Virginia Scharff

When Virginia Scharff submitted her dissertation in 1987, it was hard to imagine it would evolve into a book that would forever change the course of women’s automotive history scholarship. At the time it was written there was very little research devoted to the history of cars or car culture. That which existed was – not surprisingly – written about, by, and for men. However, as a young and developing historian, Scharff joined the wave of feminist scholars who began “writing women into history” during the late 1970s. Like those before her, she desired to examine an aspect of women’s lives which had heretofore been invisible. Because scholarship on women’s automobility was nonexistent, Scharff had some difficulty finding resources on which to base her research. Although she struggled to find data, Scharff’s determination and diligence paid off. Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age, published in 1991, was groundbreaking not only for its subject matter, but because it challenged and dispelled the “common knowledge” about women’s relationship to the automobile.

In the early motor age, automobiles were handcrafted, costly, and electric with limited range and power. Consequently, they were not taken seriously as modes of transportation but rather, served as expensive playthings for the rich. However, after the development of the gasoline-powered engine, and Henry Ford’s implementation of the assembly line, automobiles became faster, cheaper, less refined, and available and accessible to “every man.” The growing popularity of the gasoline-powered automobile in the early twentieth century resulted in a significant loss of market share for the manufacturers of electric cars. Seeking to maintain or increase its consumer base, the electric was repositioned from a symbol of wealth and status to a vehicle particularly suited for the woman driver. The gasoline automobile, on the other hand, as noisy, dirty, rough, and difficult to operate – as well as fast and powerful –  was positioned as the ultimate man’s car. 

Until Scharff entered the scene, students and scholars of automotive history uniformly accepted the notion that, because the electric had the feminine qualities women desired in a car, it was, in fact, women’s transportation choice. The report that Henry Ford purchased an electric for his wife Clara seemed to confirm this widely held view. However, as Scharff discovered in her research, the electric was promoted as the woman’s car not because women innately desired it, but because of the potential repercussions of women’s enthusiasm for the gasoline-powered automobile. Yet despite the efforts of automakers to market the electric as the “woman’s car,” female drivers of the growing middle class set their sights on the power and performance the masculine gas-powered automobile could provide. Seeking horizons beyond the confinement of domesticity, women envisioned automobility as the means to reach them. In the minds of many women, attainment of such lofty goals was not to be realized through the limited power of the meek electric, but rather, from behind the wheel of the noisy, dirty, and aggressive gasoline-powered automobile. 

When the electric eventually disappeared from the roadways, and it became clear that the female motorist had set her sights on the gas-powered car, auto industry decision makers were faced with a conundrum. While automakers recognized the lucrative possibilities of a female consumer base, they also feared an appeal to the woman driver would damage the longstanding association between cars and masculinity. The solution was to call upon the “vast, immutable, reassuring differences between men and women” as the means to divide automotive use by gender (115). The large, powerful vehicle was marketed to the male head of the household. And by promoting the smaller, less powerful, more practical vehicle as form of domestic technology, a tool that enabled women to fulfill their prescribed roles as wives, mothers, consumers, and caretakers, automakers believed they could appeal to the female consumer without alienating men.

Scharff’s notion that women’s car choices threatened the status quo – so much so that automakers had to develop marketing strategies to contain the woman driver – was both a revelation and confirmation to future scholars of women’s automobility. It changed the way historians and cultural studies scholars approached women’s relationship to the automobile. It altered how cars are marketed to women. And most importantly, it motivated scholars to continually question and challenge “common knowledge” about women and cars.

Although Scharff has since moved on from women’s automobility to other topics in women’s social history, her influence on those who study gender and automobiles today is both significant and ongoing. Those of us who write about women and cars are forever grateful for her determined and tireless efforts – while a young PhD student – to recover a missing – and revelatory – part of automotive history.

Review of ‘Machines of Youth: America’s Car Obsession’

As a scholar, albeit of the independent variety, I am sometimes asked to contribute to research in various ways. A little over a year ago The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth asked if I would write a book review on a car-and-youth related publication for an upcoming issue. As I am always open to a new opportunity, I gladly accepted, particularly since I had already purchased the book and was planning on reading it anyway. The review was recently published in the JHCY Winter 2020 issue. Machines of Youth: America’s Car Obsession by historian Gary Cross is an interesting and in-depth look at the various American youth car cultures of the 20th century. For those who may be curious about the book, I have included my review here.

Machines of Youth: America’s Car Obsession
By Gary S. Cross
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. 227 pp. Paper $32.50, cloth $97.50.

