While working on my master’s degree at Eastern Michigan University in the early 2000s, I devised an independent study focused on my growing interest in the relationship between women and cars. What follows is one of the response papers in which I consider the appeal of non-made-in-America vehicles to female motorists. While this paper focuses on a particular period of American auto history, what is interesting is that, since this paper was written, American automakers have ceased production on small cars and sedans, conceding their manufacture to Asian and European car companies.
As I conducted research on the “chick car” last year, I discovered that the automobiles most often included in this category are foreign models. The Mini Cooper, VW Beetle, Mazda Miata and Toyota RAV4 appeal to women because they are affordable, cozy, well-designed and most important, fun to drive. Therefore, as I read Flink’s recounting of the foreign car invasion in The Automobile Age, I couldn’t help but wonder if the success of the foreign car in this country is based in part on its appeal to a segment of the car-buying public traditionally ignored by the US automotive industry. I wonder, in fact, if women’s embrace of the small, quick, comfortable and affordable foreign car is somewhat responsible for its increasing popularity, as well as for the decline of domestic vehicle sales. While it is certainly an overstatement to imply the bleak state of the US auto industry is due to its inherent patriarchy and dismissal of women’s interests, there remains enough evidence to suggest that the failure to build a car that appeals to women, in the form of a smaller, quicker, more economical and more technologically advanced vehicle, is a contributor to the industry downslide.
Automobile history tells us that US car manufacturers have traditionally designed separate models for European and Asian markets. As James Flink writes, “like most other European auto manufacturers, and in marked contrast to their American operations, Ford-Europe and GM-Europe both concentrated in the postwar decade in producing small, fuel-efficient cars” (295). The significant difference in cars built for foreign rather than domestic consumption suggests automakers responded to such variations as geography, fuel cost, road conditions and government restrictions rather than on cultural or social requirements and desires. Simply put, US automakers built small cars for foreign markets because the roads are narrow, not because the citizens want or need a smaller, more efficient automobile.
Domestic automakers built big cars for the big, wide open US highways, without taking into consideration that driving conditions do not necessarily dictate what all drivers want. Industry leaders failed to notice that many of the qualities that appeal to foreign car buyers are also attractive to female drivers. US carmakers have historically refrained from developing small cars because, as Flint remarks, “large cars are far more profitable to build than small ones” (284). Such a sentiment ignores the fact that the majority of US automobiles produced before 1990 were simply too large and cumbersome for the average woman to drive comfortably. I know that when I learned to drive, I had to place a pillow behind my back in order to engage the clutch pedal. My sister, who is even shorter than I, sat on a cushion in order to see over the car’s hood. During the 1950s, Christy Borth of the Automobile Manufacturers Association is quoted saying, “it is foolish to use two tons of automobile to transport a 105 lb blond” (Flink 283). While the Japanese may have considered the smaller stature of its citizenry when designing automobiles, American car makers systematically ignored the more diminutive half of its population as it continued to blissfully crank out big, bulky automobiles.
What Flink doesn’t mention, but which bears consideration, are the meanings associated with a “big” car. Not only is “big” associated with masculinity (today’s Ford F150 Trucks are a prime example), but also reflects America’s position of itself, the assumed “big boy” of the world. No doubt US car manufacturers think of themselves as big and male (and the Japanese, on the other hand, as small and feminine, and therefore of less value). Because the US car industry appears to have stock in the axiom “bigger is better,” American automobile manufacturers, as Flink writes, “remained convinced well into the 1960s of their invulnerability to foreign competitors in the world as well as the US market” (294).
In A Nation on Wheels, Mark Foster suggests that such arrogance prevented automakers from considering other options in automobile production. Isolated from both criticism and the real world, auto executives convinced themselves that American car manufacturers “knew all there was to know about making and marketing cars” (143). Cloistered and isolated with individuals very much like themselves, corporate automakers “were seldom exposed to those who might disagree with them, particularly within the corporation” (143). Detroit auto men seemed incapable of viewing the car industry through eyes other than their own. As Flink tells us, while American automakers continued to build one standardized product in the largest possible volume, “Europeans fashioned domestically produced products for very different national market conditions” (299). The Europeans considered the divergent needs, driving styles and economic means of its potential buyers. US auto manufacturers, on the other hand, told consumers what to buy based on their own monolithic vision. European and Asian car manufacturers attempted to appeal to a wide variety of drivers, which of course, included women. Detroit automakers continued to profess they knew what the American public wanted without bothering to ask them.
