I first ‘met’ Harriet Edquist when presenting at Wheels Across the Pacific: Transnational Histories of the Automobile Industry, a virtual conference organized jointly by the AHA [Automotive Historians Australia] and the SAH [Society of Automotive Historians]. The objective of the symposium was to explore 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. Dr. Edquist, a professor of architectural history at RMIT [Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology] and Director of RMIT Design Archives, was both an organizer and presenter. She was also, as it turns out, an integral presence in my own paper, which focused on women’s automotive history scholarship in both the United States and Australia. As I noted in my presentation, automotive history has been slow to incorporate the influences and practices of women. It wasn’t until the later part of the twentieth century that women’s absence from the automotive archives was noticed and addressed. Feminist scholars in Britain, the US, and Australia took upon the arduous and important task of writing women into automotive history. Edquist is one of the more recent contributors to this critical chronicle of women and the automobile.
Although Edquist’s research projects focus primarily on architectural and design history, her automotive interests have broadened the scope of her scholarship to include automotive design and women’s participation in the Australian auto industry. Through her investigation of women’s automotive experience in the early decades of the twentieth century – women as drivers and mechanics; their opportunities as production workers; and as designers and engineers – Edquist has effectively built on the research of fellow Australians Kimberley Webber and Georgine Clarsen to bring attention to the various ways women have engaged with the automobile over time. “In Women in the Early Australian Automotive Industry: A Survey“, co-authored with Judith Glover, Edquist calls upon variety of sources – photographs, newspaper articles, mail correspondence, RACV archives, online resources, automotive forums, journal articles, dissertations, and automotive design archives and publications – to recover Australian women from automotive obscurity and bring attention to how they experienced automobility as workers and drivers.
In this engrossing essay, Edquist and Glover examine women’s efforts to become recognized as legitimate drivers through long distance auto tours and participation in the growing sport of auto racing. Both automotive activities provided opportunities for women to gain proficiency not only behind the wheel, but under the hood as well. The authors cite Clarsen’s argument that the media’s fascination with female drivers ‘criss-crossing’ the continent was an important component of nation-building as well as a means to present Australia as modern and civilized. This was particularly interesting to me as an American, as women’s long distance tours in the US during this time served primarily as marketing tools for various auto manufacturers. Edquist and Glover also call upon case histories and recovered photographs to illustrate women’s participation in the car industry as production workers as well as automotive engineers and designers.
The recent work of Edquist and Glover presents new evidence of Australian women’s engagement with cars as drivers, workers, and designers. Important in its own right, the study also suggests the possibilities of further research into women’s automotive history and hopefully prompts additional investigative projects in both Australia and the United States.
This past weekend I had the honor of participating in an international symposium – Wheels Across the Pacific: Transnational Histories of the Automotive Industry. It was a joint effort by the Automotive Historians of Australia [AHA] and the Society of Automotive Historians [SAH] in the US; the goal was to explore 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. There were in-person attendees in Australia, as well as international viewers all over the globe. While the time differences among participants made for a challenging evening [or morning or afternoon, depending on the time zone], the symposium was a unique opportunity to share scholarship and conversation with car folks from down under.
In terms of my own presentation, I veered somewhat from the established guidelines. As a cultural historian, I am not well versed in the ins and outs of the automotive industry on either continent. But I thought I could contribute in a different way. ‘Women and Automobiles Across Two Continents: An [Unfortunately] Brief Historiography of Women’s Automotive Scholarship in Australia and America’ examines the trajectory of women’s automotive history in both countries. What follows is both the introduction to the presentation as well as the conclusion – in which I summarize my objectives as well as present a challenge to present and future historians of the automobile. I hope to develop this brief historiography into a publication-ready paper at a later date.
