3 Women Under the Tent

Me, Constance Smith, and Sigur Whitaker at the SAH book signing event.

I had the wonderful opportunity to return to the Society of Automotive Historians book signing event at the 2019 Hershey Fall Meet. It’s always a great time to connect with other auto history buffs, check out new titles, and of course, sell a few books. This year I was joined by two other female authors: Sigur Whitaker, who writes extensively about the people and places of Indianapolis, and Constance Smith, who authored the award-winning Damsels in Design: Pioneers in the Automotive Industry, 1939-1959. Constance spoke at an event in downtown Detroit last year, accompanied by Elizabeth Wetzel of General Motors and featured designer Mary Ellen Green, which I had the pleasure of attending. In Damsels, Constance has collected the stories of the women of Harvey Earl’s GM styling group of the early 1950s. These female designers were a significant –  and often overlooked – part of automotive history. A former GM employee herself, Constance provides unique insight as well as an inside look into the careers and lives of these groundbreaking women.

Traditionally, the SAH book signing tent has been filled primarily with male authors. Thus it was great to share the table with these two outstanding writers of the female persuasion. May subsequent years see many more women under the tent.

Have you read any automotive books written by women? Do you think female authors offer a new perspective to automotive literature and history?

On Board the Society of Automotive Historians

I have just been notified of my election to the Society of Automotive Historians board of directors. I hesitated to run for this position as I am not a historian nor do I have a deep knowledge or technical understanding of automobiles. However, because I come to automotive scholarship from a cultural rather than historical perspective, and because my research interest is the relationship between women and cars, it was suggested that I might offer a new point of view to what has long been a male-dominated and technologically-focused discipline. So here I am. I am both excited and nervous to embark on this endeavor. I join a group of well-respected and accomplished individuals that includes academic scholars, automotive journalists and publishers, museum and library professionals, educational and cultural organizations, car collectors and restorers, and auto enthusiasts. I hope that I can contribute to this organization and the research it fosters. I look forward to serving alongside my fellow car chick Carla Lesh. I hope our presence will encourage others – whose gender, age, or sexual orientation has placed them on the margins of automotive history and research – to contribute to and become part of the SAH as it celebrates its 50th anniversary.

What topics should organizations such as the SAH address? What kind of activities should they sponsor? For information on what the Society of Automotive Historians does now, and what needs to be done to grow the future, I encourage you to visit SAH online.

Driving to Congress

A political ad for Valerie Plame

A former coworker of mine – who once worked at the ad agency for Chevrolet – posted this political advertisement on her Facebook page. She commented, ‘Great political ad from an awesome woman. And for my Chevy friends it’s not a bad car commercial either.’ The spot features Valerie Plame, a former CIA officer running for Congress as a Democrat in New Mexico. In the commercial, Plame tells her story: while working as a covert for the CIA, Plame was outed by then Vice President Dick Cheney’s Chief of Staff Scooter Libby, who was later convicted of lying to investigators. Bush commuted Libby’s sentence and in 2018, Libby was pardoned by Trump. Plame’s appeal to voters focuses on her experience with the CIA, her betrayal by Republican politicians, her toughness, and the need to ‘turn the country around’ on national security, health care, and women’s rights. She makes her pitch by driving very fast – in reverse – in a Chevy Camaro.

Whether or not your political leanings side with Plame, the car is an interesting and important component to Plame’s message. While the ‘country going backward’ metaphor may be a little heavy-handed [or heavy-footed, as the case may be], the way in which Plame handles the Camaro provides an insight into her character, ambition, and fortitude. The fact that she is driving a modern and iconic American muscle car reflects on Plame’s past and present dedication to country. And because the muscle car has a long association with masculinity, it announces Plame as someone who can play tough with the big boys. While there may those who suspect a stunt driver was involved, Plame dispels that notion when she declares, ‘Yes, the CIA really does teach us how to drive like this.’ 

As my work focuses on the relationship between women and the automobile, I found Plame’s deliberate use of the car in this non-car commercial to be significant on a number of levels. First of all, the Plame/Camaro pairing disrupts the longstanding notion that women’s interest in cars is centered on practicality. It dispels the myth that high-horsepowered muscle cars are only for men. It calls upon the characteristics of the car – power, performance, boldness, noise, and outrageousness – to define the woman, rather than the man, who drives it. And it suggests that – unlike the popular perception – women may also call upon the automobile as a source of identity, agency, and empowerment.

Do you think cars in non-automotive advertising, or in other media including films and television, have the ability to suggest something about the individual who drives it? Your comments are welcome below.

Women & Trucks

Wendy Marquis in her studio. Louise Johns for the WALL STREET JOURNAL

Much of my research stems from the time-worn notion that women’s interest in cars is focused on practicality. It is a common belief that the female driver views the automobile primarily as a means of transportation or as a vehicle for the performance of domestic tasks. However, in my investigations into various car cultures I discovered that this was not always the case. For there are a good number of women who are not only passionate about cars and the driving experience, but who view the automobile as a symbol of identity, agency, and empowerment. In one of my recent journal articles, I discuss women who own and drive pickup trucks, a vehicle long associated with toughness, durability, strength, and masculinity. The women I spoke with not only loved their pickups for what they allowed them to do, but also for who they allowed them to be. A pickup, noted many of the women interviewed, provided the opportunity to present oneself as a hardworking, adventurous, deserving of respect, exceptional, and empowered female driver.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal by AJ Baime focuses on a woman who not only drives a pickup, but finds artistic inspiration in it. After moving to Montana, artist Wendy Marquis was looking for something to paint when she came across an old Chevy pickup in an overgrown field. As she noted, upon completing the portrait ‘I found myself looking for other trucks to paint. I got hooked.’ Folks in Montana hold onto their trucks for a long time. Consequently, each old pickup has a history, which can often be discerned in its idiosyncratic scratches, dents, tired paint, and worn interior. Wendy discovered that painting the trucks of her neighbors often opened a window into their individual lives, as most had interesting truck stories to tell. Getting personal with the trucks and their people prompted Wendy to get a pickup of her own. She is now the proud owner of a 1960 Ford pickup. So for Wendy, the pickup has become a source of transportation, inspiration, and connection to others in the community.