Machines of Youth is a colorful chronology of American youth car cultures from the early automotive age to the present day. Relying on an eclectic assemblage of sources – interviews, print media, automotive publications, popular culture, and personal anecdotes – historian Gary Cross has constructed a compelling examination of a rarely researched subject and subculture. Although the book stands on its own as an in-depth exploration of young men’s involvement and fascination with cars over the past century, it also serves as a rarely examined but timely analysis of white working-class youth culture in twentieth-century America. In Machines of Youth, Cross takes us beyond the scope of traditional automotive histories to investigate the teenage cultures that evolved along its margins. To young working-class men, Cross argues, car culture was not only a community in which automotive craftsmanship and knowledge could be developed and shared, but also served as an important source of masculinity, autonomy, individualism, self-expression, and rebellion.

Cross skillfully intertwines automobile history with the teenage cultures it generated. Each chapter introduces cars of a particular generation and the young men who became engaged, if not obsessed, with the growing automotive phenomenon. Some of the stops along the way include the early auto age and young men’s growing preoccupation with the gasoline-powered automobile, the 1930s customizing and “souping up” craze, the 1940s hot rod wars, the 1950s and 60s cruising and parking culture, and the Fast and Furious era of Japanese “rice burners”. Cross also makes an intriguing detour into the familial and community Latino car culture of “low and slow”. At each juncture Cross delves into how a particular culture came to be, considers how and why boys became involved, investigates the influence of club life and the media, considers how the subcultures were regarded by the public, and discusses the efforts made to suppress, disregard, or encourage young men’s automotive activities. Cross concludes the book by considering the state of car culture today, the role of nostalgia in its maintenance, as well as whether there remains enough automotive interest for its continuance into the future.

Although car cultures attracted teens from all walks of life – e.g. baby boomer muscle car enthusiasts and middle-class hippies who tinkered with aging VW Beetles – Cross is particularly interested in the role the automobile played in the lives of white working-class youth. In the chapter devoted to “greasers and their rods,” Cross examines how cars gave these “marginal” high school boys an opportunity to define themselves apart from the mainstream white middle-class population. As the author notes, while middle-class teens on the “college prep” track were likely to drive cars owned or purchased by their parents, working-class youth in the vocational curriculum took pride in working on their own jalopies. Thus, as Cross writes, “the customized car offered a token of dignity to a group that had always been subordinate, but which in the mid-twentieth century was steadily losing ground” (99). Cross’s examination of white working-class youth is particularly timely given the current political climate, which has witnessed a growing sentiment of discontent and disaffection among rural white working-class men.

Machines of Youth is a welcome and important addition to existing automotive scholarship. Although much has been written on the history of the automobile, only a handful of scholars (e.g. Karen Lumsden, Amy Best, Brenda Bright, Sarah Redshaw) have investigated specific car cultures. And while Cross presents an engaging examination of the history of young men’s involvement with cars, the volume’s strength comes from its unique focus on class (in addition to gender and race) as an influential and crucial component of American youth car cultures. What the book lacks, however, is diversity in research location. Although the west coast was certainly an important breeding ground for youth car cultures, there is a little too much emphasis on the California car scene. While other locations are mentioned, the tone of the book suggests the majority of youth automotive activity occurred in the Golden State. Cross also fails to lay out his methodology in the introductory section. Consequently, it is up to the reader to piece the research sources together chapter by chapter.

Machines of Youth is certain to be embraced by aging men of a particular generation who grew up with a passion for cars and see themselves in its pages. For auto historians, Cross’s astute analysis of young men’s engagement with the automobile provides a social context to the ebb and flow of automotive popularity over the past century. However, scholars of youth cultures will find Cross’s work fascinating whether or not they have an interest in cars. The focus on white working-class teens is not only engrossing and enlightening in its own right, but has particular relevance during this disquieting time in our nation’s political history.

Old Car Songs and the New Woman Driver

A topic that often finds its way into car journals, blogs, and online automotive publications is the “car song.” Auto journalists and enthusiasts of a certain age frequently call upon the classic car song as a way to reminisce about the past. As popular music is often referred to as the song track of one’s life, car tunes – whether in reference to music emanating from the car or about the car itself –  bring back particular memories of an automobile and the life experiences surrounding it.

I recently came across such an article by car blogger Jim Van Orden on the popular automotive website hemmings.com. In “Car Tunes of My Youth,” Van Orden intertwines stories of the songs that accompanied family road trips, car advertising tunes on the radio and television, popular car songs of the day, and the memories each of these car tunes evoked. The article is followed by a substantive comment section in which others passionately and often humorously contribute their own car tune memories.