Foreign cars are often less expensive than equivalent American-made products. Such lower priced automobiles, Flink reminds us, are often “a combination of lower wages, higher labor productivity and a unique system of material controls and plant maintenance” (335). As women have lower incomes than men, the lower purchase price and maintenance costs make foreign automobiles more attractive. And as many women remain responsible for maintaining the household budget, the value of an import often prompts its purchase. Most important, however, is that European and Asian manufacturers have traditionally addressed the needs of its customer base and have offered them options.
In Trouble in the Motor City, Joe Kerr writes, “over-confident from decades of total domination of American markets, the car-makers were still building their unwieldy and antiquated products when the oil crisis hit in 1973” (135). If we consider the masculinity embedded in American car culture, represented not only by the big, unwieldy vehicles but also those who produce them, the reluctance to build a smaller and more efficient car becomes understandable. The Japanese automobile, built by and for those smaller in stature, may be considered feminine and therefore undesirable. While such characteristics may explain why the foreign car has special appeal to women, it also suggests why the US automotive industry has been so reluctant to embrace the smaller automobile. As Bayla Singer, in Automobiles and Femininity writes, “in order to classify the qualities of the automobile driver as fundamentally masculine, thus perhaps allowing even the frailest male office worker to assert his masculinity, female use of the automobile must be classified as marginal or trivial” (39). Thus the disparagement of the foreign car, which includes the category of “chick car,” stems not only from its compact size, but also from the stature of the person who drives it.
Flink, James J. The Automotive Age. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 1988.
Foster, Mark. Nation on Wheels: The Automobile Culture in American Since 1945. Belmont, CA: Thomson, Wadsworth, 2003
Kerr, Joe. “Trouble in the Motor City.” Autopia: Cars and Culture. Peter Wollen and Joe Kerr, eds. Reaktion Books, 2002. 125-138.
Singer, Bayla. “Automobiles and Femininity.”Research in Philosophy and Technology. Vol. 13, Technology and Feminism. Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press, 1993. 31-42.
“What Would Miss Daisy Drive? The Road Trip Film, the Automobile, and the Woman Behind the Wheel” has been posted in pre-publication form on Wiley Article Share for inclusion in the next issue of The Journal of Popular Culture. In this article, I examine the relationship between a woman and a particular automobile in ten post-Thelma and Louise female road trip films. These films include Anywhere But Here, Tumbleweeds, Grandma, Tammy, Camilla, Cloudburst, Bonneville, Leaving Normal, Boys on the Side, and Manny and Lo [featuring a very young Scarlett Johansson]. The eclectic group of cars – 12 in all – include a 1955 Dodge Lancer, 1968 gold Mercedes, 1990 Ford Ranger pickup, 1974 VW Thing, 1966 Pontiac Bonneville, 1987 Toyota Corolla, 1999 Cadillac Deville, 1970 Pontiac Le Mans, 1970 Pontiac GTO, a 1970ish Checker Marathon, 1990 Chevrolet Caprice Wagon, and 1994 Mercury Villager minivan.
This was a fun project to work on – I watched many memorable as well as not-so-great female road films to make my selections – and I enjoyed the process of looking at the vehicles as important supporting players rather than mere props. Other than exhaustive literature on Thelma and Louise, the relationship between a woman and her car in film has not received much attention in scholarship. Hopefully this article will encourage folks to look at the cars and the women who drive them differently, not only in film but in all aspects of American life.
While working on my master’s degree at Eastern Michigan University in the early 2000s, I devised an independent study focused on my growing interest in the relationship between women and cars. What follows is one of the response papers that addresses the problems of male automotive historians and the woman driver. Written in 1988, The Automotive Age was considered revolutionary in the field of social automotive history; however, its understanding and treatment of the female motorist left much to be desired. Three years later, Virginia Scharff made the first attempt to rectify Flint’s misconceptions in the groundbreaking Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age.
In “Gender Wars,” Clay McShane writes that in the early twentieth century, the motorcar “served as a battlefield in the wars over gender roles” (149). It is interesting, therefore, that auto historian James Flink, in his highly regarded text The Automobile Age, makes little reference to gender except in the most stereotypical of ways. Flink appears to be unaware of the effect of the automobile on gender relations; he fails to recognize how the actions of the auto industry during this time period often reconfigured and reinforced cultural gender roles that remain to this day. Flink’s failure to acknowledge this phenomenon is especially evident in his discussion of two events in early automotive history. The first is his discussion of the manufacture and marketing of the electric car; the second concerns the establishment of the Ford Motor Company’s Five Dollar Day.
Of the electric car, Flink writes, “it was especially favored by women drivers, who were concerned foremost about comfort and cleanliness […]” (10). Such a sentiment suggests the electric car was developed in order to fulfill the needs and desires of the woman driver. However, what is more likely is that the electric car was not developed as a women’s car at all, but rather, was marketed to women in order to keep them from getting behind the wheel of the faster, more powerful gasoline powered motorcar. Rather than create cars specifically for male or female consumers, automakers called upon prevailing gender ideology to create ‘natural’ markets for both the electric and gasoline-powered cars.
