha in tow, the Blazer takes on new meaning. As a getaway car, the Blazer demonstrates and celebrates Gloria’s driving finesse and considerable ‘mom’ power as she aggressively and skillfully drives her passengers to safety.
In a film focused on girl power, the most obvious and perhaps egregious representative of male power and toxic masculinity is the lightening adorned black and silver Hummer EV acquired by Ken when out of Barbie Land. Deposited in Los Angeles after relegated to the pink Corvette’s backseat, Ken is quickly exposed to patriarchy and immediately decides he wants to be a part of it. The Hummer, which Jalopnik writer Steve DaSilva describes as ‘oversized, uselessly heavy, and compensating so hard’, represents the masculine power Ken has been missing in his life in Barbie Land. While Ken is briefly successful in acquiring the brutish power the Hummer offers, the vehicle is reclaimed upon Barbie and Gloria’s triumphant return, soon transformed into a massive, monstrous, pink-powered machine.
The automobile holds many meanings in film; what has not been explored significantly is the car’s role in women-themed motion pictures. While the vehicles featured in Barbie contain varied and important meanings to the individual who drives them, what ties them together is how each represents a particular manifestation of automotive, and personal, power.
A recent posting on Curbside Classic featured a 1988 Suzuki Samurai advertisement with the quizzical headline: ‘What Young Urban Women Aspired to in 1988?’ The ad features a 30-something woman behind the wheel of the aforementioned vehicle accompanied by a female companion. The women are looking happily out of their respective windows while driving down a charming urban thoroughfare. Without much copy to ponder, the posting was open to comments from interested CC readers. What is interesting in the responses is how often the readers’ experiences support the unspoken premise of the ad. As one responder noted, ‘my mom had one of these. […] there was something about that vehicle that truly appealed to her. Part of it was the size. After 16 years of pretty much exclusively driving the fuselage Chrysler wagon, I think getting back into something small really had its appeal to her.’ Another remarked, ‘I couldn’t understand why she wanted a car that didn’t have a real back seat, which made doing things like picking me up at the airport or carrying anything substantial pretty much out of the question. Now I think maybe that was the whole point for her.’
In order to understand the significance of this advertisement, and the comments it generated, it helps to revisit the automotive advertising to women that preceded it. After World War II, when women were expected to leave their wartime factory jobs to create comfortable lives for husbands in the suburbs, marketing to the female consumer was focused primarily on suitable ‘family’ vehicles. In the 1950s and early 1960s, this mode of transportation was the station wagon. Advertising for these automobiles often featured idyllic scenes of mother and [many] children engaging in dad-less family activities around the car, as well as busy mothers with growing families for whom roominess in a vehicle was an obvious necessity.
In the 1960s and early 70s, the station wagon was replaced by the hatchback, which was, as one advertiser claimed, ‘the car designed around a shopping bag.’ In the mid 1980s the world was introduced to the minivan, which as the perfect vehicle for carrying kids and cargo, was unofficially dubbed the ‘soccer mom’ car. Minivan advertising featured moms with kids and groceries and bikes and sporting equipment, all which reinforced the association of family vehicles with the woman behind the wheel.
Yet before the minivan morphed into the ubiquitous SUV, a few automotive advertisers – primarily of import vehicles – suggested [gasp!] that the female consumer could be someone other than a mom. The late 1980s/early 90s Subaru campaign reflected this sentiment. As the commenters noted, the Samurai lacked a back seat, which meant there was no room for kids. And its sporty appearance suggested the possibility of adventure outside of playdates, t-ball games, and the banality of suburban neighborhoods. While the women pictured in family car advertising appear content, those in the Suzuki campaign seem downright ecstatic. Other ads in the campaign emphasize the vehicle’s ‘fun-ness’ and remark on its multiple identities as sporty, outdoorsy, and rugged. As the polar opposite of the ‘mom’ car, Suzuki advertising promised an exciting, adventurous, and well-deserved getaway for married and single women alike. Noted a Curbside Classic commenter, ‘I had a female co-worker who had a Samurai – it served as both her nice day-in-the-summer and her winter weather car. Interesting little fleet for a woman in her 20s.’
