A Visit to the Pontiac Transportation Museum

The Pontiac Transportation Museum is the newest entry into the Southeastern Michigan automotive museum collective. Housed in a former elementary school in Pontiac, Michigan, it will officially open to the public in mid July 2024. As a member of the MotorCities National Heritage Area, I was able to attend a private tour and presentation this past Wednesday evening. The museum will be constructed in stages; while phase one is currently complete, there are three more phases scheduled to be developed over the next few years. Our group not only toured the completed section, but were also offered a ‘sneak peek’ at what’s to come.

Pontiac factory workers

The Pontiac Transportation Museum is an institution of both place and auto manufacturer. While the museum tells the story of the auto maker’s rise and fall, it also endeavors to connect to the community and is involved in energizing its development and revitalization. As noted in a story in the Detroit Free Press, the intent of the museum is to reflect the ‘place, people, and its stories.’

Restroom Photograph

As a new museum with limited artifacts on display, I did not expect to find many representations of women in the automotive exhibits. My first encounter with such images was in, of all places, the women’s restroom, which displayed three oversized color photos of women driving Pontiac vehicles from the late 1950s and early 1960s. I was later told by one of the tour guides that much consideration was given to the restroom as ‘that is what is most important to female visitors.’ I had to squelch a guffaw.

Woman’s car story

Other representations in the museum included advertisements, photographs, and promotional materials. There were interactive displays which featured photos of women in various decades of the automaker’s history as drivers, consumers, and workers. As was mentioned during the tour, the majority of vehicles on display are donated and are primarily ‘one owner’ cars. There were a few automobiles with female donors that included stories of how the car was acquired as well as personal automotive histories. While touring one of the yet-to-be developed sections, our attention was brought to three Pontiac Firebirds specifically developed for the female market. As our guide explained, the Skybird [blue] was offered from 1977-78, the Red Bird for 1978-79, and the Yellow Bird in 1980.

Yellow Bird

While there weren’t a lot of examples of women’s relationship to cars on the floor, the slide presentation provided a philosophy of the museum that was very much geared toward diversity and inclusion. As is noted on the museum’s website, ‘a very significant part of the PTM’s mission involves educational outreach to the community – particularly STEAM-related education in Pontiac primary, secondary, and vocational schools.’ The museum is positioning itself as not just a collection of cars, but as a source for Pontiac’s social history; i.e. how the car manufacturer affected the city in which it existed as well as the people who drove its cars and made its products. The presentation also made note of the PTM’s ‘female empowerment mission’ and included photographs of visiting girls and women’s groups as well as influential women within the industry.

Girl Power

Living in the auto-rich area of Southeastern Michigan has provided me with unique opportunities to not only visit a number of automotive museums, but to attend special events such as this private tour of the soon-to-be-opened Pontiac Transportation Museum. I look forward to watching the PTM’s progress over the next several years. 

Special Exhibits and the Woman Driver

From the Seal Cove Auto Museum Special Exhibit

In my quest for evidence of women’s automotive history in museums centered on the automobile, one of the categories I encountered from time to time was the ‘special exhibit.’ These exhibits are often put together to commemorate certain events in women’s history. The 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in 1920, which unfortunately occurred during COVID, was an occasion to assemble various artifacts related to women’s attainment of the vote. The automobile was an important tool in the suffrage campaign. In the spring and summer of 1916, the transcontinental suffrage tour from New York to San Francisco was one of the actions taken to spread the word of the importance of the women’s vote as well as “to persuade male party leaders to include woman suffrage platforms at both the Republican and Democratic national convention” (Lesh 136). The automobile was not only called upon as the primary mode of transport, but also served as a platform on which to speak and the means of a quick getaway should crowds get hostile. It is not surprising, therefore, that the anniversary of women’s enfranchisement was a popular motive for a women’s automotive history exhibit, even though the pandemic caused many of the displays to be postponed a year or two.

‘Women Who Motor’ at the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House

‘Women Who Motor’ was such an exhibit. It made its debut at the historic Edsel and Eleanor Ford house in the Detroit suburbs, then moved to the Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners, Michigan. The display featured a reproduction of the Motorwagen driven by Bertha Benz to advertise her husband’s invention, an 1899 Locomobile steam runabout like the one Joan Newton Cuneo purchased to enter the AAA’s inaugural Glidden Tour, as well as stories and photographs featuring female automotive legends including Alice Ramsey, Helene Rother, Margaret Elizabeth Sauer, Audrey Moore, Betty Skelton, and Danica Patrick. As the Gilmore teams notes, “this exhibition offers a glimpse into the world of women and the automobile. It is designed as a jumping off point for your own exploration into how the automobile has influenced women, and how women have influenced the automobile.”