The gasoline-powered automobile was gendered male from the very beginning. As McShane tells us, “The changes wrought by nineteenth-century industrialization profoundly threatened many traditional sources of male identity” (151). It became necessary, therefore, for new cites of masculinity to emerge. The automobile provided the male population with such a location. The characteristics of the automobile quickly became conflated with masculinity. Not only did the early gasoline-powered motorcar require physical strength and some mechanical ability to operate, but it also provided male drivers with opportunity to exert control over a machine during a time when industrial machines monitored their factory lives. The act of driving soon became defined by qualities – aggression, control, and steady nerves – considered masculine. And it also served as a form of liberation, as men often got behind the wheel to escape occupational and familial responsibilities. As McShane suggests, “men defined the cultural implications of the new automotive technology in a way that served the needs of their gender identity” (149).
The electric car, on the other hand, symbolized that which was not masculine. It was slow, clean, easy to handle, and could not travel great distances. It did not offer the speed, power, driving range and freedom that characterized the gasoline-powered car. As the opposite of masculine, the electric car became associated with femininity, and was therefore considered especially appropriate for the female driver. While the electric car may not have been developed specifically for women drivers, the characteristics that became attached to it, labeled feminine by the automobile culture, deemed it an inappropriate vehicle for men.
While Flink suggests women desired the electric car, it is more likely that the car was marketed to women to prevent them from driving gasoline-powered automobiles and infringing on masculine territory. As Virginia Scharff writes, “Women were presumed to be too weak, timid and fastidious to want to drive noisy, smelly gasoline-powered cars” (37). Flink’s suggestion that women eagerly accepted the electric car and the gender roles that accompanied it is erroneous; the majority of women drivers were aware of the electric car’s limitations and often desired a vehicle that would go faster and farther. However, the gender ideology associated with electric and gasoline automobiles was promoted and encouraged, and soon became ingrained in the culture. The gendering of automobiles not only reinforced cultural notions of masculinity and femininity, but had a profound influence on the development and marketing of automobiles as well. As Scharff suggests, the electric starter, which made the gasoline-powered car almost as easy to drive as the electric model, would most likely have been available sooner had the auto industry been more willing to open up automobility to the female population.
Flink’s second lack of gender consciousness is also evident in his discussion of the family wage and the Five Dollar Day. Flink describes the Five Dollar Day as Ford’s boldly conceived plan “for sharing profits with his workers in advance of their being earned” (121). The Five Dollar Day doubled the going rate of pay while shortening the workday by two hours. Ford’s policy was based on the notion that a worker should earn enough to provide for his dependant wife and children. The Five Dollar Day served to establish and reinforce his conviction that the husband should be the family breadwinner, and that women’s place was in the home. Thus the Five Dollar Day not only served as a form of social control over workers and the work process, but also firmly established appropriate gender roles in both the workplace and home. As Martha May writes in “The Historical Problem of the Family Wage,” “the underlying premises of the family wage made a dependent family essential to a preferred standard and to the notion of ‘normal manhood'” (402). The exclusion of benefits from those who did not fit Ford’s concept of the “family,” i.e. married women with working husbands, served to reinforce, economically and ideologically, proper roles for women and men. The family wage ideology instituted by Ford, and the gender roles that accompany it, has survived as an important element in our culture and our economy. In The Automobile Age, Flink describes the Five Dollar Day as an example of Ford’s role as an “exemplary employer regarding monetary remuneration” (120). What Flink fails to notice, however, is that Ford’s Five Dollar Day has had a lasting impact on how men’s and women’s work is perceived.
While The Automobile Age offers a wealth of information on the automobile and car culture, Flink fails to question or analyze the role the automobile has played in establishing and reinforcing cultural gender roles.
Flink, James J. (1988). The Automobile Age. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
May, Martha. “The Historical Problem of the Family Wage: The Ford Motor Company and the Five Dollar Day.” Feminist Studies, vol. 8, no. 2, 1982, pp. 399–424.
McShane, Clay. “Gender Wars” in Down the Asphalt Path: The Automobile and the American City. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
Scharff, Virginia. Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991.