Since the turn of the twentieth century – and the beginning of the motor age – writers of various persuasions in multiple locations have set upon the task of documenting the automobile’s vast and varied history. The first automotive histories – of auto companies, auto industry leaders, and popular accounts of the automobile’s impact – began to appear in the early 1920s. Scholarly examinations of automotive history first entered the scene in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Influenced by the cultural turn, historians looked beyond the auto industry and its internal dynamics to consider the automobile’s impact on society.
Yet although scholarship witnessed the incorporation of women into various national and international histories during the mid 1970s, automotive history – a stubbornly male-dominated discipline – was slow to recognize women as influencers and participants in automotive culture. It wasn’t until the late twentieth century that five feminist historians – two Americans [Schwartz-Cowan and Scharff], one Brit [Walsh], and two Australians [Webber and Clarsen] – began the necessary if not groundbreaking process of writing women into automotive history.
Women’s automotive history is not only about exceptional women in automotive but is also concerned with the role of the automobile in women’s lives. Women’s automotive history challenges common perceptions of women’s engagement with the automobile as it uncovers the strategies called upon by female motorists to become recognized as legitimate automobile owners and drivers. It addresses the gendered assumptions built into automotive engineering and marketing as well as how those assumptions influence how women as drivers are regarded and portrayed.
As a discipline, it revises current automotive history to include women as drivers and influencers, contributes to a broader understanding of women’s presence and involvement in automobile culture, and accomplishes what historian Joan Hoff Wilson defines as a feminist approach to history – ‘the actual status of groups of women should be described from their point of view and then compared with the status usually assigned to them as isolated objects judged exclusively by male standards.’
This brief presentation examines the trajectory of women’s automotive history scholarship in both Australia and the US to consider how women’s automobility has been addressed. Beginning with popular histories of the 1950s, and moving through the early twenty-first century, it investigates the impact of women’s automotive history in both locations, considers the manner in which the histories diverge and overlap, and questions how and whether such scholarship has altered the dominant masculine narrative concerning the automobile and car culture.
My objective in this presentation is not only to make scholars aware of the contributions of female historians to the automotive literature, but to inspire new ideas and research. For while women’s automotive history is gaining recognition as an important subject of study, additional work needs to be done. Women of color are noticeably absent from the literature, as are women of the working class. While societal and ethnographical studies of women’s involvement with cars have started to make an impact, there are dozens of untapped female automotive cultures waiting to be explored. Writing in 1983, Charles Sanford challenged scholars to remedy the lack of literature addressing the relationship between women and the automobile. As Sanford wrote, “what is needed is both an intimate feminine viewpoint from several perspectives about women’s experience with cars and fairly objective, even statistical, studies of the same experience.”
It is my hope, therefore, that this brief historiography will serve as an impetus to automotive historians everywhere to consider the influence of over half the population of drivers, and to include the actions and influence of the female motorist in present and future automotive histories.
The presentation was well received and I received a number of helpful comments and questions. It was a rewarding experience; not only was I able to help strengthen the SAH’s relationship with the AHA, but also had the unique opportunity to share and learn with scholars from a country on the other side of the world.
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.
Jalopnik recently posted an article requesting its readers to submit Automotive New Year’s Resolutions. As Jalopnik articles often do, this one got me to thinking about my own car-related plans for the coming year. As it turns out, my 2022 car resolutions can be divided into two categories. One is concerned with my car-related scholarship, the other with my actual cars. Both areas, as it turns out, are due for some much needed attention.
I had a pretty good year in terms of publishing and promoting my work on women and cars. My article on women and cars in film is featured in latest issue of the Journal of Popular Culture, and my car advertising exploits made the cover of the most recent Automotive History Review. I also completed and contributed a chapter on the history of all women-racing to a yet-to-be-published history-of-motorsports collection. In terms of presentations, I was a featured speaker for the Motor Cities National Heritage organization, was invited to expound on my AHR article at the Automotive Hall of Fame, and presented an idea for a new project on Barbie cars at the Popular Culture Association Conference that was pretty well received. I also attended a couple of autocross events and interviewed a few women for a prospective project on women who compete in the sport. And I managed to crank out at least two blogs a week on new and recycled topics.