Special Exhibit at the Saratoga Automobile Museum

Women’s History Month is also an occasion to draw attention to women’s automotive achievements. While many museums create special displays to honor women in automotive, they are often are a collection of artifacts the museum already possesses, grouped together for the month of March. As Helen Knibb writes, “The first and often only opportunity curators may have to introduce women’s history to the public comes through temporary exhibitions on special themes. But temporary exhibitions exist for a fixed period and are then dissolved” (356).

Chrysler driven by Vicki Wood, on display at the Henry Ford Women’s History Month exhibit

The Henry Ford created a number of these exhibits in March 2024. While the displays included female achievements in a wide variety of endeavors, special attention was given to women’s relationship to the automobile. Within the Henry Ford museum a display was created to celebrate women in racing. Featured artifacts included the Chrysler 300 driven by Vicki Wood at Daytona Beach in 1960, the racing glove worn by Janet Guthrie in the 1977 Indianapolis 500, as well as Sarah Fisher’s racing suit, worn during her third place finish at the Kentucky Speedway in 2000. The Ford Rouge Factory Tour, park of the Henry Ford experience, focused on significant innovations and contributions to the automotive industry made by female inventors and entrepreneurs. Accompanying the main exhibit were interactive displays that offered adults and children the opportunity to engage in Women’s History Month activities

‘She Drives’ exhibit at the Automotive Hall of Fame

I recently had the opportunity to visit a special exhibit at the Automotive Hall of Fame. ‘She Drives’ celebrates racing’s pioneering women. The exhibit includes stories of 11 inspiring women “shaped through their stories artifacts, and cars that shaped their paths.” Featured race car legends include Bertha Benz, Janet Guthrie, Lyn St James, and Shirley Muldowney. There is also an opportunity to participate in the She Drives Road Tour, which includes a visit to the exhibit at AHF as well as stops at other museums and places of interest in the metropolitan Detroit area.

Lowrider at the California Automobile Museum special exhibit

While racing and suffrage are common women-in-automotive-history exhibit themes, the most unusual and fascinating exhibit I encountered was that of female low riders featured at the California Automobile Museum this past April. This exhibit was not just a collection of artifacts packed away in the museum’s archives, but a carefully constructed original display that imaginatively reflected the region’s lowrider history and culture. I suspect that this is a traveling exhibit that will eventually make its way to other museums in the state.

From The Henry Ford

While special exhibits provide an opportunity for automotive museums to draw attention to women’s relationship to the automobile, it is unfortunate that such attention is most often limited to special occasions. Such exhibitions, Knibb argues, require museums “to reassess the balance of exhibition theme and included the ‘underside’ of history, topics which have traditionally been poorly documented or under-represented in exhibition” (357). As Knibb notes, museum collections are often shaped by what the museum has – the ‘survival of objects and the personal tastes of donors’- rather than by any planned efforts to collect and develop artifacts representative of women’s automotive participation (361). Perhaps increased attention to women’s automotive history within the museum would plant the seed for additional informative, educational, and inspirational donations so that women’s contributions would not only be pulled out for ‘special’ occasions, but would be permanently on display as integral to the museum’s automotive collection.

Knibb, Helen. “Present But Not Visible: Searching for Women’s History in Museum Collections.” Gender & History 6, 3 (November 1994): 352-369.

Lesh, Carla R. Wheels of Her Own: American Women and the Automobile, 1893-1929. Jefferson NC: McFarland & Company, 2024.

The Forgotten Women of Women’s Automotive History

The history of women and the automobile is a subject that has not received a great amount of attention in scholarship. It wasn’t until 1991 that the first comprehensive history of women’s involvement with the automobile was published. Virginia Scharff’s groundbreaking work, Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age, shattered previous presumptions of women’s relationship with the automobile as it set the stage for further research. Australian historian Geogine Clarsen provided a more international approach to women’s automotive history with the publication of Eat My Dust: Early Women Motorists in 2008. Katherine Parkin, a social historian and professor at Monmouth University, examined the history and social implications of women driver stereotypes in Women at the Wheel: A Century of Buying, Driving, and Fixing Cars in 2017. While each of these publications are important contributions to the field of women’s automotive history, the focus of each analysis is White women. The assumption, therefore, is that all women, regardless of class, color, or ethnicity, experienced automobility in similar ways.

Entrepreneur CJ Walker at the wheel of her Model T Ford in 1912

Transportation historian Carla R. Lesh, in Wheels of Her Own: American Women and the Automobile, 1893-1929, broadens the scope of women’s automotive history to include the early experiences of Black and Indigenous women. Writes Lesh, “the automobile offered new freedoms: freedom for all Black women from the danger they encountered on public transportation in the era of increasing segregation; freedom for Indigenous women to rebuild cultural, kinship-based, and economic networks shattered by Federal government policies; and freedom for White women from the restrictions of the sheltered, home-centered life of the Victorian era” (2). Yet as Lesh notes, although the majority of women appreciated the automobile as a useful tool to improve their quality of life, gender and racial restrictions often qualified how that freedom might be achieved. 