What is notable about the proliferation of online articles devoted to the car song is that they are all written by – and addressed to – drivers of the male persuasion. Although young women during the 50s and 60s may not have owned their own vehicles, they certainly spent a good amount of time in automobiles with car songs and advertisements playing on the radio. So why are women less inclined to call upon the car song as a link to the past? Is it because they were not all that interested in cars? Or was it because, as written from a male perspective, the songs did not reflect women’s unique automotive experiences?

I addressed the second part of this question a few years ago in a journal article focusing on the woman’s car song. In “Born to Take the Highway: Women, the Automobile, and Rock ‘n Roll,” I argue that once women became more accepted as singer/songwriters in the music industry, they began writing a very different kind of car song. While the car songs of the 50s and 60s were almost exclusively focused on the automobile as an important contributor to the male teenager’s rite of passage – promoting good times, adventure, liberation from restrictive home environments, and sex – the women’s car song of the 70s and beyond called upon the automobile as a vehicle of freedom, escape, recollection, rebellion, and empowerment. While the singular male focus of the classic car song may be responsible for women’s indifference to it, the rise of the women’s car song suggests not only that the automobile serves as musical inspiration for women as well as men, but that cars have an importance to women’s lives that is different from, but no less legitimate than, that of the male driver.

Which leads back to the first question regarding whether women, in fact, have an interest in cars. As I have discovered in my own research, a good many women – more than is commonly believed – have an interest, if not a passion, for the automobile. The ability to write and sing about it provides an opportunity for women’s car songs – and women’s voices – to be heard.

Lezotte, Chris. “Born to Take the Highway: Women, the Automobile, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.” The Journal of American Culture 36.3 (2013): 161-176.

Making a Home on Wheels

Nash press photo

Since the automobile’s inception, auto manufacturers and suppliers have offered optional and aftermarket products to convert the automobile into mobile sleeping quarters. To address the needs and desires of a traveling public, Daniel Strohl notes, “carmakers have expressly made their vehicles suitable for camping”(hemmings.com). Such alterations and add-ons include folding front seats that provide a flat sleeping area, accessory tents for hatch back models, sleeper units for passenger vans, and a “magic camper package” for the ubiquitous minivan. These accessories allow folks to expand the automobile’s primary function as a mode of transportation into a more flexible vehicle that meets individual and family travel needs.

By offering these products and accessories, manufacturers have – over the years – reacted to the car-owning public’s desire to use the automobile in ways not originally intended. As noted by Kathleen Franz in Tinkering, “consumers became tinkerers and occasionally inventors as they outfitted their cars for travel […]” (second cover). Taking matters into one’s own hands, however, was not limited to men. During the early years of automobility, female owners and drivers actively reconfigured the automobile for their own use. As Franz writes, “women, who were portrayed by manufacturers and their husbands as passive consumers, remade themselves into competent mechanics and active users” (110.) Women who travelled alone often found it necessary to modify and outfit their cars to meet middle-class standards of domestic comfort and economy; in doing so they also challenged the common perception of women’s technological ability and ingenuity. Franz remarks, “women drivers tinkered with the car and, by extension, with their gender roles’” (42). Although advertising for automotive accessories during this time was directed toward the male consumer, women were, in fact, active participants in the tinkering phenomenon.

In a recent project, I interviewed women in their 80s and 90s about their early automotive experiences. Many of them recalled how when travelling with husbands or young children, they altered the automobile to meet family needs. Before chain hotels were commonplace, decent lodgings in out-of-the ways places were few and far between. One of the women described how she converted the family station wagon into cozy sleeping quarters with the addition of curtains and other amenities for a long distance trip. Others mentioned how – as primarily responsible for the children on family road trips – they devised ways to keep young passengers quiet, safe, and occupied. Whether laying down the car’s back seat to accommodate a baby’s playpen, converting the back seat of a VW Beetle into a bed for an infant, repurposing the back seats of a station wagon into a child’s play area, or using a husband’s leather belt to strap a young traveler onto the front seat “hump,” these women called upon imagination, innovation, and resourcefulness to make family road trips enjoyable for everyone. 

Advertisements, marketing brochures, and news articles produced during the early to mid-twentieth century uniformly suggest that women’s role in auto travel was solely a domestic one. However, as noted in Franz’s work as well as my own, whether traveling on their own or with children in tow, women were also instrumental in reconfiguring and accessorizing the automobile into a comfy home on wheels for all of its passengers.

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

Lezotte, Chris. “Born to Drive: Elderly Women’s Recollections of Early Automotive Experiences” The Journal of Transport History 40.3 (2019): 395-417.

