Serendipitous Summer

Academic publication can work in strange ways. Getting a manuscript from submission to publication – with reviews, revisions, resubmissions, and restarts – can take a considerable amount of time. It can seem like ages before something is published, then all of a sudden multiple articles are released at the same time. That is what happened this summer. Projects I started years ago, as well as those written more recently, all appeared in print or online in the past couple of months. 

The first project published was a chapter on the history of women-only racing I was asked to write for a book on the history and politics of motorsports. While I was given rather broad guidelines – women in motorsports – I was able to craft a chapter – “From Powder Puff to W Series: The Evolution of Women-Only Racing” – that traced women’s involvement in segregated racing from the early years of motorsports until the beginning of the twenty-first century. While I entered the project rather ignorant of motorsports history in general and women’s motorsports involvement in particular, the staff at the International Motor Racing Research Center [IMRRC] in Watkins Glen, New York provided both materials and assistance for which I am extremely grateful.

The second article to appear was one developed from a virtual conference – co-convened by the Society of Automotive Historians and Automotive Historians Australia –  in which I participated last fall. The instructions for this project was to explore the ways in which the Australian and North American auto industries ‘shared parts and components, staff, expertise and skills, engineering, design and studio practices, business and management structures, and advertising and trade practices.’ Although I am not well versed in automotive history on either side of the Pacific, I decided to construct a historiography of women’s automotive history from Australian and American scholars. “Women & Automobiles Across Two Continents: An [Unfortunately] Brief Historiography of Women’s Automotive Scholarship in Australia and America” turned out to be an interesting endeavor, and provided me with the opportunity to put the skills I learned in graduate school – a shout out to BGSU professor of history Andy Schocket – to good use. I was contacted by the editor of the Automotive History Review to rework the presentation into a paper suitable for inclusion, to which I eagerly and gratefully consented.

The third project to reach fruition was “Pink Power: The Barbie Car and Female Automobility”. This project had a long and interesting journey from conception to publication. The idea was originally presented at the Popular Culture Association [PCA] virtual conference in 2020 during COVID. It was developed into a paper and submitted to an academic journal for consideration. It languished at the journal for months. I was asked to revise and resubmit, after which I waited another few months before being told that the article just wasn’t a good fit for the publication. The rejection turned out to be fortuitous. I resubmitted to The Journal of American Culture, and after making the recommended revisions, the article was published online just one week after the release of the Barbie film. Talk about perfect timing! This publication capped an incredible summer of published scholarship of which I am excited and proud.

I won’t experience another flurry of academic publishing activity for perhaps a year or two. I currently have two projects in process – in the writing and research stages, respectively. As I continue on these projects, I will take a moment to enjoy this serendipitous moment when all of the academic publishing gods collided. 

‘Woman’s Place’ in American Car Culture

While in graduate school during the 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 feminist historians initially responded to the question “What is Woman’s Place in American Car Culture?”, incorporating some of the more recent literature in women’s automotive scholarship.

In 1980, Charles L. Sanford introduced a question that few in the auto industry, academia or popular culture had ever bothered to ask. And that is, “what is woman’s place in American car culture?” Sanford’s inquiry attempted to initiate an investigation into women’s limited and often invisible role in American car culture and automotive social history. Sanford made visible a notable lack in scholarship devoted to the relationship between women and cars. In the two decades that followed, feminist historians and literary scholars initiated an effort to address Sanford’s question.

Virginia Scharff, in her seminal work Taking the Wheel, and Margaret Walsh, through her work with The Henry Ford and the University of Michigan-Dearborn, as well as a number of articles focusing on distinct periods in women’s automotive experience, provide historical analyses of the automobile industry and women’s determined struggle to construct a place within it. Deborah Clarke addresses Sanford’s question through an examination of women’s literature in which the automobile assumes an important role. Clarke suggests that women have always considered themselves participants in car culture, but validation and recognition of such a place often eludes them. While Scharff, Walsh and Clarke respond to Sanford’s inquiry through the lens of varying disciplines, each uses the category of gender, and the social construction of masculinity and femininity in relation to the automobile, as the basis of analysis. Each strongly argues that the masculinity built into and associated with automobility has not only influenced auto industry decisions and policy, but has also established impenetrable barriers to woman’s relationship with the car, and woman’s place in car culture.