Philip and Eugenia Wildshoe (Coeur D’Alene) and family in their Chalmers automobile, 1916

Lesh places the automotive experiences of White, Black, and Indigenous women into relevant social and historical contexts. Rather than generalize automotive experiences as common to all women, Lesh examines how social factors – including discrimination, geography, and cultural practices – influenced women’s automotive participation. As minorities, Black and Indigenous women’s automotive experiences had more in common with men of their respective populations than White women. Thus Wheels of Her Own does not focus exclusively on female motorists but also considers the social climate in which women took the wheel. Lesh provides valuable insight into how women negotiated entry into the new technological world which, due not only to gender, but also to race, ethnicity, and class, was not always welcoming.

Lesh’s fascinating and important new work is a timely addition to current scholarship focused on the history of women and cars. As an investigation of the divergent automotive experiences of Black, Indigenous, and White women, Wheels of Her Own is a valuable resource for the historical and social exploration of gender, race, and mobility during the early automotive age.

Suffragists leaving New York City in a ‘Golden Flyer’

‘Rucas y Curruchas’ at the California Car Museum

During a recent trip to the west coast we made a stop at the California Car Museum in Sacramento. As one of the volunteers told us, the museum began as one individual’s collection of every early model produced by Ford. While the museum has reinvented itself over time to incorporate other makes and models in its collection, many of the original Fords remain. The collection – while inclusive – is very much a museum of place. Among the historical artifacts exists a strong undercurrent of California Car Culture.

1984 Pontiac Grand Prix

This was very evident in the special exhibit taking place during our visit. ‘Rucas y Carruchas’ is an extraordinary collection of female-owned lowriders, accompanied by photographs, videos, artwork, and numerous stories of women’s involvement in lowrider culture. The individual vehicles are spectacular, ranging from first ‘pedal’ cars and lowrider bicycles to massive 50s era Chevys and 80s Pontiacs that have been restored and reconfigured to reflect the personality and character of the owners. Each car is accompanied by a story, relating how the car was acquired, the significance of the design and décor, and the modifications added to make each vehicle one of a kind. The narratives speak of family, community, friendship, heritage, and the meaning of lowriders to the women who own them.

1954 Chevy Bel-Air

Much emphasis is made on the importance of passing down this culture to daughters, who often start off with bicycles and move on to cars after obtaining their driver’s licenses. There are videos, posters, magazine articles, clothing, and a variety of artifacts that demonstrate the vast reach of lowrider culture in the community and the importance of the vehicles to individual and cultural identity. I was extremely fortunate to have caught this exhibit while in town as it will be replaced by another at the end of the month.

The general collection of the museum includes many of the ‘usual’ female automotive references; i.e. Bertha Benz, Amelia Earhart, the selling of electric cars to women, and the contributions of automakers’ wives to company success. However, ‘Rucas y Carruchas’ brings attention to how museums with limited artifacts are often able to create exhibits – whether from their own collections or through loans from other sources – to commemorate women’s achievements or to celebrate a certain moment in women’s history, automotive or otherwise. Such special exhibits are often put together during March to commemorate Women’s History Month. The 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage [2020] was also an occasion for these notable displays, although the pandemic did postpone or reduce many of them. However, as special exhibits, the items often disappear once the ‘event’ passes; consequently, women’s contributions to automotive history remain unacknowledged and unknown.

This exhibit is also unusual in that it features the automotive involvement not only of women, but also that of women of color. Although many museums have made efforts to include notable women in automotive history in their collections, very few have endeavored to feature this important yet underrepresented group. The only other instance I encountered was at the Automotive Hall of Fame –  the spectacular “Achievement” exhibit included the contributions of African American women. As these exhibits demonstrate, although often rendered invisible, women of color have been important contributors to automotive history and culture in a number of significant ways.

1967 Chevy Impala

I was extremely lucky to come across ‘Rucas y Carruchas’ during my trip to California. Not only was it an educational and enjoyable way to spend an afternoon, but it brought attention to the importance of special exhibits as unique demonstrations of women’s unrecognized participation in automotive culture.

Trip to Chicago and the PCA

It’s been a while since I have attended the Popular Culture Association Conference. With the conference going online for two years due to COVID, and cancelations in subsequent years because of air travel complications, I have missed out on the opportunity to present at this annual gathering of nerdy pop culture students and scholars. This gathering in Chicago was almost a no-go as well. Because the session day and time was changed after hotel and plane reservations were made, the majority of presenters, including the Vehicle Culture area chairs, bailed, leaving just two of us to present to each other. Fortunately I was able to move my presentation to a session centered on Libraries, Museums, and Archives. The change, as it happens, turned out to be fortuitous. The many in attendance were attentive, asked lots of good questions, and most importantly, provided helpful feedback. I ran into one of my former BGSU cohorts, had a nice conversation with the BG School of Cultural and Critical Studies chair, and was approached by a respected publisher who expressed interest in developing my project into a book.