When I became a member of the board of the Society of Automotive Historians, I was assigned the task of chairing what was to be called – in the absence of a better term – the ‘Brick and Mortars’ committee. Although the SAH has been in existence for over 50 years, it never had a permanent home for its extensive book collection. In fact ovver the years, it became unclear just where those accumulated materials might be. Thanks to the perseverance and detective work of a few SAH members, it was discovered that for a number of years the annual SAH book winners [Cugnot Award] had found their way to the ACD [Auburn Cord Duesenberg] Museum in Auburn Indiana. After a Zoom meeting this past spring with members of the ACD staff, the SAH reached a tentative agreement to form a partnership with the ACD. On August 4, a few of us made the trip to Auburn – joined by a number of virtual attendees – to work out the arrangements. As Auburn is just two hours away, I was happy to make the trip, and was treated to a tour of the facilities by our very gracious and enthusiastic hosts. I look forward to the organization’s new relationship with ACD. And if you have never had the opportunity to visit the ACD museum, it is a trip every auto enthusiast should consider making.
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.’
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 theSociety 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.
Motorsports is an overwhelmingly male dominated activity. While verifiable statistics on participation of men vs women do not exist, it is estimated that less than 4% of motorsports participants – at all levels and throughout all types of motorsports events – are female. This can be attributed to a number of factors. Historically and culturally, young girls have been discouraged from developing an interest in motorsports or cars. Those who do so are often branded as odd, deviant, or unfeminine. Women who pursue racing as either an avocation or vocation often find themselves at a distinct disadvantage. Not only are they subject to discrimination and sexual harassment on and off the track, but as a group are generalized as being too timid, unskilled, inexperienced, and utterly unqualified to share the track with men. Although motorsports – as a competition where men and women are able to race against each other – is often heralded as the ‘great equalizer,’ this notion presumes men and women come up through the racing ranks with the same opportunities, support, and driving experiences. In the current professional climate, the road to racing success begins at an early age most often through karting. The gender ratio entering racing in junior categories is hugely skewed in one direction; estimates list the ratio as 98-to-2 in favor of men. Unless they come from a family of racing enthusiasts, young girls are much less likely than boys to take an interest in driving at the age of eight or so, when future motorsport champions start competing in carts. Without early motorsport opportunities, women who enter the racing arena do so severely behind in experience, training, and support compared to male peers.
However, in my recent research into the history of all-women racing in motorsports, I spoke with a number of women without extensive automotive or racing histories who discovered an entryway into motorsports that is safe, relatively inexpensive, accessible, challenging, and a whole lot of fun. Autocross – a timed competition in which drivers navigate a unique course defined by cones or pylons – has become increasingly popular with women of varying racing levels who want to experience the thrill of driving competitively without a significant financial investment. Unlike wheel to wheel racing, in which drivers compete directly with one another, autocross is a timed event in which the goal is to drive around the track and get the lowest time possible without hitting any cones or going off the track. The only requirements are a driver’s license, approved helmet, car [just about any type is acceptable], and the desire to test oneself in a race type setting.
The women I conversed with came to autocross from many directions and for a variety of reasons. Some had boyfriends who participated in the sport so decided autocross might be a good way to spend time together. Others heard about autocross from friends and were encouraged to give it a try. A few of the women were looking for a new pastime that was challenging, exciting, and out of the ordinary – autocross filled the bill. Although the road to autocross differed among female racers, the reasons for engaging and sticking with autocross were shared by many of them.
One of the draws of autocross is that other than an approved helmet, there is no additional equipment necessary. Consequently, it is less expensive than other types of racing. This is important if it is an activity you are testing – if you find it isn’t for you, the only expense you have incurred is the entry fee. Starting out, women often use their daily drivers; once hooked, they may modify their cars or upgrade to something faster and more nimble. There are a number of car categories in which to compete, so drivers are competing against individuals in similar vehicles. Women cited autocross as safer than other motorsports – since you are on the track alone, damage to the car [or yourself] is unlikely.
The challenge of autocross – engaging in an activity that is both familiar [driving] and unfamiliar [racing on a marked course] – was considered a benefit by many of the women who participate. Autocross provides the opportunity to drive fast while learning the skills of controlling a car at speed – it is educational and exhilarating at the same time. Women found that the skills they acquired through autocross – mental, physical, and automotive – carried over into other aspects of their driving and non-driving lives. The female racers also mentioned the ‘adrenaline high’ experienced while behind the wheel, and also noted how mastering the car and the course gave them renewed confidence in themselves and their abilities. Many felt empowered participating in an activity so strongly identified with masculinity and the male driver, and noted how their participation awarded them a fair amount of respect as drivers and individuals knowledgeable about cars. While some sexism exists within the autocross community, it is most often verbal rather than experiential – since women are alone on the course, they cannot be threatened or bullied by a male driver. Many autocross events have separate ladies classes, which provide a safe space for women to gain skills and confidence without the fear of male intimidation.