The automobile was imbued with masculinity from its conception. As the Industrial Revolution assured that man and machine would become irrevocably linked, the automotive industry, the product of that industry and the driver of the product were henceforth labeled masculine. This stalwart and stubborn association of automobile technology with masculinity often postponed or prevented those innovations perceived as feminine. Necessary improvements in comfort, style, luxury, economy and safety were often considered a concession to female tastes and received low priority in automobile production. Scharff provides a number of instances in which notions about gender not only blinded automakers to potential markets for their products, but set industry progress and production back unnecessarily as well. Scharff writes, “what some observers of the 1920s saw as […] a drive toward the decorative in automotive design, others interpreted as the emasculation of both industry men and the cars they made” (Wheel 113). The industry rarely asked women what they desired in a car, as acknowledgement of such responses might infer auto industry feminization. While industry leaders recognized the potential of the female customer, they grappled with how to appeal to the feminine market while keeping the masculinity of the automobile, and those who produced them, intact.

The auto industry responded by calling upon “innate” biological differences to suggest that men and women would “naturally” have different needs and expectations for the automobile. Automakers promoted women’s use of the automobile for its practical applications; thus the car, in women’s possession, became a domestic technology for the performance of prescribed gendered tasks. Unlike male drivers, women were not encouraged to identify with the car; the car was to occupy the same place in women’s lives as the vacuum cleaner and sewing machine. Scharff tells us, “as the automobile industry revolutionized the nation’s geographical, economic and cultural landscape […] it also played no small part in reinscribing assumptions about masculinity and femininity” (Wheel 112). The association of the automobile with masculinity served not only to reinforce the dominance of men’s privileged position in the car, the auto industry and society as a whole, but also affirmed woman’s proper place in public, on the road and in the home. As Scharff asserts, “auto industry decision makers, virtually all male, wanted to believe in the continued dominance and desirability of men’s privileged position in society and in economic matters” (Wheel 116). Thus woman’s “place” in car culture became where those in power wanted her to be: behind the wheel, but only in the fulfillment of her culturally prescribed domestic role.

In Driving Women, Deborah Clarke elaborates on the conflation of the car with the man who drives it. She writes, “more than any other machine, [the car] became anthropomorphized in American culture, generally functioning as both extension of the self and treasured companion” (47). As the car is associated with masculinity, car culture is a male culture. Women’s place in is most often defined in relationship to men and men’s cars. In such contexts, women are often accessories or sexual objects to be controlled or conquered. Women are utilized to enhance or confirm masculinity; their “place” is clearly subservient to that of the car and the man who drives it. As Clarke tells us, “popular myth associates cars with masculinity, and automobile advertising continues to link the car to the female body, promising men control over speed and women” (1). Yet what Sanford suggests and which Clarke confirms is that many women have a relationship with cars that is often comparable in kind and intensity to that expressed by men. Women ascribe meanings to cars; they call on the car’s ability to erase boundaries of home and the domestic sphere, and to provide a sense of independence, freedom and mobility. As Clarke writes, “the car allows women a position from which to construct individual identity, exercise individual agency, and chart a course as acknowledged individuals in American culture” (4). Yet while each of the contributors acknowledges the continuous presence of women in car culture, none offers a suggestion to make women’s presence better known. While Scharff, Walsh and Clarke are unanimous in ascribing importance to women’s participation, “given that cars often determine our place in American society,” not one of them offers a remedy for women’s continued invisibility in the auto industry and in American car culture (Clarke 8). 