Alas, other aspects of my life caught up with me in the fall; consequently, I have accomplished little real work during the last few months. My goal for the coming year, therefore, is to pick up where I left off, adding some new projects along the way. Items to check off are the completion and submission of the Barbie car paper, the continuation of interviews for the autocross project – so that an article can be completed by the end of the year – and the commencing of new projects to include a study of women who own jeeps, an examination of women who work as auto journalists, and a Wikipedia entry focused on little known UAW and NOW groundbreaker Dorothy Haener. It is quite an ambitious list, but I am only getting older and would like to move forward as quickly and aggressively as possible while my facilities remain intact.
As for my actual cars, my two classics have been greatly neglected during the pandemic. In 2020 car shows were canceled; consequently there was little incentive to get them out and show them off. In the spring of 2021, my husband underwent serious surgery which put a kibosh on classic car activities. The cars – a 1949 Ford and 1967 Shelby Mustang – have been idle for so long that I am afraid I will have forgotten how to drive them – i.e. how many gears are there and what is the shift pattern? Therefore my resolution for this summer is to get the two beauties out early and often and enjoy them, whether at a car event or just tooling around.
One other car event that will be taking place will be replacing our current cars with new ones. As we are downsizing and moving next year, we will be consolidating our current vehicles and replacing those that are no longer necessary for our new lifestyles. So if the North American Auto Show eventually, finally takes place, we will be there checking out the latest models.
Happy new car year everyone, and may your 2022 automotive dreams come true.
In a recent Jalopnikarticle, auto journalist Elizabeth Blackstock poses a question to her reading audience. When she asks, ‘what’s your favorite car book?’, Blackstock is looking for reading material that has changed an individual’s perspective of a car, or altered his or her perception of the auto industry. Blackstock’s question led me back to my days in graduate school when I selected Car: A Drama of the American Workplace to review as an assignment. Mary Walton’s book – a first-hand account of the 1996 Ford Tauras development and launch – was both educational and illuminative. Written in 1997, Car offers an inside look into an industry that was, at the time, struggling for survival. For those who have an interest in the inner workings of the auto industry in a particular moment in time, I offer my slightly updated review of Mary Walton’s Car for your edification and enjoyment.
Car: A Drama of the American Workplace, written by Mary Walton, follows the lifecycle of an American automobile, the 1996 Ford Taurus, from conception to production to purchase. Walton, a veteran journalist, was provided with unprecedented access into the inner sanctum of the Ford Motor Company for this assignment. For three years, Walton became a part of the Taurus team, as designers and engineers, planners and analysts, and manufacturing and product managers worked diligently and ceaselessly to develop “The Car That Would Save Ford.” In her reporting and analysis, Walton is both critical and kind. Over the course of the Taurus launch, she develops respect and affinity for the individuals she encounters, yet rarely allows those relationships to get in the way of objectivity. For those unfamiliar with the auto industry, Walton offers remarkable insight into the problems and obstacles that plague American car companies. At a point in history when American automobile manufacturers were in danger of going out of business, Walton’s insightful examination not only uncovers weaknesses and vulnerabilities within Ford, but also identifies possible contributors to the impending industry collapse.
The Ford Motor Company has a long and determined history. Its founder, Henry Ford, was an individual who found change difficult, so much so that he built the same car, the Model T, for nearly 20 years. This ideological resistance to change, Walton discovers, is endemic within the current Ford corporate culture. Invention and innovation, in both product and policy, are most often met with apprehension and obstinacy. As Walton astutely observes, the failure to think “outside the box,” to take chances, makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for an automobile company such as Ford to stake a claim as an industry leader. The redesign and reinvention of the 1996 Taurus presented the possibility of such a position. However, the goal of the Taurus team was never to create a great new car, but rather, to “beat Camry.” It was not to build a better vehicle for its own sake, but to build one equal to or better than a vehicle, the Toyota Camry, that already existed. As Car suggests, developing new products in this manner situates Ford as a competitor rather than a leader. Building a car as a response rather than an introduction guarantees that Ford is always playing catch-up, with the consequence that the company is continually years behind its closest competitor in product design and development.