Although it was a quick trip – I drove into Chicago Friday afternoon, presented Saturday morning, then headed back home in time for dinner, it was well worth the trip [and the sleepless before-presentation night]. I don’t know how many more PCA conferences I have in me, but I enjoyed the opportunity to be surrounded by young and enthusiastic scholars who are making important and interesting contributions to the field of popular culture studies. 

Women’s Representation in Automotive Museums – Part 3

Unidentified women in Ford automobile – Ford Piquette Street Plant Museum

I am a native Detroiter, and have spent the majority of my life in car-centric southeastern Michigan. I grew up during the Golden Age of car culture, and spent part of my past life writing car commercials. Once I entered graduate school as a senior citizen, my motor city background and aging second wave feminism led me to the relationship between women and cars as a research focus. My subsequent projects have considered how women negotiate membership in historically masculine automotive spaces as well as how women’s connection to cars is represented in popular culture.

My current project centers on the representation of women in automotive museums. As a historically masculine space, I was interested in whether any effort had been made by automotive museums to integrate women into automotive history. As museums in general have slowly and often stubbornly moved toward a social history model, I was curious as to whether institutions devoted to the automobile had bought into the current museum trend or if they continued to reflect primarily male preferences and influence. As Jennifer Clark writes, ‘motor museums are conservative in style, with an influential – and overwhelmingly male dominated – collecting and visitor base’ (280). The answer to the either or question is, of course, is ‘yes’. Some museums have embraced the new direction while others have dragged their feet. Yet looking closely one can observe female influence and interaction with the automobile in most museum settings. As noted in previous blogs, female representation within the museum falls into categories which reflect women’s various roles in automobile culture. What follows are the three remaining themes I have developed in my observations of 12 automotive museums.

Consumers

‘Clean, Quiet, and Easy to Operate’ – Gilmore Museum

Women as consumers and drivers are presented in museums through photographs, advertisements, and the cars on display. Much attention is given to the connection between women and electric cars; electrics were advertised as appropriate for women for their cleanliness, quiet, and ease of operation. More than one museum mentions that Henry Ford purchased an electric for his wife Clara – whether Mrs Ford actually preferred the electric or it was acquired to keep her close to home is hard to say. However, the Piquette also features photographs of women driving the gasoline-powered Model T, which suggests women may, in fact, preferred the power and range such a vehicle provided. One of these photographs includes a caption that notes that, although women were routinely ignored by the auto industry, Ford recognized them as an important market for reliable, inexpensive cars. 

Nash advertisement – Wisconsin Automotive Museum

Women’s role as consumer is most evident through the promotional materials displayed at almost every museum I visited. Exhibits at the Wisconsin museum, for example, include post war advertising which features women as Nash consumers, test driving automobiles, and speaking with car dealers. At the Henry Ford, which focuses on car culture rather than particular automobiles, women are very much present as consumers, drivers, workers, and influencers. They are introduced as early proponents of bicycles and the Model T as well as the minivan. They are represented in promotions about style, design, and safety. Women’s changing roles in advertising – as objects, symbols, moms, and adventurers are also addressed.

Agents

Clara & Henry Ford – Ford Piquette Street Plant Museum

Women – as individuals who make things happen –  was an understated but underlying theme in many of the automotive displays. Wives of industry innovators – including Clara Ford and Bertha Benz – were often silent but important partners and contributors to their spouses’ success. Clara Ford worked with her husband on what was to be known as the ‘Kitchen Sink Engine Model’ as she helped with its testing in the Ford family kitchen. Bertha Benz not only invested her inheritance in her husband’s business, but through her cross country trip, brought the Benz-Patent Motorwagen worldwide attention and got the company its first sales. The tour of the RE Olds Transportation Museum begins with a focus on the Olds family and homestead. Much of that is devoted to Metta Olds, the wife of the company founder. The artifacts on display –  photos, family trees, furniture, personal items, clothing, and a book focused on the couple suggests that Metta was very much a silent partner and supporter of her husband and his business. While ‘the woman behind the man’ is somewhat of a cliché, the attention to wives of industry founders within multiple museums suggest they were significant contributors to early automotive history.

Emergency Brigade Picket Line – Sloan Museum of Discovery

Women who served the automotive industry in other capacities were also acknowledged. The Sloan Museum recognizes women’s important role as members of the Emergency Brigade during the 1936 General Motors Sit-Down Strike. As noted in Jalopnik, a popular automotive site, ‘Many think of factory work, and therefore a strike in the automotive industry, as something primarily men would do. But it was the members of the Women’s Emergency Brigade, a paramilitary group of women inside the United Auto Workers union, who proved to be the secret weapon in that group’s triumph over General Motors.’