There is nothing subtle about the Stahl Museum. Located in an industrial park in Chesterfield, Michigan, it is a voluminous, warehouse-type space jammed packed not only with vehicles, but also period organs, juke boxes, gas station paraphernalia, neon signs, and automotive artifacts stuffed every available nook and cranny. Automotive advertisements hang from the rafters, and organ music blares from any one of the ornate instruments situated along the perimeter. As a personal collection of Ted Stahl, the museum reflects the interests and particular proclivities of its owner. As noted on the museum website, Stahl’s mission for the collection is ‘to build an appreciation for history;’ that of his wife Mary is ‘to see the smiles on the faces of our visitors.’
The museum is only open to the public Tuesday afternoons and the first Saturday of each month. Not surprisingly, it was quite crowded when I visited on a pleasant day in early April. Parents maneuvered small children through aisles of tightly packed cars while grey-haired guides answered questions and offered historical background. Younger volunteers cheerly took organ tune requests from the public. The atmosphere in Stahl’s can only be described as carnival like, a ‘fun house’ of a museum as it were. More than a mere collection of cars, Stahl’s refers to itself as ‘An American Auto Experience.’
That being said, Stahl’s car collection is quite impressive. It leans toward the vintage and brass eras, which no doubt reflects the owner’s predilection to bright, shiny, and over-the-top objects. Many of the cars display signage from past Concours shows, which, to the auto aficionado, serves as an indication of automotive importance and value. Stahl’s prides itself on its accumulation of ‘some of the world’s most rare and distinctive cars’ and ‘treasures from the past you won’t find anywhere else.’ The gigantic and fantastic music machines that boisterously fill the halls; the ornamented and embellished brass cars that reflect images of all who pass; the flashing roadside signage that cover the walls and hang from the ceiling; the outrageous movie cars in period displays; and the 50s automobiles parked around a drive in diner all contribute to a unique and often overwhelming experience.
While Mary Stahl’s name appears next to her husband’s on a number of automotive displays as an owner, women’s representation in the museum is minimal and somewhat predictable. Women’s preference for electric cars; Amelia Earhart’s promotion of the 1936 Terraplane; Bertha Benz’s famous road trip; and the custom built automobile of the wealthy Madame Lucienne Benitez-Rexach of France are the only mentions of female automotive involvement. Female imagery is limited to a ‘Rosie the Riveter‘ poster on the gas station wall [next to the rest room] and a couple of female mannequins in the diner display. As Stahl’s is, in fact, the vision of one male individual with very specific and unique automotive and mechanical interests, it is not surprising that representation of women as automotive drivers, users, and influencers are absent in other than the most unsurprising and unimaginative ways.
Auto enthusiasts looking for a fun and unique afternoon will surely enjoy time spent at Stahl’s. As the museum mission is ‘to educate, motivate, and inspire young people with a passion and appreciation for vintage vehicles,’ the staff at Stahl’s endeavors to make the experience memorable and fun for all family members. But if you decide to make a visit, just make sure to bring a set of earplugs with you.
As someone who grew up about a half mile from the city of Dearborn, I have visited the Henry Ford and Greenfield Village many times in my life. But the museum took on new meaning once I began my research into the relationship between women and cars. The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, as it is now called, has gone through many updates, redesigns, and reimaginings in my lifetime. Once a confusing collection of artifacts and vehicles, the space is now organized into a number of well-defined areas. The two sections that focus on the automobile – Driving America and Driven to Win – make up just over a third of the museum space.
The two driving-themed areas are less about cars than about car culture. As the curator of transportation Matt Anderson states, “the exhibit is not so much about the automobile itself, but about our relationship to it.” Driving America addresses how cars affected American lives, and in turn how American living shaped car culture. While there are certainly a plethora of vehicles on display, the cars most often serveas representatives of a particular era, event, pastime, or purpose. Cultures, institutions, and establishments developed because of the automobile – hotels, service stations, campsites, and roadside restaurants, for example – are integral to the car stories on display.
Driven to Win, the newest exhibit within the Henry Ford, describes itself as a history of racing in America, from soap box derbies to Indy car, stock car, and drag racing. It accomplishes this by focusing on the many innovators and champions of motorsports through interactive displays, historic race cars, artifacts of groundbreaking drivers, racing simulators, and displays that “immerse the visitor in the stories, images, thrills, and sounds of auto racing.”