Autocross was also cited as a form of therapy – as an all-consuming activity requiring singular focus, it keeps one’s mind off of other issues. Participating in autocross burns off steam, diverts one’s attention, and builds confidence. Although racers participate individually, they are expected to help at the track in various capacities throughout the day – whether working on someone’s car, taking entries, or setting up the track. Thus the social aspect of autocross was important to many of the female participants, as it provided the opportunity to create new friendships and engage in community and support.
While autocross addresses the racing bug in a great number of women, others view it as a stepping stone to more advanced, complicated, and competitive activities. Many women go on to participate in rally cross, road racing, time trials, and SCCA Pro Racing. Yet as I discovered, no matter what the level of involvement or experience level, autocross has the ability to provide women with an important and empowering entryway into the male dominated world of motorsports.
For more information on autocross and other women’s racing programs, check out SCCA Women on Track.
Jalopnik recently posed a question to its readers: “What car would you buy that was made the year you were born?” The query received nearly 250 responses, with answers that ranged from financially impossible choices such as a 1977 Countach LP400S to comments such as, “oh god, 1981 was a bad, bad year for cars.” As for me, I am one of the few lucky folks who owns a very cool car that happened to be produced the same year I came into the world. I fell in love with the 1949 Ford when I first spotted it a number of years ago at the Henry Ford Motor Muster in Dearborn, Michigan. There was something unflashy yet soothing about the smooth lines and unique “shoebox” profile. After an intensive search, a Seamist Green ’49 in fairly good condition was discovered in Pennsylvania, and after negotiations were made, was shipped to Michigan.
While I chose the ’49 for its aesthetics, I soon discovered that in terms of automotive history, it is a significant automobile. Considered revolutionary when introduced, the ‘49 has often been cited as the “car that saved the Ford Motor Company.” After the Second World War, auto manufacturers were stuck in the past – producing remodeled designs of the prewar vehicles. Ford beat competitors Chrysler and General Motors with an all-new car, distinguished by its “smooth sided ‘envelope’ body and the airplane designed ‘spinner’ in the center of the grill” (thehenryford.org). Although the decision to completely revamp the Ford passenger car was risky, it turned out to be a wise and profitable decision. Ford produced more than a million units its first year of production. As noted by automotive historian Robert Tate, “never had any new car been received with such whole-hearted enthusiasm from the buying public.” New York Times auto writer Michael Lamm exclaims, “the ’49 Ford was born of desperation. It was sleek and daring by the standards of the day; it set benchmarks for styling and packaging, and it proved to be a hit with a car-buying public that was hungry for anything new […]” The ’49 established a clean, modern look that set a pattern for the Fords that followed it, and set the Ford Motor Company on a solid financial course for a number of years.
The 1949 Ford I purchased was in fairly good condition but needed work. When it was discovered that the original engine had been replaced by the previous owner, the decision was made to have some fun with the mechanics rather than attempt to restore the car to its original condition. We upgraded the electronic system, added tri-power carburetors, ‘Offy’ (Offenhauser) heads, and a Smitty muffler for a noisy, hot rod sound. The car was eventually repainted, and an electronic fan was installed to prevent the engine from overheating (a common problem among 1949 models.) I’ve taken the Ford to local car shows including the Motor Muster, even winning “Best in Class” at the 2019 Memories Classic Car Cruise-In. It can be a challenge to drive, but it is a lot of fun and gets a fair amount of attention.
When folks are puzzled as to why I chose this particular model of car, I simply tell them it’s because we were both born in Detroit in 1949.
As the 2020 Popular Culture Association [PCA] was canceled due to COVID, the decision was made to go virtual in 2021. Despite my lack of confidence in all things technological, I decided to put aside my fears and submit a presentation to this year’s event. Since the PCA is one of the few conferences with sessions dedicated to vehicle culture, I always try to prepare something to present. Having a date in place provides me with the impetus to develop and map out a project for the conference; in turn, the input from conference attendees serves as encouragement to proceed with publication as the eventual goal.
This year there were three sessions with a wide variety of topics and perspectives. The first session, focused on Vehicle History and Business, featured presentations on vehicle dwellers, an analysis of conflicting representations of the automobile in its earliest years, and a look at how the Korean automobile and gaming industry influence the global market. Vehicle Culture Across Industries – the second session – included an excursion to non-fictional motor racing through Grafton graphic publications, an examination of driving lyrics in the songs of Taylor Swift, and an argument dispelling the origin myth of the 1950s automobile fin design. Finally, the third session – Social Perspectives of Vehicle Culture, offered an investigation of the 1967 Impala as female in the Winchesters series, a lawyer’s perspective on the case for banning human-driven vehicles, and my own presentation, which looked at the influence of Barbie cars on the auto awareness of young girls.