While not as prominent as the mostly male movers and shakers of the automotive industry, women on the sidelines often created important roles for themselves, as influencers and agents of change in the home, on the factory floor, and on the picket line.

Gatekeepers

Carriage to Cars Exhibit – Sloan Museum of Discovery

Transportation museums often honor those responsible for the preservation, maintenance, and promotion of automotive history. Women have served in these roles; their contributions are found in glass cases, museum walls, and foundations and positions bearing their names. The Dunning Carriage to Cars Exhibit in the Sloan is funded by the Margaret Dunning Foundation. Dunning, known for her love of classic cars, established the foundation to nurture the preservation and teaching of automotive history for all Sloan visitors, but in particular for residents of the county in which the Sloan resides. The exhibit is an important component of the museum’s interactive History Gallery, which intertwines local automotive history with stories of Flint life, employment, neighborhoods, schools, housing, and tourism. Helen Earley, the First Lady of Oldsmobile, was a long time RE Olds Museum employee who created a position for herself as the resident Oldsmobile historian. As a scholar, historian, and archivist, Earley established the Oldsmobile History Center and co-authored two books on Oldsmobile history. The museum ‘board room’ bears her name and her likeness; further information is contained in a glass case hidden holding a few photos and a self-authored obituary.

Many of the museums I visited – Automotive Hall of Fame, Saratoga Automotive Museum, the Henry Ford, Wisconsin Automotive Museum, RE Olds Transportation Museum, Stahl’s Automotive Foundation Museum, to name a few – have installed women as directors, managers, trustees, and other decision-making positions. This is a hopeful sign that continued efforts will be made to incorporate and include the contributions of women – as drivers, consumers, workers, and influencers – into the annals of automotive history.

Saratoga Automotive Museum Officers

The categories provided here represent my initial observations on the representation of women in automotive museums; as I delve deeper I will certainly uncover more. What this examination has uncovered is not only that women are vastly underrepresented in these locations, but that women have, in fact, contributed to automotive history in varied and important ways. As Knibb writes, ‘the absence of women’s history from the permanent galleries of a museum does not necessarily mean that the museums’ collection is weak in objects relating to women’s lives.’

Automotive history has been long been documented as an account of powerful men and male machines. Because women’s relationship to the automobile differs from that of men, and because women are most likely to be judged against male achievements, women’s history with automobiles has been considered less legitimate; consequently, it is less likely to be recorded. As I hope to demonstrate in this project, automotive museums, as collections of objects and artifacts related to the motor car and its industries, provide an important, if not imperfect, resource for the recovering of women in automotive history.

Clark, Jennifer. ‘Peopling the Public History of Motoring: Men, Machines, and Museums.’ Curator The Museum Journal Vol 56 Number 2, April 2013, 279-287.

Knibb, Helen. ‘Present but Not Visible’: Searching for Women’s History in Museum Collections.’ Gender & History Vol 6 No 3, November 1994, 352-369.

Marquis, Erin. “‘Women That Would Gladly Give Their Life’: How The Paramilitary Women’s Emergency Brigade Battled GM At The UAW’s First Big Strike.” Jalopnik 9 Oct 2023

Women’s Representation in Automotive Museums – Part 2

As someone who has been immersed in car culture from a young age, I have visited a fair number of automotive museums. However as I became increasingly focused on the women-car relationship in my research, my car museum experiences became more analytical, particularly when considered through the lens of gender. As I made my way through the rows and rows of automobiles, and numerous historical displays that poured accolades on the great white men of the automotive industry, I continually asked myself, ‘where are the women?’ This question served as the impetus for my current project: an examination of women’s representation in museums devoted to the automobile.

Women as symbols of safety – Sloan Museum of Discovery

Women are almost absent from the motoring story presented in museums. As Jennifer Clark writes, ‘the motor vehicle is still seen as an object of male interest and is mostly displayed with that perspective foremost’ (286). Yet the reason for this absence is not due to lack of female automotive participation but rather the value placed on women’s automotive roles by male automotive institutions. Women’s relationship with cars, and female participation in car culture, differs considerably from that of men. Because of that difference, women’s engagement with cars – more social than technical – is regarded as less worthy of attention by the male museum establishment. As Clark argues, ‘women need to be rediscovered in the motoring story – and with them, the stories of families, holidays, personal independence, social and economic change’ (286). The themes I developed in this project draw attention to the numerous and varied roles women have occupied throughout automotive history. While I considered both the exceptional and famous women in a previous blog, there are other roles that emerged from my examination of a dozen museums that are of equal, if not greater, significance.