In “A Woman’s Place in American Car Culture,” Charles Sanford writes, “what is needed is both an intimate feminine viewpoint from several perspectives about women’s experience with cars”(140). Scharff, Walsh and Clarke have provided such insight, but it is not enough. While Clarke calls upon the car as a “vehicle” to examine women’s place, such an analysis does nothing to improve women’s standing in the automotive industry or in car culture. In order to change the mentality of the American car industry, the importance of women to American car culture must become common knowledge. Society has historically underestimated the importance of cars to women. Automakers continue to shape and construct woman’s place in car culture in its own image, persisting in the narrow, like-minded, inbred thinking that has plagued the industry for generations. Women have a place in car culture independent of that prescribed for them. It is up to them to let automakers, and the world, know exactly what it is.

Since this essay was written in 2008, new scholars have approached this topic from various points of view. In Eat My Dust, Georgine Clarsen provides a counterpart to Scharff as she shifts the focus from automakers to female motorists and their efforts to become recognized as competent drivers within early twentieth-century America. Social historian Kathleen Franz dispels the notion of the woman driver as mechanically inept by drawing on accounts of early female motorists involved in the practice of “tinkering” in her book of the same name. Katherine Parkin investigates the gendered ways Americans have purchased, driven, and repaired automobiles since the early twentieth century in Women at the Wheel: A Century of Buying, Driving, and Fixing Cars. And in my own work, I have investigated women’s participation in various car cultures – chick cars, muscle cars, motorsports, and pickup trucks – as well as examined representations of the woman driver in locations such as popular music and film. These additional twenty-first-century projects have brought more attention to the woman driver; certainly the ascension of Mary Barra to the helm of General Motors has challenged the common assumption that women have little interest or knowledge of cars. But until women are universally recognized as being men’s equal automotive culture, there remains work to be done.

Clarke, Deborah. Driving Women: Fiction and Automobile Culture in Twentieth-Century America. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.

Clarsen, Georgine. Eat My Dust: Early Women Motorists. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 2008.

Franz, Kathleen. Tinkering: Consumers Reinvent the Early Automobile. Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.

Parkin, Katherine. Woman at the Wheel: A Century of Buying, Driving, and Fixing Cars. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017.

Sanford, Charles. “‘Woman’s Place’ in American Car Culture.” The Automobile and American Culture. D.L. Lewis & L. Goldstein, eds. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1983. 137-152.

Scharff, Virginia. Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991.

Walsh, Margaret. “At Home at the Wheel? The Woman and her Automobile in the 1950s.” The Third Eccles Centre for American Studies Plenary Lecture: Proceedings of the British Association of American Studies Annual Conference, 2006. The British Library (2007): 1-21. 

—        “Gender and Automobility: Selling Cars to American Women after the Second World War.” Charm (2009): 295-310.

—        “Gender and the Automobile in the History of the United States.” Automobile in American Life and Society. University of Michigan-Dearborn. 2004-2010.

Just One More Car Book

One of my favorite auto sites is Jalopnik, self-defined as ‘a news and opinion website about cars, the automotive industry, racing, transportation, airplanes, technology, motorcycles and much more.’ While the site has its detractors, I enjoy it because its staff tends to be younger, more diverse, and dare-I-say less conservative than many of the more traditional online locations devoted to cars. It is part of Go Media, which includes sites devoted to pop culture, feminism, Black news and culture, and irreverent news commentary [e.g. The Onion], which can certainly throw light on its more liberal leanings. While the majority of articles are serious and well-informed reflections on the automobile, the auto industry, and automotive events, at least once a week a story appears that can only be described as ‘fun.’

Part of the author’s automotive book collection.