Stohl, David. “Well Before Hashtag Vanlife, Carmakers Encouraged You to Sleep in Their Cars” Hemmings.com 10 Dec 2019.

Do you have memories of family road trips? How was your car reconfigured to accommodate a sleeping family? Feel free to tell your travel stories.

Holiday Party @ the Automotive Hall of Fame

The Annual Holiday Gathering of the SAH [Society of Automotive Historians] Leland Chapter was held this year at the Automotive Hall of Fame on the Henry Ford campus in Dearborn, Michigan. Author, motorsports expert, and former Autoweek editor George Levy was on hand to give his impressions of the recent Ford vs Ferrari motion picture release, doing his best to separate fact from fiction. It was a fun afternoon spent with fellow car enthusiasts and the pictured hall of famers in the museum. In the holiday spirit there was a small gift exchange; I received an antique Oakland Motor Car hubcap. As I discovered, the Oakland Motor Car Company was a division of General Motors from 1909 until 1931 when it was replaced by Pontiac. It was very cool to receive a little piece of automotive history in such appropriate surroundings.   

IMRRC Conference @ Watkins Glen

Watkins Glen International Raceway, Watkins Glen NY

A couple of months ago I received a request from a scholar in the UK to contribute a chapter on the history and politics of women and motorsports for an upcoming book on motor racing. Although I am neither a historian nor an expert on motorsports, I decided to take on the challenge. As the first step in becoming more familiar with the motorsports literature, I decided to attend the Michael R. Argetsinger Symposium on International Motor Racing History held at the infamous racetrack at Watkins Glen, New York. It was an informative and interesting couple of days, where I had the opportunity to observe a number of engaging and thought-provoking presentations, pick up some new ideas for research and resources, and connect with scholars in the field. I also spent a little time at the International Motor Racing Research Center which allowed me to get a brief start on my research. The site of the conference on the Watkins Glen racetrack – and the ride there from my hotel on very hilly and somewhat snowy roads – gave me a little feel of the area and its auto racing history. I came home impressed and somewhat intimidated by motorsports scholars, and inspired to get started on my project. 

Are you a fan of motorsports? Do you follow women racers? What do you feel are the pros and cons of women-only racing?

Women’s Car Songs

One of the secret thrills of writing articles for academic journals is getting that work cited in the research of other scholars. A goal in my late-starting-academic career has been to contribute to the literature on women and cars in some way. Having others cite my work validates my research; it makes me feel as though I am doing something meaningful. Because my work focuses on a subject that has not received much attention in scholarship, it is periodically cited in articles on a variety of subjects that somehow or somewhere address the woman-car relationship. I must admit that I often ‘Google’ myself to see if anyone has called upon my work to support their own. 

That being said, I was ‘Googling’ myself the other day when I came upon an article in PopCulture.com that cited an article I wrote a number of years ago on the woman’s car song. In “Born to Take the Highway: Women, the Automobile, and Rock ‘n’ Roll”, I argue that while the car song has traditionally been associated with men and masculinity, women have also called upon the automobile in song to make statements about independence, identity, memory, and empowerment. I cited a number of female singer-songwriters of various musical genres to make my case. Bonnie Riatt, Toni Braxton, Shania Twain, Nanci Griffith, Tracy Chapman, and Joni Mitchell were a few of the artists who featured prominently in the article.

To quote WikipediaPop Matters is “an international magazine of cultural criticism that covers many aspects of popular culture.” In “’Blue’, ‘Tapestry’, and Oil: Or, Oil Capitalism in Two Key Singer-Songwriter Albums”, Joshua Friedburg asserts that while ‘oil capitalism’ has had negative effects on the global environment, it has “simultaneously enabled new forms of social movements to occur, including feminism.” He focuses on two iconic female singer-songwriters – Carole King and Joni Mitchell – who in their respective albums Tapestry and Blue have reclaimed the road as a space for women. While I have not written about Carole King in relationship to automobiles, Mitchell featured prominently in “Born to Take the Highway,” which Friedberg cites. It was encouraging to see – nine years after the fact – that the article has relevance to what is being written about women and cars today.

Yes, seeing my work cited in academic literature and online journalism is a bit of an ego trip. But it also reassures me that the research I continue to do has value. 

Do you have a favorite woman’s car song? What message about women and cars does it convey? Your comments are welcome. 

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 to promote my book Power Under Her Foot: Women Enthusiasts of American Muscle Cars. 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. As only the fourth woman to be elected to the SAH board I am both excited and nervous. 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.