Because the exhibits focus on car culture rather than particular automobiles, women are very much present as consumers, drivers, workers, and influencers. They are introduced as early proponents of bicycles and the Model T as well as the minivan. They are represented in promotions about style, design, and safety. Women’s changing roles in advertising – as objects, symbols, moms, and adventurers are also addressed. While notable women in automotive history make an appearance, it is ordinary woman of extraordinary influence who take center stage.
Driven to Win includes artifacts and success stories of the expected exceptional women in motorsports. However, women behind the scenes – as pit crew workers and mechanics – are also well represented. While women’s relationship to the automobile has historically been relegated to the sidelines, the Henry Ford makes a concentrated effort to incorporate the women driver as an integral participant and contributor to automotive culture.
As I happened to visit the Henry Ford during March – Women’s History Month – many of the exhibits with a female focus were highlighted. Driven to Win featured artifacts of celebrated race drivers including Janet Guthrie, Sarah Fisher, and Danica Patrick. Attention was drawn to a 1955 Chrysler 300, similar to one driven by Vicky Wood – the fastest woman at Daytona. The Ford Rouge Factory Tour featured an opportunity to ‘Meet the Rosies’ as the denim-clad presenters related inspiring stories of the Wonderful Outstanding Women [WOW] who helped win World War II as part of the “The Arsenal of Democracy.’
While the ‘typical’ automotive museum focuses on the history of a particular manufacturer or the interests of a generous collector, the Henry Ford employs a broader approach to its significant collection. As the museum CEO notes, ‘we don’t just display the vehicles, we bring the past forward by immersing our visitors in the stories of ingenuity, resourcefulness and innovation that have made America the great country it is today.” And that resourceful past includes the contributions, influence, and participation of the woman behind the wheel.
While in graduate school during 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 examine how gender influences the meanings ascribed to the automobile in popular fiction.
If the automobile existed merely as a mode of transportation, it would be found primarily in showrooms, on freeways and in public parking lots and personal garages. If it were regarded as simply an object of technology, the car would be praised for its utility and practicality, and cursed when it didn’t perform to expectations. If the automobile was only valued for its usefulness, it would be regarded in the same manner as other technological necessities of the home and workplace, such as the washing machine, dishwasher and office copier.
However, the automobile has taken accumulated a variety of alternative meanings since the Model T first rolled off Henry Ford’s assembly line. As David Laird suggests, automobiles promise “power, mobility, freedom, even a ‘poetic’ space that beckons from beyond the too familiar course of things” (244). Rather than simply a means to get from here to there, the car serves as a symbol of status, daring and sexual prowess. It is considered a home away from home or a room of one’s own. In the US, the automobile is not only found in the driveway, but in films, art, music, popular culture and literature as well. In such locations, the car is not just a prop or background; rather, it often serves as a reflection of a particular society and is imbued with cultural and personal meaning. In literature, the automobile is often a metaphor for our hopes and dreams, for how we live and what we want to be. While there are certainly a number of attributes that influence the car’s role in literature, one of the most significant is gender.
There can be little argument that the car is considered a masculine technology. And in literature, whether in a real or symbolic capacity, the automobile is most often a male space, located within a masculine environment. Loren Estleman portrays such a gendered location in Motown, a crime novel loosely based on events that occurred in Detroit during the summer of 1966. The auto industry, faced with mandatory automobile safety upgrades during the era of the “muscle car,” provides the backdrop for three parallel storylines and a lot of dirty business. The major players in Estleman’s novel are male, and the “muscle cars” they drive are fueled by testosterone. Motown’s women are stereotypical at best; they not only reveal Estleman’s notion of women’s place, but also represent the pre-feminist ideology of the auto industry. As a crime novel of the noir genre, Motown is concerned about what cars, and the car industry do, rather than the meanings ascribed to automobiles. Estelman’s storyline reflects, in the words of David Laird, “a society enormously dependent upon the automobile both as a means of transportation and as a source of economic activity” (244). Motown is built on plot rather than ideology; the cars in Estleman’s novel move the narrative literally rather than figuratively.