Patti’s Met – Antique Automobile Club of America Museum

Storytellers

The automobiles which line the halls of car museums are often accompanied by placards that provide information on the model, year, and the donor. Often these cards are accompanied by a bit of history regarding the individual who owned the car and how the vehicle arrived at the museum. While the number of cars donated by women is small, the stories they tell reveal women’s relationships, driving histories, and love of automobiles. A 1940 Mercury on display at the AACA museum was donated by the owner’s daughter, who wrote, ‘This car is special to me because it was part of my father’s collection that he loved so much.’ A Berkshire Green and white 1961 Nash was a surprise Christmas present for a woman who had expressed admiration for Metropolitans while at a car show. The restored vehicle sports a front license plate with the words ‘Patti’s Met.’ A bright blue 1950 Nash Statesman Super Airflyte at the Wisconsin museum was purchased by a woman with the goal of learning to drive. Despite the woman’s good intentions, however, that never came to pass; the car sits on the museum floor with just 61 original miles.

While narratives regarding men and their machines are commonplace, the stories that accompany vehicles call attention to the hidden relationships forged between women and their cars. Whether a connection to an absent parent, fulfillment of a lifelong dream, or a project of good intentions, the origin stories suggest there is are histories of women’s automotive interest and love for cars worth investigating.

Symbols

Promotional postcard – Wisconsin Automotive Museum

Much of women’s presence in automotive museums is found in advertising and promotional materials. Luxury brands in particular often relied on female imagery to lend sophistication, glamor, and elegance to their automobiles. Using female imagery to sell automobiles is a long standing practice; as evidenced by museum materials such selling tactics began as soon as women took the wheel. Women in early automotive advertising were also called upon to demonstrate qualities of the automobile believed to be important to the female driver, especially cleanliness, quiet, safety, and ease of operation. The Wisconsin Automotive Museum includes a selection of postcards that conflate female characteristics with the 1913 Kissel. Accompanying photos of winsome women employ headlines such as  ‘They are good to look at’ to entice potential Kissel buyers.

The museums also call upon larger than life photographs of women as backdrops to the automobiles on display. These images are often accompanied by mannequins costumed in the latest fashion. Such imagery not only provides a historical context for the vehicle, but also equates the physical automobile with a certain level of success and class.

Women as symbols – Gilmore Car Museum

Stereotypes

Stereotypes of the woman driver have existed since women first got behind the wheel of the automobile. Not only has women’s driving behavior served as a source of criticism and humor, but women have also been sexualized as a means to sell product. Items in the museums often reflect the stereotypical ways women have been portrayed throughout automotive history. This is most evident in advertising, where women – due to their presumed lack of automotive acumen – are called upon to promote easy-to-operate vehicles, directed toward family rather than performance cars [because women’s place is in the home], and have bodies called upon as promotional tools. Women driver stereotypes, as it turns outs, are also reflected in the naming of particular automotive features. One of the more interesting options on some of the early Fords was the ‘mother-in-law’ seat, a fold-down, single-person rumble seat in the rear. The commonly used term for this feature no doubt reflects some of the ‘back seat driver’ stereotypes of the time. Such automotive features were also a part of museum tours. For example, according to a [male] guide at the Piquette Plant, women were attracted to the 1907 Model R Runabout for its extensive ‘bling’; to the 1911 Brush Runabout for its easy ride and affordability; and the electric car for its high roof [to accommodate women’s hats], and its extensive use of glass [so that women could be ‘seen’]. While the majority of museum references to women were positive, the negative representations demonstrate that stereotypes regarding women and cars have, and continue, to exist.

Mother-in-law seat – Ford Piquette Avenue Plant Museum

While these categories offer new ways to consider women’s role in automotive history, they are only a few of the many I was able to discern from the ‘almost absent’ museum artifacts. What these and other roles suggest is that women’s contributions to automotive history and car culture are greater and more varied than previously imagined.  

Clark, Jennifer. ‘Peopling the Public History of Motoring: Men, Machines, and Museums.’ Curator The Museum Journal Vol 56 Number 2, April 2013, 279-287.