While there were a few technical glitches in my presentation – it’s what happens when you ask a 72-year-old woman to serve as session chair – the talk went pretty well. I received a number of positive comments, helpful suggestions, as well as questions that provided me the opportunity to reconsider some of my arguments and revise some of my thinking. Although the presentation was stressful – in both preparation and execution – I always welcome the opportunity to present my work to a group of interested, informed, and curious auto enthusiasts and scholars. Next year – Seattle!
What follows is a condensed version of one of my first ethnographical projects concerning the relationship between women and cars. I focused on the Ford Thunderbird as it provided the opportunity to compare women’s involvement with older vehicles with that of more contemporary cars. Many of the lessons learned conducting this research were helpful in future women and car investigations.
A number of years ago, in an effort to remedy the lack of scholarship devoted to women and car culture, I began my own inquiry into woman’s relationship with the automobile. I began by investigating how contemporary women have appropriated a particular segment of the automotive market, a type of automobile referred to somewhat pejoratively in the media as the ‘chick car.’ In ‘The Evolution of the Chick Car,’ I examine how certain groups of women have rejected the prescriptive and gendered ‘mom’ car in favor of an automobile that is quick, sporty, stylish and fun to drive. In order to find ‘chicks’ to interview about the experience, I posted requests for participation on Internet car groups. The enthusiastic response from chick car owners led to my master’s degree project, which was to uncover women’s participation in car culture through membership in online car forums, bulletin boards, and mailing lists. Through participant-observation, as well as the administration and collection of 100 individual surveys, I not only constructed a fascinating portrait of the contemporary female car enthusiast, but also discovered the myriad of ways in which women use the Internet to participate in car culture. Car culture, traditionally identified with masculinity and male experience, has historically discouraged and silenced women’s participation. Yet as I discovered, cyberspace often provides female car enthusiasts with a non-threatening environment in which to talk and learn about cars.
‘Chick car’ ownership represents only one example of women’s engagement with the automobile. Each summer in southeastern Michigan, thousands of classic car owners take part in car shows and cruises all over the state. Women are not only observers of these automotive events, but many also actively participate as car owners and through membership in classic car clubs. Thus classic car culture represents an additional location in which to investigate women’s relationship to the automobile.
However, the experience of driving and owning a classic car differs considerably from that of a contemporary vehicle. The classic car is not purchased because it is practical, efficient or ‘fun to drive.’ Rather, classic car ownership is often based on nostalgia for a bygone era, or as link to a person or experience from the past. Therefore, as I began my inquiry, I became interested in how the meanings women ascribe to the classic car compare to those attributed to contemporary automobiles. I also wondered whether female classic car owners would use the Internet with the same intensity and enthusiasm as ‘chick’ car owners, or if practical and social conditions would discourage them from embracing cyberspace. I contemplated, therefore, whether women’s acceptance or reluctance to use Internet technology is dependent on the age of the user or the degree of familiarity with the medium, or if it is, in fact, influenced by the cultural and gendered prescriptions of the era in which the car was produced. Therefore, in order to examine women’s participation in classic car culture, I found it necessary to conduct research both online and offline. My offline research not only provided information regarding women’s participation in classic car culture, but also informed both women’s rejection of and participation in online classic car groups.
The three websites utilized by members of the Water Wonderland Thunderbird Club provide tremendous insight into woman’s relationship with the automobile as well as woman’s role in classic car culture. While the WWTC’s home site is not interactive, its structure and content strongly suggest that the primary function of the club is social. The website serves as a central information center for the listing of WWTC events. The newsletters attached to the site are filled with reports of such events accompanied by photographs of members enjoying automobile-related activities, as well as personal car stories from the readership. Offline observation of club gatherings confirmed the importance of friendship and community to WWTC members. Tbird owners participate in car shows and cruises and most often, they attend these events together. At car shows, there is often a group of Thunderbirds parked alongside one another with the owners seated behind them. In these settings, the club members often arrange themselves by gender rather than relationship. At cruises, members often tour together, and congregate at a specified location afterward. The club is composed of over 120 families, primarily husbands and wives whose social lives revolve around a shared interest in the classic Thunderbird. While a few of the female club members own and drive their own cars, the majority participate in cruises and tours as passengers. Women may appreciate the history and style of the classic automobile, but for the most part, they leave the driving and maintenance to their husbands.
During the post World War II era, women were relegated to the domestic sphere and dissuaded from driving. While arguments suggested women were too ‘fragile’ to take on mechanical matters, the most likely reason for such discouragement concerned issues of power and gender. As Berger reflects, ‘mastery of the automobile would mean that women’s dependence on men would be lessened’ (260). Jokes concerning the ‘woman driver’ became popular during this period as a way to denigrate women’s driving ability. While it is unlikely that male WWTC members feel their wives are incompetent drivers, their insistence on taking the wheel suggests that issues of power and gender remain.