In other literary genres, however, the automobile is often a metaphor for male experience and masculine character. Unlike fictions such as Motown, the focus of narrative is not the car or car industry. Rather, the presence of the automobile in the novel fulfills a symbolic purpose. Marie Farr, in “Freedom and Control,” asserts that in such contexts, male writers “accept the popular myth that identifies the automobile with male sexuality, power and control: in their works, driving often becomes a rite of initiation or a test of masculinity.” In these fictions, men are the drivers, and as such, carry the narrative forward. The dreams that the car represents – success, adventure, conquest and youth – are the property of men. If women are present in such narratives, they are only going along for the ride.
The first appearance of the automobile in women’s literature occurred in the “road trip” genre. Women’s travel stories offered women writers the opportunity to explore the possibilities of female automobility. As Deborah Clarke remarks in “Domesticating the Car,” “women wrote increasingly about journeys, about mobility, and about the power inherent in this increased freedom” (101). Unlike male writers and drivers, women do not take the independence automobiles offer for granted. Access to the car does not equal independence, as it has often been instrumental in restricting women’s movements while keeping them close to home. For decades, cars have been sold to women as a form of domestic technology. Farr suggests that to the 1950s American housewife, the automobile had become “the vehicle through which she did much of her most significant work, and the work locale where she could most often be found.”
The second wave of feminism inspired many female writers to call upon the automobile to reflect women’s growing agency and autonomy. Like their male literary contemporaries, women writers employ the car as metaphor to equate driving with living. The automobile in women’s literature often provides women temporary freedom from the constraints on how they are allowed to live. Thus while male writers use the automobile and the act of driving as symbols of power and control, female authors appropriate and reconfigure male images so that power as control transforms itself into “the power of being one’s own person” (Farr).
The car as “home away from home” or a “room of one’s own” has special meaning to women. Often unable to leave their children behind, automobiles in women’s fiction often serve as a moving family. In women’s fiction, cars may also function as a personal space away from domestic and familial responsibilities. While both male and female writers ascribe meaning to the automobile in fiction, the reality of women’s lives suggests that the metaphor has alternative meanings, determined by the gender of the writer and the driver.
Since its invention, the automobile has been firmly linked with masculinity. Women’s access to the automobile, and the meanings associated with it, has been qualified at best. Women’s fiction provides admission to a culture that has been historically closed to female readers and drivers. It infringes on the masculine car culture and reclaims and reconfigures the automobile into women’s own image. As Deborah Clarke writes, “American fiction reflects and shapes the dynamics between women and cars” (195). The automobile in contemporary American women’s fiction provides evidence that women are, in fact, viable and significant participants in American car culture.
Estleman, Loren. Motown. New York: Bantam, 1991.
Farr, Marie T. “Freedom and Control: Automobiles in American Women’s Fiction of the 70s and 80s.” The Journal of Popular Culture 29 (1995) 157-69.
Laird, David. “Versions of Eden: The Automobile and the American Novel.” The Automobile and American Culture. D.L. Lewis & L. Goldstein, eds. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1983. 639-651.
I first visited the Sloan Museum in Flint, Michigan a number of years ago. I remember the Sloan Panorama of Transportation as a pretty typical car museum – over 100 vehicles in a voluminous space with placards describing each car. That original Sloan Museum building, built in 1966, closed in 2018 for a major overhaul and expansion. After a 5 year hiatus and $30 million renovation, the newly imagined Sloan Museum of Discovery re-opened to the public in July 2022.
The transformation of the Sloan Museum is not in name only; rather, it embraces a totally new, different, and exciting concept. The old museum was geared toward the car enthusiast – individuals interested in the automobile itself rather than how cars related to the culture. In the new museum, cars are not the focus but rather take a supporting role. As the museum is primarily geared toward children [it was packed with kids during my visit], the automobile is called upon primarily as an educational tool. The automobile is intertwined with Flint’s history, which is reflected in the interactive exhibits in the History Gallery. While the automobile does not take center stage, the influence of the automotive industry is evident in stories about Flint life, employment, neighborhoods, schools, housing, and tourism. The History Gallery leads into the Durant Vehicle Gallery, which offers rotating exhibits about the history and future of the automobile. In this large space, the roughly 30 cars are on display not as examples in their own right, but as representative of automotive innovations that impacted people’s lives, including the automatic transmission, safety features, brakes, tires, comfort, and style.