Human interest stories such as this suggest the connection between women and the automobile is a genuine one; they inspire me to continue on with my research on the relationship between women and cars. 

Are you a woman with a truck? What does your truck say about you and how does it make you feel? Feel free to share a car story or two in the comments section.

Memories Car Show

Best in Class @ Memories Car Show

Although I have spent many summers at car shows conducting research, occasionally I take one of my two classic cars [whichever one is running] to a local car show. I tend to like shows that are community-oriented and are in the evening to avoid the hot summer days [and even hotter old engines.] One of my favorites is the Memories Car Show held each August at St. Mary Magdalen Church in Brighton MI. There are usually about 200 cars in attendance of every make, model, and description. Although cars shows remain male-dominated, there were a number of female owned autos on display. This year I decided to take my 1949 Ford to show off its new paint job. Its shiny exterior must have done the trick, because it won best in its class. It was a beautiful evening, and it is always enjoyable to look at the cars and to chat with fellow car enthusiasts.

Are you a woman who shows her car? What do you show and why do you show it? You are welcome to share your experiences in the comments section.

Woodward Dream Cruise

Ford Bronco exhibit at the Woodward Dream Cruise

The big annual car event in the metropolitan Detroit area is the Woodward Dream Cruise. The cruise originated in 1995 as an effort to raise funds for a local children’s soccer field. While the initial expectation was 30,000 spectators, the cruise exceeded expectations, drawing over 250,000 its first year. It has grown exponentially ever since, now drawing over 40,000 cars and 1.5 million visitors.

Although the cruise is technically a one-day event, folks line Woodward Avenue in folding chairs every evening the week prior to view the bumper to bumper parade of cars from the 1950s and 1960s. My husband and I were part of that parade Friday night, but opted to be spectators on Saturday.

The Woodward Dream Cruise is not only a parade of cars, but also a collection of car shows along its 16-mile loop. One of the newest additions was a Ford Bronco show. Folks brought their vintage Broncos from all over the country; some were ‘survivors,’ while others had been modified to the owner’s specifications. The Bronco has become popular with Millennials; it was nice to see younger people involved in the hobby. There were also many female owners in the group. As I have been contemplating a project focused on female Jeep owners, perhaps it would be worthwhile to expand it to women who own any type of off road vehicle, including the Ford Bronco.

Are you a woman with a Jeep or off-road vehicle? Why did you choose this particular type of automobile? You are welcome to share your experiences in the comments section.

Published in Journal of Transport History

“Born to Drive: Elderly Women’s Recollections of Early Automotive Experiences” has been posted on Open Access with a December 2019 publication date. This was a wonderful project to work on, as the women I interviewed were generous, funny, and had amazing car stories to tell. I am honored to have my work published in this prestigious journal, and I thank the reviewers who offered suggestions, critique, and encouragement in the revision process.

Do you have a mother, grandmother, or family friend now in her 80s or 90s? I invite you to ask those women about their early driving experiences before it is too late. You are welcome to share those stories in the comments section.

“A Woman and Her Truck” goes international

One of the awesome truck-driving-women who contributed to this project.

A dissertation chapter that turned into a conference presentation that evolved into a journal article has finally been published in the European Journal of American Culture. Inspired by a Chevy commercial and a chance visit to the Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, this article provided me with the opportunity to talk with 25 women from all over the US who are passionate about pickups.

Are you a woman with a pickup? What do you use it for and how do you feel when driving it? You are welcome to share your truck stories in the comments section.

PCA @ DC

The Popular Culture Association Annual Conference is always a great place to meet other auto-centric folks and check out their developing research. It’s one of the few conferences that has sessions devoted to things that move, so I try not to miss it. The topics are varied and interesting – this year included presentations on the Burning Man phenomenon, slot cars, and the legal implications of autonomous vehicles. For my own part, I talked about my newest project in the development stage – women’s cars in film. The comments and critiques I received gave me the impetus to move ahead. Looking forward to next year in Philadelphia.

Do you have a favorite women’s car/road trip film? What was the car and what was its significance in the movie? Feel free to provide a personal woman’s car film review in the comments section.

Points & Condensers

Book presentation at the Points & Condensers Restoration Society, Ypsilanti MI

I was honored – and somewhat intimidated – today to talk about my book to a group of avid car enthusiasts. The Points & Condensers Restoration Society is an organization that meets the first Saturday of each month to nosh, talk about cars, and attend a presentation on various car subjects. The meetings are held in a storage garage owned by Bill Milliken, which is filled with an ever changing array of new and old cars of every description. As I looked around while setting up, I noticed – to no surprise – that the attendees were primarily male. There were very few women in attendance; however, those that were there made a point of coming up to me and lending their encouragement and support. The presentation went very well, I sold a few books, and I met John Tucker – the grandson of the founder of Tucker automobiles – who, as it turns out, happens to be a neighbor. I was invited back to next month’s presentation which focuses on the Shelby. It was a great experience and hopefully I changed some minds about women and cars.

Are you a woman with a muscle car? Has the response of male car enthusiasts been positive or negative? Feel free to share your muscle car experiences in the comments section.