Walton also paints a revealing portrait of Ford management, a bureaucratic structure of almost unfathomable proportions. It is a complicated, multi-level system that not only stifles creative thinking, but also creates an atmosphere of intimidation and fear among the rank and file. There are so many approval layers that decisions made by lower echelons may reach the top only to be arbitrarily dismissed by those in power. Superiors often have little knowledge of the factors that went into such decisions, yet possess the ability to change or kill a concept at will. Walton also observes a culture in which white-collar workers are held hostage by an entrenched corporate promotion system based on job level categories. Ambitious Ford employees will do just about anything to rise through the ranks of this elaborate system, and fear staying at any level for too long a period. There is a tremendous amount of competition for promotions, and “rocking the boat” most often decreases an individual’s chance of advancement. Thus individuals are uneasy speaking up to or disagreeing with those in authority. As Walton writes, “the higher you went up the executive ladder, the less people spoke out.” Dick Landgraff, the head engineer on the Taurus project, was often “frustrated by how hard it was to find out what colleagues really thought” (87).
Walton describes a white-collar atmosphere in which every aspect of a project is discussed ad infinitum. She remarks, “one of the problems at Ford, one of the many problems at Ford, was that people were afraid to be specific, to make commitments, because they might get nailed if things went awry” (46). Ford engineers and designers often spent more time in meetings than actually working on projects. Walton relates the story of management consultant hired by Ford, who attended seven meetings totaling twelve hours in length. She remarks, “He counted 155 people and one decision. This means 155 people spent 11 hours ‘sharing information’”(146). The time spent in meetings not only causes individuals to lose focus on the project at hand, but it also exponentially increases the time from concept to completion. While the Japanese are able to get an automobile to market in just over two years, it takes Ford almost five to complete the same process. It is difficult, if not impossible, to predict the preferences of the American car buying public five years in advance. Automobiles developed in such an extended time frame are often out of date before they reach the public. As Landgraff remarked to Walton, “if the Taurus were going to save Western democracy, the war would have been over by the time we got it on the street” (118).
However, perhaps the most lasting and illuminating impression Walton provides in Car is of a company that has lost its way. The endless meetings, strict hierarchy, inability to make decisions and fear of innovation reveal a corporation unclear of its identity and direction heading into the twenty-first century. The redesign of the 1996 Taurus was undertaken with the goal of meeting or exceeding the success of the original version, which had been the best-selling car in America in 1992. Yet as Walton discloses, “the amazing truth was that Ford never quite understood precisely how or why it had scored with the original Taurus” (52). To achieve success with the redesigned Taurus, Ford believed it was imperative to attract the import buyer rather than expand its own customer base. Yet Ford misunderstood its target, defining the new Taurus customer as the former “varsity football player and his cheerleader wife,” a family configuration more reflective of the 1950s than the upcoming millennium. As a consequence, the new Taurus appealed to no one, not the import buyer nor the traditional Ford customer. As Walton notes after the Taurus introduction, “the press was saying, after a fashion, that the car was too good” (343). Body engineers such as Steve Kozak detected the implication that “Ford had done something almost un-American by elevating ‘America’s car’ beyond the reach of the guys with blue collars” (343). Rather than develop a car to please the American car buyer, Ford’s goal was to out-Japanese the Japanese. The result was a car that cost more than the Camry, making it inaccessible to the average Ford customer, yet with limited appeal to import buyers. Walton adds, “during the four-year journey from Dearborn to dealers, the market had shifted,” a trend noted by the manufacturers of the Camry. In 1996, the year of the new Taurus, a redesigned Camry debuted with “conservative styling, fewer niceties, and lower prices than the previous model.” Unlike the Ford Motor Company, Walton tells us, “ever-vigilant Toyota had responded to the latest market shift” (347). In 1996, the Camry became the number one car in its class; the Taurus finished a distant third.