Unlike its former incarnation, the Sloan Museum of Discovery is not all about cars; rather, the two auto-themed galleries are only part of a larger space which includes four hands-on learning galleries and exhibition hall geared toward young children. One of the galleries included a simulated car repair shop which welcomed kids to try their hands at automotive mechanics. I was pleased to see a young girl in a hard hat and safety vest working diligently under the hood.
The visit to the Sloan Museum of Discovery was undertaken as part of my current project to examine how women are represented in automotive museums. While women were not prominent in the museum exhibits, they were present in small but important ways.
The ‘Dunning Carriage to Cars Exhibit’, part of the History Gallery, is funded by the Margaret Dunning Foundation. The signage accompanying the exhibit reads: ‘Dunning was a successful businesswoman known for her love of classic cars. She established the foundation in her name in 1997. It nurtures the preservation and teaching of automotive history and other charitable interests in Michigan.’ Dunning was a philanthropist, history buff, classic car enthusiast, and huge proponent of automotive education. Her foundation not only funded the exhibit in Flint, but also programs in automotive technology and auto design in various schools throughout the state. Her contributions to the Sloan are in tandem with the museum’s mission to serve as an educational experience and resource for residents of Genesee county and other Sloan visitors.
Other references to women include their important role as members of the Emergency Brigade during the 1936 General Motors Sit-Down Strike. As noted in Jalopnik, “Many think of factory work, and therefore a strike in the automotive industry, as something primarily men would do. But it was the members of the Women’s Emergency Brigade, a paramilitary group of women inside the United Auto Workers union, who proved to be the secret weapon in that group’s triumph over General Motors.” Women are also included in exhibits focused on safety – in the car and on the factory floor.
The museum does not shy away from the auto industry’s negative impacts on the city of Flint. An underlying theme in the History Gallery involves the automobile’s affect on race relations through the displacement of black Flint residents via expansion, highway construction, and eventual loss of industry to the area.
While my intention in visiting the Sloan was to examine how women were represented, I came away impressed with how the museum endeavors to serve as a source of automotive education of all who visit, regardless of age, race, or gender.
I continued my investigation of women’s representation in automotive museums by stopping by the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum in Lansing, Michigan. As I work my way through this project, I am discovering that the focus of a particular museum is most often determined by the interests and intention of its founders. While the museums I have visited thus far have been structured around either a place or a collector’s interest, the Olds Museum – like its name – is an automotive collection assembled based on a major car manufacturer and the man who lent it its name. The layout of the museum reveals its two identities: first, as a [literal] road through early Oldsmobile history, and second, as a looser collection of more recent Olds automobiles, additional REO endeavors, artifacts, related businesses and industries, and a bit of 1950s car culture. While the first section of the museum is tightly organized, the large back ‘dealership’ room is a little more hodgepodge, encompassing a wide variety of Olds, GM, Fisher Body, and tangential industry paraphernalia.
Because the museum is centered on a man and a car, women are not well represented. Like many of the museums I’ve visited, [visual] references to women are primarily related to fashion. There are many female mannequins placed throughout the museum garbed in the styles of a particular time related to the automobile. Other references to women include those who have donated vehicles to the collection, advertisements and promotional material, photos of [unidentified] female factory workers, and ephemera [such as employee nametags]. A glass case includes a small display of items related to the Oldsmobile Girls Club – a 1950s-60s women’s community organization – that includes photographs, programs, mugs, sewing kits, charm bracelets, vanity items, ashtrays, and a cookbook.