One of those ‘fun’ articles from last spring was devoted to a collection of rare automotive books  – 643 to be exact – that sold for ‘more than the price of a new car.’ In reporting on the sale – as well as her own attempt to acquire the collection through a modest offer [she was significantly outbid]- the author reflected on her own car book collection and her unwavering desire to expand it. Through membership in various automotive organizations, most notably the Society of Automotive Historians – I have come recognize the desire to collect automotive literature to be an obsession, if not an addiction, among a good number of automotive enthusiasts. I myself am somewhat guilty of this need to accumulate car books. While working on my various research projects, I have discovered that it is often easier and less expensive to purchase a book than to track it down at a library, particularly when gas, parking, and time are considered. As I have discovered, purchasing and reselling out-of-date books – not only automotive but an endless selection of subjects – has become its own little industry. While I don’t quite understand how someone can make a profit selling books for less than a dollar, I am more than happy to shell out a buck or two for a volume that might be a useful resource for one of my ongoing or future women-and-car projects. As literature on women’s automotive history is limited, I was thrilled to find a good selection of books on this subject by noted historians and cultural scholars including Virginia Scharff, Katherine Parkin, Georgine Clarsen, Martin Wachs, and Julie Wosk. Books by James Flink, John Heitmann, David Gartman, John Rae, and Gijs Mom have helped me fill in the automotive history blanks in much of my work. When I needed resources on muscle cars, pickup trucks, popular music, and road trip films for papers on those topics, the $2 books picked up by someone from a discarded library collection helped filled the bill. Sometimes I will just scan Amazon with subject headings – e.g. women and cars, car culture, or automotive history – to see if there’s anything of interest I might purchase. My husband, who is more of a mainstream car buff, also collects car books, although his tend to focus on a particular individual, car brand, or historical event. Between the two of us we have quite an eclectic collection of automotive literature, overflowing from a number a few bookcases in our home.

While I originally – somewhat naïvely – thought I was somewhat alone in the auto book obsession, through my various encounters I have discovered car book collecting is a common affliction among car enthusiasts of all interests and persuasions. I daresay it is an addiction I am in no hurry to cure.

Women & Cars in a COVID Year

Over the past 10 years, beginning soon after I entered graduate school, I have spent most summers in the field talking to women about their cars. Whether it was classic Thunderbirds, sporty chick cars, rumbling muscle cars, or utilitarian pickup trucks, summer – with its preponderance of car shows and automotive events – provided a multitude of research opportunities. However, the COVID summer of 2020 put a sudden stop to such activities. And while car shows are slowly picking up in 2021, there are family issues which will cause me to stay close to home this summer. These turns of events will keep me from embarking on my anticipated project – women and Jeeps – for another year. 

The lack of ethnographic opportunities, however, led me to consider other types of women-and-car research projects. A few years ago I had presented a paper on women and cars in film at the Popular Culture Association [PCA] conference. As I had already conducted some of the initial research, the pandemic stay-at-home orders provided an open stretch of time for me to pursue the project. Prior to COVID, I had been asked to contribute a chapter on women and motorsports for an upcoming book. I had attended a Motorsports Conference in Watkins Glen in November 2019 and conducted a little research at the IMRRC [International Motor Racing Research Center] while there; this visit gave me both the material and the impetus to tackle the chapter. And after helping an individual with some advertising questions posted to the Society of Automotive Historians, I was approached by the Automotive History Review – the official journal of the SAH – to write an article about my experiences working at a Detroit automotive advertising agency during the 1980s. Suddenly, after wondering how I was going to spend months of lockdown, I had plenty of research projects to keep me motivated and busy. 

Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, and a classic 1955 Dodge Lancer in Grandma

In ‘What Would Miss Daisy Drive? The Road Trip Film, the Automobile, and the Woman Behind the Wheel’, I look at 10 post Thelma and Louise films to examine the relationship between a female protagonist and her automobile. As I noted in the PCA presentation: 

Since women first expressed interest in automobility, auto manufacturers and marketers have directed the female motorist toward the practical ‘family’ vehicle. While men are encouraged to purchase automobiles that reflect power, performance, and toughness, women are expected to drive a safe, reliable, and functional automobile that reinforces the gender appropriate role of wife and mother. Throughout the nearly 100 years since the first automobile rolled off Henry Ford’s assembly line, advertisers and automakers have consistently and determinedly placed the woman driver behind the wheel of a station wagon, minivan, small SUV, or crossover.

Although modern day advertising continues to reflect this longstanding trend, there is one location that occasionally disrupts this pervasive representation. In the female road trip film, the protagonist is likely to drive a vehicle rarely associated with the woman driver. While traditionally presented as a passenger, sidekick, or not at all in the classic male road narrative, when women take the wheel on the silver screen, the cars they drive take on important supporting roles. Whether a classic car, utilitarian vehicle, convertible, luxury sedan or clunker, these cinematic vehicles are significant not only for the meanings they convey, but also for their ability to challenge common woman driver stereotypes. 