When Mary Walton was granted permission to document the development of the 1996 Taurus, she couldn’t believe her good fortune. Yet as she remarks, “sadly, after reading the completed manuscript, Ford management came to regret having allowed a journalist such a candid look at its operations” (xi). The reaction to Car questions how Ford allowed Walton to infiltrate its headquarters in the first place. Perhaps gender played a role, as the presence of a female journalist was perceived as non-threatening to an overwhelmingly male, technologically driven constituency. Normally isolated and introverted, it is possible many of the engineers actually welcomed Walton’s intrusion and used the opportunity to open up to her. Walton’s lack of automotive expertise may have also worked to her advantage. Ford employees may have spoken freely because they assumed Walton would have difficulty understanding what they were talking about. Ford executives, individuals with considerable egos, may have felt themselves to be above reproach; thus their actions and motives would not be questioned nor referred to in a negative manner. It is also possible that Ford offered Walton unprecedented access because it believed that the Taurus was destined to become a remarkable success. Therefore, the book would paint a glowing picture of Ford and its ideology, personnel and structure.
Finally, perhaps Walton was welcomed for the simple reason that Ford believed if readers could understand what really went on behind its famed glass walls, the image of the corporation would rise considerably in the public imagination. While ultimately such a goal was not achieved, Mary Walton provides an intriguing and enlightened look at the inner workings of an American car company. And while it was written over 25 years ago, Car: A Drama of the American Workplace, provides important and relevant insight into the problems and obstacles that faced Ford, as well as General Motors and Chrysler, at the dawn of the twenty-first century.
Growing up in Detroit, I often thought of interest in automotive history as a particularly American, if not Southeastern Michigan, phenomenon. As a young adult, working in an automotive advertising agency, surrounded by a plethora of male auto aficionados, I assumed this enthusiasm for all things automotive was most often framed by gender and geography. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when beginning my research on women and cars, I discovered that two of the more prominent and prolific historians of the female motorist were neither male nor American. Margaret Walsh, a historian at the University of Nottingham in the UK, who I have written about in an earlier blog, and Georgine Clarsen, a scholar of history at the University of Wollongong in Australia, have individually and independently made considerable contributions to the women’s automotive history archives. While Walsh’s work focuses primarily on the history of the woman driver in the United States, Clarsen’s major work – Eat My Dust: Early Women Motorists – explores women’s active roles in shaping automobile culture in her native Australia, Britain, British colonial Africa, as well as the USA. Her most recent research – as noted in The Conversation – specifically examines early around-Australia automobile journeys and the role of automobility in shaping ideas of colonial settler landscapes and identities. While much of her scholarship is centered on the automobile, Clarsen has also written extensively on women’s mobilities in other modes of transportation, such as bicycles and buses.
As both a historian and a feminist, Clarsen is interested not only on the specifics of women’s early automobility, but also how automotive narratives were often called upon to frame sexual difference, bodily experience, and identity. Considering the countless histories generated since the automobile’s inception, Clarsen writes, “Histories of automobiles […] are more than they seem. Like all histories, they exceed their avowed subject matter to tell a great more besides. Beyond their manifest concerns, they provide a dense array of metaphors, images and progressions through which other stories have been told” (Dainty 153). Clarsen’s extensive scholarship is valuable not only as a source of knowledge regarding the early woman driver, but also calls upon women’s relationship to the automobile to frame debates about class, gender, sexuality, race, and nation in a variety of locations.
In my own work, I found Clarsen’s writing invaluable in discussions regarding the woman driver stereotype and how women – throughout automotive history – have been routinely dismissed as unknowledgeable about cars, uninterested in automobile technology, and inept as drivers. While I am not a historian, automobile/mobility scholars such as Clarsen have both informed my work and served as inspiration into my research devoted to the subject of women and cars.