Women’s Representation in Automotive Museums – Part 1

Unidentified women in Buick – ACAA Museum

Over the past year I have visited a dozen automotive museums. This journey was taken on not only due to my fascination with automobiles and car culture, but as part of a project examining the representation of women in institutions devoted to the automobile. As much of my research investigates women’s participation in car cultures associated with masculinity and the male driver, I thought auto museums would be an interesting location in which to observe how women – who compose over 50% of licensed drivers – were integrated into the automotive histories car museums represent. My first impressions were not encouraging. It was difficult to find evidence of women among the many aisles of automobiles owned, donated, driven, and produced by men. My original intention, therefore, was to focus primarily on the absences; to investigate the investigate the practices and processes that led to women’s invisibility in these masculine institutions. However, as I made my way through a dozen automotive museums, I noticed that women were, in fact, present, although not in the ways or in the places one might expect. I discovered evidence of women’s automotive participation hidden in dusty corners, tacked high up on walls, and in the back of smudgy glass cases. I found artefacts of women’s automotive history in unidentified photographs, yellowing news articles, and collected promotional materials. I thus came to the decision that rather than examine and question what was missing, to focus on what was there. I took the advice of historian and museum studies scholar Helen Knibb, who wisely wrote ‘collections, despite biases of gender, class, race, and creed, fragmentation, incompleteness, and regional disparities, can be an important primary source for the study and presentation of women’s history.’ Thus my objective became to uncover references to women’s automobility wherever I could find them, and in doing so construct a pieced-together, museum-inspired history of women and the automobile.

Female mannequin next to Buick – AACA Museum

On first glance, women in auto museums appear only intermittently, primarily as mannequins in a passenger seat without any frame of reference. As historian Jennifer Clark notes, ‘we are not told anything about their journey, nor, for example, anything about the ideas of gender and class associated with driving and riding in vehicles.’ I found this to be true in many of the ‘collection’ museums I visited; female mannequins dressed in period costumes without any explanation or context appeared as an afterthought or ‘cursory’ addition to satisfy some sort of gender imperative. Yet other museums, those who adapted a social history approach or focused on a particular manufacturer or place, were more likely to include women in other ways. As I toured the museums, I discovered common themes in how women were represented. What follows, in this and subsequent blogs, are categories that provide insight into how women have made an impact in automotive history. 

Exceptional women

Racing car driven by Lyn St James – Automotive Hall of Fame

The exceptional woman is one who has made a name for herself in automotive history. This category includes women who are easily recognized outside of the automotive community as well as those, while less familiar, are highly regarded within it. Many of the women are noted for being ‘firsts’ in a culture and climate that is overwhelmingly male. Women who have achieved success and notoriety in motorsport make up the majority of these featured individuals. A few of the museums dedicate a considerable amount of space to these racing legends; exhibits focused on drivers such as Danica Patrick, Lyn St James, Janet Guthrie, and Sara Christian often incorporate photographs, artifacts, racing gear, and memorabilia. Some – including the Henry Ford and Automotive Hall of Fame – actually feature cars driven by the women – facsimiles or the real thing. Museums that focus on a particular geographical location will often refer to a familiar female figure in motorsport who was born or who had a significant win in the area. The Saratoga Automobile Museum, for example, stakes claim to drag racing legend Shirley ‘Cha Cha’ Muldowney, who got her start off the streets of Schenectady.

Bertha Benz exhibit – Automotive Hall of Fame

Early female automotive pioneers are also honored in a number of car museums. Attention is given to Alice Ramsey – the first woman to drive an automobile across the United States – as well as early-twentieth century rally driver Joan Newton Cuneo. However, often such references are hidden away and are only come upon by accident. Bertha Benz, the wife of automotive legend Karl Benz, was famous in her own right and is represented in a number of museums alongside an early Benz automobile. Investing her inheritance in Karl’s business, Bertha motored one of her husband’s automobiles from Mannheim to Pforzheim in 1888, drawing attention not only to the automotive manufacturer but to the tenacity and talent of women behind the wheel.

The exhibits featuring female pioneers in automotive history – whether taking up a significant amount of museum space or tucked away in a glass case – incorporate women as symbols of female success in male dominated fields and as important contributors to women’s automotive history. In doing so, such representations offer inspiration and aspiration to all – particularly female visitors – in attendance. 

Alice Ramsey – Automotive Hall of Fame recipient

Famous women

Well-known women with a connection to automobiles are the subjects of exhibits in a number of automotive museums. Corporate institutions in particular often create displays that feature female film stars, celebrities, public figures, or dignitaries who have owned, driven, or been photographed with one of the manufacturer’s more celebrated models. One of the more popular individuals featured in a number of museums – and with a variety of cars – is Amelia Earhart. An acknowledged auto enthusiast known for her love of power and speed, Earhart is referenced in the Wisconsin Automotive Museum in association with the Kissel Speedster aka Gold Bug, which she drove across country in 1923. The Henry Ford, Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum [YAHM], and Stahl’s Automotive Foundation Museum each draw attention -through photographs, publicity material, and similar automobiles – to Earhart’s christening of the 1933 Hudson Terraplane. The Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Museum [ACD] calls upon date of Earhart’s ill-fated attempt to circumnavigate the globe as a historical touchstone, allowing museum visitors to place a vehicle within a specific time and place. Other celebrities – including actresses Mary Astor and Anita King – are also celebrated for their love and promotion of fine automobiles. This connection between famous women and cars was perhaps one of the earliest examples of celebrity endorsement. Such publicity not only brought attention to the cars, but also suggested that women were capable of appreciating and handling automobiles for the style, notoriety, and freedom they provided.