The films selected were Grandma, Anywhere But Here, Tammy, Boys on the Side, Tumbleweeds, Cloudburst, Camilla, Bonneville, Manny and Lo, and Leaving Normal. In each of these motion pictures, the type of car – classic, luxury, convertible, utilitarian, clunker, and family – was not just a prop, but rather, was integral to the story and the woman who drove it. As I note in the abstract, “Focusing on the car rather than the journey, the paper reassesses the role and significance of the automobile in film; examines how the woman’s car in film has the ability to disrupt both the dominant road trip and cultural narratives; and broadens the notion of women’s car use to include considerations of identity, agency, reinvention, friendship, family, and empowerment.’ The paper was submitted, returned for revision and resubmission, and accepted for publication in The Journal of Popular Culture.

Powder Puff competitor Dorothy Cokely in #41

In ‘From Powder Puff to W Series: The Evolution of Women-Only Racing’ I embarked on new territory. The only guideline for this project was to write on the history and politics of women in motorsport, a rather broad topic. I chose to focus specifically on the history of women’s only racing in an attempt to address the long standing question of whether women are best served by separate or equal opportunities. When I started the project, I was not familiar with motorsports in general, and other than a few famous names – Janet Guthrie, Lyn St James, and Danica Patrick – had little knowledge of the women who participated in it. However, by the time I completed the project, I had a better understanding of the obstacles and challenges women experience when competing in an historically associated with masculinity and the male driver. As I write in the abstract:

Throughout its storied history, motorsports has been unwelcoming to women. Consequently, it has been necessary for female racers to develop unique strategies to enter what has long existed as an exclusive masculine enclave. While entry can be facilitated through a familial relationship with a male driver, women without such connections often get their start through participation in women-only racing events. Although these races – e.g. Powder Puff, Formula Woman, and W Series – have provided women with the opportunity to enter the track, they have not been without controversy. Detractors argue that women will not be considered legitimate racers unless they compete on the same track as men. Proponents view women-only racing not only as a way to attract more women into the sport, but also as an important source of skill development, support, and community building.

This paper investigates the evolution of 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. Informed by historical documents, news articles, and personal accounts, it considers how women-only racing complicates, facilitates, and liberates women’s entry, participation, and recognition in the masculine world of motorsports.

The completed chapter was submitted, returned for revisions, then sent off to the publisher. Lives in the Fast Lane: Essays on the History and Politics of Motor Racing will be published in 2022.

The author [right] is pictured with her creative partner [center] and the actor [left]

The last project was perhaps the most fun, as everyone loves writing about themselves. ‘McCann & Me: One Woman’s Experience in Detroit Automotive Advertising’ is a recollection of the three years I spent working in the car advertising business 35 years ago. As I write in the introduction: 

Prior to my (very) late entry into academia, I spent nearly two decades in advertising, as an art director, copywriter, creative group supervisor, and eventually a Vice President. A few of those years were spent at McCann-Erickson, one of the many automotive agencies centered in metropolitan Detroit during this time. My career spanned the 1970s and 1980s, a very different era in the advertising world. It was the pre-digital age –  computers were not yet commonplace; the Internet was not yet public; photographers still used film; and MTV was in its infancy. This recollection should not be taken as representative of a universal experience; rather, it provides a glimpse into Detroit automotive agency culture during a particular moment in US automotive history.

The article was submitted, returned for revision, and accepted. It will be published in the upcoming issue of the Automotive History Review.

The COVID pandemic resulted in serious disruption in the way we all live. I was fortunate to have been able to put that time to productive use. To have three articles written, revised, and accepted for publication in one year is something of which I am very proud. As I enter my second COVID year, I have begun a new non-ethnographical and fun project. ‘Pink Power: The Barbie Car and Female Automobility’, will be presented at the June 2021 virtual PCA conference.