While women – as workers, drivers, and club members – take a back seat to the major automotive leaders on display, there are two that are named, and thus deserve special attention. The first is Metta Olds, who was married to Ransom, popularly known as ‘R.E.’ The tour through the museum begins with a focus on the Olds family and homestead. Much of that is devoted to Metta – photos, family trees, furniture, personal items, and clothing. Metta was very much a silent partner and supporter of her husband; a book titled Loves, Lives, and Labors was written about their strong relationship and Metta’s roll as ‘woman-behind-the-man’. While, as the wife of the founder, Metta could easily be referred to as the ‘First Lady of Oldsmobile’, that title was, in fact, bestowed on Helen Earley, a longtime employee who, through a number of positions, created a position for herself as the resident Oldsmobile historian. Automotive historian Robert Tate writes that Earley, as a scholar, historian, and archivist, ‘contributed a great deal of knowledge to the automotive community.’ During her career, Earley and another retiree helped establish the Oldsmobile History Center. She also co-authored two books on Oldsmobile history: Setting the Pace: Oldsmobile’s First 100 Years written with James R. Walkinshaw, and Oldsmobile: A War Years Pictorial. Earley was also one of the founding task force members responsible for creating the R.E. Olds Museum; she also served as a board member for the National Automotive History Collection, the Library and Research Center for the Antique Automobile Club of America, and was a recipient of the prestigious James J. Bradley Award from the Society of Automotive Historians. This award recognized the ‘Outstanding contributions to the preservation of historical materials related to the automobiles produced by Oldsmobile and for the spirit of helpfulness to writers, researchers, historians and restorers’.
Despite Earley’s importance to Oldsmobile history and the museum, one has to search to find out anything about her. There is her name over the board room, a portrait on the board room wall, and a card clipped to a driving outfit on one of the displays. I finally discovered a glass case containing some photos and her self-authored obituary in a hidden away corner of the ‘dealership’ room. Although recognized as the designated ‘first lady’, Earley receives what can be described as second-class attention.
The RE Olds Transportation Museum was an interesting stop on my tour of automotive museums. While the collection focuses on a specific individual and the company he founded, women’s unique contributions to Oldsmobile can be uncovered if one looks hard enough.
Paul Niedermeyer, writing for Curbside Classics, penned a couple of interesting articles over the past year on the 1950s era Rambler Cross Country. Calling on automotive advertising of the time, Niedermeyer notes how the Rambler was often marketed specifically to the female driver. The Rambler, as ‘the first lifestyle wagon ever,’ was heralded not only for its suitability for growing families, but also for its bold style and unusual, somewhat radical appearance. Advertising was directed not only to suburban moms, but also to fashion-conscious women who desired both practicality and pizazz in the cars they drove. A key part of making the Rambler appealing to women was drawing attention to its interior fabrics and trim, designed by the renowned Helene Rother. As Niedermeyer remarks, ‘a woman’s touch can’t be easily faked.’ Advertising for the Rambler often featured famous women – including American theatre star Margaret Sullavan and the wife of actor Jimmy Stewart – to associate the vehicle with glamour, luxury, class, and discriminating taste. Unlike other automotive advertising of the time, Rambler had a fair amount of success by targeting more affluent and better educated buyers, especially women.
More than a year after the original article appeared, Niedermeyer responded to a previously posted comment that had apparently been gnawing at him for some time. The reader, focusing specifically on the notion that women were important Rambler purchasers, posted, ‘In defense of men, though, many of those 50s women buyers were spending lavishly their husband’s and father’s money.’ Niedermeyer, taking great offense at this comment, countered with multiple examples of how the scenario painted by the defensive reader was unlikely. Calling upon his own experience, he recalled how his father traded in his mother’s car without her knowledge or blessing. As he writes, ‘she was furious, but what was she going to do?’ Niedermeyer also notes that during the 1950s, a growing number of women had careers. In fact, he argues, the targeting of female consumers by Rambler was instrumental in allowing the automaker to survive the early to mid 1950s, when other domestic compacts were failing. Surprisingly [at least to me] Curbside Classic readers – primarily men – joined Niedermeyer in expressing offense to the stereotypical response. Many offered examples of how the women in their respective lives – i.e. strongly opinionated moms, older maiden aunts, and [assumed] lesbian teachers – made their own car buying decisions. Rather than reinforce the generalized stereotype of hapless and uninformed women drivers, the commenters offered a variety of car-purchasing scenarios influenced by family dynamics, finances, marital status, sexual orientation, and the progressiveness of women and men alike.
The Curbside Classic articles caught my attention not only because of the focus on female consumers, but because the author’s comments, as well as those of his readers, brought to mind those of a group of elderly women I interviewed for a project a few years ago. In 2016 I spoke to 21 women in their 80s and 90s – of the same generation of those targeted in 1950s automotive advertising – about their early automotive experiences. Included in the conversations were reminisces regarding individual car histories. Although automakers such as Rambler attempted to lure female customers, the majority of the women I spoke to, when entering marriage, did not have a vehicle of their own, but shared one with husbands. When children appeared on the scene, women fought hard for cars of their own to make their lives easier. However, the majority of these vehicles were not shiny new Ramblers; rather, they were most often described as ‘jalopies’’, ‘clunkers’, or ‘old and cheap’. While there were a few women whose husbands ‘surprised’ them with fancy cars for birthdays or special occasions, most were grateful for anything that offered them a degree of independence.