Women who grew up with an interest in cars are more likely to drive them and have an understanding and appreciation of the automobile that goes beyond the sheet metal. It could be assumed, therefore, that such female car enthusiasts would eagerly and easily utilize technical forums on websites such as the Vintage Thunderbird Club International. Participation on VTCI is predicated on automotive knowledge and technical experience. There is little patience for individuals who ask questions that do not display a basic level of understanding of Thunderbird maintenance and restoration. Women, in particular, must earn the respect of forum moderators and other contributors before they are taken seriously. However, once Thunderbird expertise is acknowledged, women post more regularly and authoritatively, not only asking questions, but answering those of others as well.
While female contributors must display automotive knowledge before gaining acceptance on VTCI, many of them call upon gender displays in order to become accepted on the male dominated forums. Female VTCI contributors make liberal use of the emoticon, exclamation point, ‘xoxo,’ and offer repeated ‘thank yous’ when conversing with male posters. Such conversational and textual motifs not only convey gender, specifically femininity, but their use indicates deference and respect to the dominant male ‘expert’ presence. As Shayla Stern suggests in her discussion of instant messaging in Instant Identity, ‘despite its potential to empower girls and counteract dominant social forces that have been in place through history, IM communication does not take place within a cultural vacuum that disregards traditional gender roles and behaviors’ (113). Stern’s words are relevant not only to the IM communication of adolescent girls, but to all locations in which women must confront cultural prescriptions of masculinity and gender roles. Online car groups and forums certainly qualify as such spaces.
There are a number of women in the Water Wonderland Thunderbird Club with past experience in driving, repairing and restoring automobiles. However, those I interviewed with ‘classic’ Tbirds do not utilize websites such as VTCI as a source of technical information. Rather, these capable women have acquiesced the responsibility for restoration and repair to their husbands. As WWTC member Teri B. told me, ‘I thankfully do not need the internet for information. My husband is the mechanic.’ Terri M., the VTCI Publications Director, confirmed this observation. She asserts, ‘Most women do not restore or work on their Birds and most do not own classic/vintage by themselves but with a male partner that does all of the work!’
While many of the female WWTC members hold positions of responsibility in the work place, when engaged in club activities, they often revert to the gendered roles of the 1950s and early 1960s, the era in which the ‘classic’ Thunderbirds were produced. During the ‘golden age’ of American car culture, women’s role, both in the car and in the home, was of a supportive passenger. Female WWTC members often take on this gendered, caretaker position. They prepare the food for the club picnic. They organize WWTC activities. They are very active in the club, but primarily in supporting roles. While Marie B. shares club membership responsibilities with her husband, as she told me, ‘[he] has lots of great ideas to increase membership, and I get to do the work.”’
My initial impression was that female WWTC members did not take advantage of Internet car forums because, as women in their 50s and 60s, they might be uncomfortable and unfamiliar with computer technology. While this may certainly be a contributing factor, I discovered that many of the women with solid computer skills remained dependent on male club members rather than online experts to address classic car issues. It is also possible that many of them find the masculine online technical forum hostile, and therefore call upon individuals they know and trust for classic car information. However, women who participated in car culture during the 1950s and 60s as drivers and mechanics were in many ways exceptional, as they no doubt had to withstand a good deal of harassment and discrimination in order to become successful in what were considered masculine endeavors. It is surprising, therefore, that many now grant men the power to determine not only if they will be driving, but also, where they will be going.
This is not to say that classic Thunderbirds hold little meaning for the women who own and drive them. For many WWTC members, the Thunderbird is a container for memories of past experiences. Others view the Tbird as an important piece of Detroit automotive history. Some value the automobile as an icon of classic car design. As Marie B. exclaims, ‘classic cars are like works of art!’ Yet few see the automobile as a symbol of their own independence. Rather, for many WWTC women, the Thunderbird is the means to an expansive and crucial social life; it is an object that, literally and figuratively, holds marriages together. Ironically, I only encountered one instance of ‘driving as empowerment,’ expressed by Mary F., who has taken over the wheel of the Thunderbird after her husband’s death. As she told me, ‘I’m proud of my car and proud of me, a 68-year-old woman.’
While the women of WWTC who own ‘classic’ Tbirds refrain from logging on to the VTCI, retro bird drivers are active on the Thunderbird Nest. WWTC member Joanne C. logs on almost daily, and she is joined online by hundreds of other female retro bird owners. The majority of women who participate on the Nest do not work on their cars, but they are proactive in making sure the cars are running properly. The Nest serves as an important source of technical information for retro bird owners; it keeps them up to date on current problems and provides resources for repair and service. While the website serves as a technical resource, its primary function is social, indicated by the large number of non-automotive forums. The variety of topics and their usage suggests that in many ways, the Thunderbird Nest mimics the function of an offline club, as it provides technical help, announces events of interest to its members, and has an active and important social function. Like the WWTC, the Nest brings together those who share an interest in a particular model of car.