Clarsen, Georgine. “The ‘Dainty Female Toe’ and the ‘Brawny Male Arm’: Conceptions of Bodies and Power in Automobile Technology.” Australian Feminist Studies 15.32 (2000): 153-163.
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.
Margaret Walsh was one of the first scholars I encountered as I began my academic journey into the subject of women and cars. When I began my investigation close to home, I discovered a Walsh article – “Gender and the Automobile in the United States” – on a major web-based project sponsored by the University of Michigan-Dearborn and the Henry Ford. Not only did this project provide a comprehensive look at the history of women’s automobility, but included an extensive bibliography for individuals – like myself – interested in pursuing this subject matter further. As Walsh was a historian at the University of Nottingham at the time of this project, I was surprised to discover that the foremost authority on the history of women and automobility in America was, in fact, British. As it turns out, Walsh received both her master’s and doctorate in the United States. So although she didn’t grow up immersed in American car culture, Walsh’s years in the US no doubt impressed upon her the historical and cultural significance of the automobile to American women’s lives.
The work for the University of Michigan-Dearborn project was Walsh’s first foray into US women’s automotive history. As she noted in an 2009 interview, the project was an academic ‘by chance’ opportunity. While Walsh’s academic background included extensive research into transportation history – particularly the intercity bus industry – she had not yet expanded her research to the automobile. This project provided her with the opportunity to engage in scholarship on a subject that was – at the time – virtually non-existent. Walsh gained a reputation as an expert in the field not only because of her work, but because she was one of the very who considered gender and the automobile to be a subject worthy of investigation.
After the success of this web-based project, Walsh went on to publish a number of articles devoted to the history of women and automobiles in the US. While she never published a book on the subject, Walsh’s journal articles – which address women’s automobile use in the post war era – are on the reading lists of every scholar with an interest in the relationship between women and cars. A dedicated and determined researcher, Walsh relied on both primary and secondary sources – printed material, advertisements, federal government documents, qualitative data, policy documents and reports – to construct fascinating histories of the woman driver during a particular era of American life.
While I am not a historian, but rather take a cultural studies approach to the women and car relationship, my work is often centered in the work of automotive historians who accumulated the materials and the knowledge to create a discipline. I am forever grateful to scholars such as Maggie Walsh who through their work, offer guidance on the journey into the rarely researched subject of women and cars.
About 10 years ago, while at a local car show, I came across a small display headed by a banner reading “Throttle Gals”. Parked next to it was a ’59 Chevy Impala, not the pristine and restored version that populates most automotive events, but a barn “find” with the patina of an old, well-worn automobile. As it turned out, both the display and the car were the property of one Doni Langdon, a self-described gear head who had taken on the challenge of producing Throttle Gals – a car magazine for women. Unlike the myriad of automotive magazines on the market at the time, which catered to the male enthusiast, the intended audience of Throttle Gals was women who love to drive, work on, race, and take apart hot rods, vintage cars, street machines, and motorcycles. Langdon believed there was an untapped market of female enthusiasts interested in learning about other women who shared a passion for cars, bikes, trucks – anything with an engine. Unapologetic, the magazine was conceived with a definite female point of view. And unlike the ornamental and objectified women that graced traditional automotive publications, Throttle Gals featured real women – as writers, designers, illustrators, photographers, and the subjects of their own stories. As Langdon noted in an early interview, “These are real women. Everyone you see is with her vehicle — not a model and not someone in her husband’s or her boyfriend’s ride. It’s her pride and joy”.
I ran into Langdon nearly ten years later when we appeared as guests together on Autoline After Hoursto discuss my newly released book on women and muscle cars. At the time she was recovering from a house fire, which destroyed much of the material for upcoming issues. However, since that time, Throttle Gals has emerged stronger than ever, with a growing list of sponsors, subscribers, and a thriving presence online, at car shows, and automotive events all over the country. Langdon has, in fact, achieved what many believed impossible – she has successfully created, promoted, and sustained a magazine specifically for the female car and motorcycle enthusiast.