Since many of the women interviewed were located in the greater Detroit area, it was not uncommon for them to work in auto-related industries, or to have friends or relatives who did. This allowed them to purchase a car a family member had previously driven, secure the inside track on a good used vehicle, or take advantage of an automotive employee discount. Others took over the old family car when a new automobile was purchased. Yet no matter how the car was acquired, the women had a definite say in automobile selection, and would accompany husbands to the dealership to make their desires known. If spouses purchased cars without their wives’ input, they often found themselves heading back to the sales office. Not surprisingly, single women – whether unmarried, widowed, or divorced – had the freedom to purchase the car they wanted without male influence or intervention. What became clear from these conversations is that what women wished for in a car – i.e. functionality, economy, and reliability – often differed from the qualities desired by men. Consequently, making their own automotive needs and requirements known was a very important element of the car purchase process. The responses from the women in this project – as well as the Curbside Classic comments – suggests that women were exceptionally influential in car purchases, particularly if it was a car they would be driving. In the present day, it is estimated that women buy 65 percent of all new cars sold in the USA, and influence 85 percent of car buying decisions (Findlay). It is a practice that, as the responses suggest, began as soon as women took the wheel.
Niedermeyer was correct to question the stereotypical comment of one of his readers; i.e. that women’s car purchases were made possible by lavishly spending their husband’s or father’s money. While certainly there were some women who were ‘surprised’ by car purchases made by husbands, the majority of women made their own automotive decisions. As the Curbside Classic articles and my own research suggest, if a woman drove a Rambler, it was most likely because she had the means and the desire to do so.
Findlay, Steve. ‘Women in Majority as Car Buyers, But Not as Dealership Employees.’ Wardsauto.com 20 Sept 2016.
Lezotte, Chris. ‘Born to Drive: Elderly Women’s Recollections of Early Automotive Experiences.’ The Journal of Transport History 40(3) (2019): 395-417.
Niedermeyer, Paul. ‘How Rambler Won the Compact and Price Wars of the 1950s and Saved American Motors.’ Curbsideclassic.com 25 Jan 2021.
Niedermeyer, Paul. ‘She Drives a Rambler’, and No, She ‘Wasn’t Lavishly Spending Her Husband’s Money.’ Curbsideclassic.com 3 October 2022.
A recent Jalopnik article asked its readers to elaborate on how they ‘got into cars.’ While the responses included references to racing, car magazines, and movies, the majority fell into two categories. The first route to a life as an auto enthusiast was through a relationship with a male relative or mentor, most often one’s dad. The second was a childhood preoccupation with ‘toys that move,’ whether those vehicles were the popular Hot Wheels, Matchbox cars, model cars, slot cars, Tonka trucks, or racing sets. Although women compose over half of US licensed drivers, cars are very much perceived as a male interest. This was evident in the comments accompanying the Jalopnik article which were, as far as I could tell, posted overwhelmingly by men. This suggests that while women are engaged with the automobile as drivers, they are less likely than their male counterparts to take on the mantle of ‘auto aficionado.’ If the Jalopnik article does, in fact, reflect the most common routes to automotive interest, it would appear that such influences are absent in women’s early lives.
In my own research into women’s relationship with the car – particularly as participants in automotive cultures traditionally associated with the male driver [i.e. muscle cars, pickup trucks, and motorsports] – the encouragement of a male family member or mentor was instrumental in instigating and maintaining a girl’s or young woman’s automotive interest. Many of the women interviewed in these various projects noted the importance of fathers, boyfriends, and husbands in acquiring a love for all things automotive. It is significant to note that the majority who responded in this manner were without male siblings, which suggests that dad would not have had as much concern in encouraging his daughters if he had sons [one has to wonder if the Force sisters would have made such an impact on the drag racing world if John Force had a son or two.] A much smaller percentage of the women noted how they developed in interest in cars by ‘borrowing’ the matchbox cars of brothers or male playmates. Young girls are rarely gifted toy cars; toys that move have always been promoted as proper toys for boys. While the notion that ‘girls just aren’t interested in cars’ has become somewhat of a rationale for women’s general lack of participation in automotive culture and industry, the gendered division of playthings -particularly toy cars and trucks – has deprived girls from the likelhood of developing a passion for the automobile.