However, unlike the majority of women who belong to the WWTC, the women who participate on the Thunderbird Nest are in the driver’s seat. They take part in car culture through touring, cruising and showing. Many get online simply to share love of the car with fellow retro bird owners. I did not sense any elitism on the part of those with more technical and mechanical knowledge, nor were those whose questions revealed a relative lack of expertise made to feel embarrassed or naïve. Unlike the VTCI forum, there is little condensation to less experienced owners, and all participants are treated with respect. Those who do post acrimoniously are quickly admonished, albeit in a polite and humorous way. I also noticed that there are a few women on the Thunderbird Nest who have a great amount of Tbird knowledge and experience, and they are held in high esteem. And while there is good-natured joking between men and women, there is little evidence of overt sexism or unequal treatment in the forums.
In many respects, the Nest is representative of many online car groups in which women are active participants. The women who own retro birds are not unlike the chick car owners of my previous research. They participate online to gather automotive knowledge and technical information, to learn about regional and national retro bird clubs and events, and perhaps most important, to form and maintain friendships based on a shared interest and affection for a particular automobile. The Thunderbird Nest is not a hostile nor gendered space for female car enthusiasts. Rather, it empowers women to take control of the wheel, which suggests they have taken control of their own lives as well. As Gajjala tells us, ‘What cyberfeminists share is the belief that women should take control of and appropriate the use of Internet technologies in an attempt to empower themselves’ (81).
The remarkable difference in online participation between female classic Thunderbird owners and owners of retro birds cannot be explained by age or technological capability alone. My original expectation when embarking on this project was that women had reclaimed the classic Tbird, a symbol of 1950s and 60s masculinity, as their own. While many of the women now own the Thunderbird they longed for as teenagers, they are still unable or unwilling to drive it themselves. Rather, they succumb to the gendered expectations of an earlier era as a means to an active social life and stronger marriage, and hand over the wheel to their husbands. The results from this brief ethnographic study suggest that women’s participation in classic car culture is influenced not only by the car they own, but the era in which the car was produced as well.
Women’s relationship with the automobile has not been a subject of significant feminist or historical research. Therefore, in order to construct or imagine women’s car culture role in previous eras, secondary sources such as advertisements, car manuals and personal narratives are of extreme importance. Classic car clubs provide an additional opportunity to investigate women’s participation during specific periods in US automotive history. Most classic car owners, male and female alike, were influenced by the automobile during childhood and adolescence. Thus, classic car events and online forums provide a unique yet temporal glance at car culture during a specific period in American cultural history, as they offer insight not only into car culture, but the gender roles and cultural prescriptions that accompanied it.
Berger, Michael. “Women Drivers! The Emergence of Folklore and Stereotypic Opinions Concerning Feminine Automotive Behavior” in Women’s Studies International Forum. 1986: 9(3), 257 – 263.
Gajjala, Radhika. Cyber Selves: Feminist Ethnographies of South Asian Women. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 2004.
Stern, Shayla Thiel. Instant Identity: Adolescent Girls and the World of Instant Messaging. New York: Peter Lang, 2007.
Writing about my experiences in a Detroit automotive advertising agency nearly 30 years ago was both a reflective and enjoyable experience. However, as my memory fades increasingly each year, I wasn’t sure I could remember enough about my time at McCann Erickson to produce a readable and interesting article. Fortunately, I was able to connect with a couple of my former co-workers who helped fill in some of the auto – and memory – blanks. As the article notes, the time spent at McCann was both fun and frustrating. I was able to produce some good work, but was also subject to the sexual harassment commonplace in the pre Anita Hill era. That being said, what should be remembered is that the article is not meant to convey a universal experience; rather, it is a reflection of one woman’s recollection of a particular time and place in automotive advertising history.
I was thrilled when asked to contribute to the Automotive History Review – the premier publication of the Society of Automotive Historians [SAH], and honored to be featured on the cover. AHR editor John Heitmann wrote this about my short piece:
Chris Lezotte lived automotive history while working in automotive advertising in Detroit during the 1970s and 1980s. She tells us her story but much more. Her fascinating piece adds considerable background to those of us who view advertising as part of the historical record. To be sure there are several key studies that help us interpret what advertising is, and whether it is a bell weather of social preferences or the shaper of consumer wants, but what Chris does is give us a down-to-earth primer of great value.
I hope those who come upon this article – available through the SAH website – will enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it.