Langdon’s formula has been simple. She understands that women with an interest in cars and motorcycles are often dismissed or denigrated by the majority of the male car-loving public. Thus she provides content that connects with her female readers – in the form of mechanical advice, car buying tips, automotive news, as well the reporting of automotive events where other female gearheads gather. However, the stories that resonate most with her followers are those focused on women’s accomplishments – great and small – in the automotive/motorcycle worlds. As one who had been “kicked down” in the male automotive fraternity, Langdon created the magazine “to empower other women,” a sentiment which has appeared in the magazine and the website since the Throttle Gals inception.
From one Motor City gal to another, I applaud Doni for realizing her dream, and look forward to another 10 plus years of Throttle Gals.
Proxmire, Chrystal A. “Ferndale Grad goes ‘Full Throttle’ with Motorcycle Magazine for Women.” theoaklandpress.com 12 Feb 2010.
Car and Driver has a new columnist. A female columnist. In order to make an initial, positive impression on Car and Driver readership, Elana Scherr introduces herself through the common language of cars – “cars owned, cars driven, and cars much desired” (24).
As a female columnist in a historically male genre – automotive magazines – Scherr’s decision to call upon the common language of cars is a wise one. The most obvious reason is that it identifies her as a “car person”. As a female, this is especially important. Women have traditionally been typecast as having little interest, or knowledge, about cars. Longstanding woman driver stereotypes suggest that women are inept, nervous, and cautious drivers, and when it comes to the automobile, are primarily interested in its functionality and use as a form of domestic technology. Scherr distances herself from this stereotype through referencing her mother – considered an outlier for her refusal to own a mom-approved station wagon or minivan – and by reflecting on her own varied and nontraditional automotive history.
Calling upon the common language of cars also provides Scherr with a way to connect with fellow car enthusiasts, which includes, of course, Car and Driver readers. Scherr has always had a special fascination with old cars, making her particularly well versed in the finer points of a classic Dodge Challenger or Pontiac Trans Am. Ownership of classic cars provides Scherr with a legitimacy that goes beyond being a car expert. Rather, it identifies her as somewhat of a car historian, further bolstering her standing both the classic car community and the greater car culture at large. While Car and Driver caters primarily to the modern car enthusiast, Scherr’s recognized knowledge of the automotive past allows her to speak authoritatively of the present and future of automobility.
The common language of cars also offers a means to seek identity through automobiles. In my own research on the relationship between women and cars, I found that women often employ the language of cars to draw a connection between themselves and the vehicles they drive. Many of those I interviewed identified themselves by calling on characteristics they shared with their muscle car, chick car, or pickup truck. Referring to themselves in such a manner – as stylish, powerful, tough, or badass, as the case may be – suggests a deeper, more personal relationship to a vehicle than that of the average car owner. It establishes the individual as one with a special passion for the automobile.
Scherr calls on the common language of cars to display her own passion for the automobile and to uncover that love and enthusiasm in others. As the Car and Driver bio notes, ‘[Scherr] discovered that she not only loved cars and wanted to drive them, but that other people loved cars and wanted to read about them.” Scherr’s goal, as written in her initial Car and Driver column, is to “share the delightful stories of people who build and race and design and create the cars we love” (24). While Scherr may not qualify as a genuine car expert in the eyes of the skeptical, calling upon the common language of cars allows her to connect, embrace, invoke, and engage with all who share an enthusiasm, zeal, and passion for any and all types of automobiles.
Women who write about cars will always be greeted with a fair amount of skepticism. In a culture that ascribes mechanical ability and automotive knowledge as natural male characteristics, women often find it necessary to devise strategies to enter the masculine automotive fraternity. As Scherr has demonstrated, fluency in the common language of cars provides an effective avenue to legitimacy in not only auto journalism, but in all automotive endeavors. I look forward to the many delightful stories Scherr will share in Car and Driver.