Toys often serve as introductions to and reinforcements of cultural and gender expectations. As among the earliest and most influential technologies with which children come into contact, toys ‘transmit to children […] particular views of gender relations, examples of appropriate behavior, and character models’ (Varney 2002, 153). The gendered demarcation of toys was well established by the early twentieth century. The transition from horse drawn carriages to gasoline-powered automobiles was reflected in the playthings available to young boys – horse and buggy toys were replaced by miniature cars. Young girls also experienced a gendered progression – the Victorian sewing doll was superseded by the baby doll. While baby dolls reinforced the expectation that women would live quiet and unassuming lives as mothers, ‘toy vehicles captured the variety of men’s life of automobility, as drivers of status cars, as deliverers of useful goods, as roadmakers, and race car drivers. These were male machines that opened up a dynamic modern world to their drivers’ (Cross 2009, 56). Much like the vehicles they imitated, toy cars were irrefutably associated with technological aptitude, risk taking behavior, and maleness. As Ruth Oldenziel (2001) suggests, ‘toys were intended not only to amuse and entertain but also as socializing mechanisms, as educational devices and as scaled-down versions of the realities of the larger adult-dominated social world’ (42).
The lack of automotive exposure in childhood can have significant repercussions in adulthood. As I noted in an examination of women’s car advice websites (Lezotte 2014), without a grasp of automotive knowledge women are likely to experience significantly more discrimination in purchasing and servicing automobiles than their male counterparts. And without early exposure to cars, women are less likely to consider careers in auto-related industries or professions. Links between machinery and masculinity, originating in the assignment of mechanical toys to boys, has kept particular skills and professions within male domination. ‘In a society which thinks highly of technology and which there is an elaborate relationship between power and technology,’ notes Wendy Varney (2002), ‘this exclusion from that domain can effectively lock one out of a vast area of influence’ (168). Not only does this lack of auto interest and education limit women’s occupational opportunities, but can lead to a scenario in which decisions in vehicle engineering, design, production, and use are left primarily to the men in charge. As Wheel writer Emily Fritz (2018) asserts, ‘As we neglect to involve girls in car culture from a young age, we are also neglecting to involve them in the opportunity to learn and gain skills such as the ability to use tools, the ability to formulate basic civil engineering, and the ability to come in contact with the ways in which moving parts work—all of which are found in many car-based boy’s toys.’
The Jalopnik article – and the overwhelmingly male responses – is not only indicative of what is certainly a mostly male readership, but also demonstrates the importance of toys that move in the development of automotive interest in young boys. Since the majority of young girls grow up to be drivers, it is puzzling [but not surprising] that they are dissuaded from engaging with cars at the age in which they are most impressionable. But then again, most boys grow up to be fathers, yet are discouraged, if not ostracized, when demonstrating any interest in dolls. Such is the gendered power of toys.
Note: some of this material is taken from an article-in-progress on the Barbie car.
Cross, Gary S. 2009. Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood.
DaSilva, Steve. 2022. ‘These Are the Stories of How You Got Into Cars.’ Jalopnik 10 Oct.
Fritz, Emily. 2018. “The Harm of Gender Roles in Car Culture: An Argument for Getting Girls Involved.” Wheel.
Lezotte, Chris. 2014. ‘Women Auto Know: Automotive Knowledge, Auto Activism, and Women’s Online Car Advice.’ Feminist Media Studies.
Oldenziel, Ruth. 2001. ‘Boys and Their Toys: The Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild, 1930-1968, and the Making of a Male Technical Domain.’ In Boys and Their Toys: Masculinity, Class and Technology in America, edited by Roger Horowitz, 139-168.
Varney, Wendy. 2002. ‘Of Men and Machines: Images of Masculinities in Boys’ Toys.’ Feminist Studies 28(1): 153-174.