Display honoring Amelia Earhart and her ‘Gold Bug’ – Wisconsin Automotive Museum

These categories represent just two of the many groups of women I discovered on my automotive museum journey. As the number of categories – and representative women –  grew, I gained a better understanding of the contributions women have made – large and small – to automotive history.

Clark, Jennifer. ‘Peopling the Public History of Motoring: Men, Machines, and Museums.’ Curator The Museum Journal Vol 56 Number 2, April 2013, 279-287.

Knibb, Helen. ‘Present but Not Visible’: Searching for Women’s History in Museum Collections.’ Gender & History Vol 6 No 3, November 1994, 352-369.

Gender & the Automotive Showroom

A recent article in Autoblog reported on a salary survey conducted by Automotive News regarding the average pay of car dealership employees. The headline – “What Car Dealership Employees Earn: Lots of Money” suggests that working in auto sales is a lucrative career. The article bolsters this claim with the assertion, “multiple respondents […] submitted comments noting they entered the business for the money.” While Autoblog notes that women in the profession make considerably less than male counterparts, the disparity is attributed to a problem with the survey’s methodology rather than any gender inequity within the system.

Jalopnik covered the news with a slightly different take. The article put the significance of the $74,000 pay gap into context by comparing it to the $74,580 income of an average American household. The author notes that the salary gap percentage – 66 cents to every dollar earned by a male dealer – is 17 percent less than that of women in other jobs. The article reveals that when asked, only 6.3 percent of men in dealerships surveyed believe the industry “is not welcoming to women” compared to nearly one third of female respondents. As successful car dealers put in an average of 55 hour weeks, asserts Jalopnik, “the world of car dealerships is truly the exemplary  old boys’ club, rewarding long hours and grueling working conditions.” The article cites the response of a 25-year veteran in the business; as she confessed, “I have never been so disrespected and unappreciated in my life. I am mansplained to constantly by customers and coworkers.”  Rather than dismiss the $74,000 pay gap as the product of questionable research methods, Jalopnik uncovers responses from the study that provide insight into conditions that influence the incredulous gender pay inequality.

In 2000, sociologist Helene Lawson authored Ladies on the Lot, a comprehensive study of 49 women who worked in car sales from 1987-1999. Although this project was conducted over a quarter-century ago, the conditions under which the women worked, and the obstacles they faced in the field, are eerily similar to those referenced in the recent Jalopnik piece. As Lawson argues, women entered the field for the same reasons as men – they were attracted to the work for the possibility of a high income; they sought car sales as a way to achieve the “American Dream.” However, once on the job the women were subject to sexual harassment, isolation from male colleagues, criticism for perceived “inadequacy,” exclusion from professional training, lack of mentoring, and admonishment for “feminine” style selling techniques rather than the male intimidation practices preferred by male colleagues. As the author notes, the expectation that they would work 12 hour days and 60 hour weeks was problematic, particularly for women with children who required child care. Male managers often positioned female dealers in the back of the sales floor with lower priced vehicles, which negatively affected commissions. Working in car sales, the author asserts, “involves long hours, high pressure, questionable ethics, no salary guarantee, and little job security” (Sacks 780). As Lawson reports, while female dealers who adapted more aggressive, ‘fast-talking’ selling techniques and sacrificed family and social life for the job were happy with the money they earned, the overwhelming majority of women in car sales wound up “chasing an elusive dream of autonomy and economic sufficiency that was just out of their grasp” (Mahar).

Kurt Russell in Used Cars

Despite the claim of “faulty survey methodology,” the revelation that women in automotive sales earn one third less than male peers indicates conditions that exist within the car dealership culture are disadvantageous if not inhospitable to women for a variety of reasons. While women have made inroads in many aspects of the automobile industry over the past 25 years, today’s $74,000 pay gap within the car dealership collective suggests that gender equity has a long way to go. Or as Jalopnik’s Bradley Brownell blatantly concludes, “the American dealership network system is broken and awful.”

Brownell, Bradley. “The Gender Pay Gap At Car Dealerships Is Way Worse Than The National Average.” jalopnik.com 22 Jan 2024.

Huetter, John. “Auto Retail Professionals Make Great Money — But Men Make an Average of $74,300 More.” autonews.com 20 Jan 2024.

Lawson, Helene M. Ladies on the Lot: Women, Car Sales, and the Pursuit of the American Dream. Roman & Littlefield, 2000.

Mahar, Karen Ward. “An Unbelievably Bad Deal! Women Sales Agents and Car Dealerships in America.” H-Net Reviews, 2001.

Sacks, Nancy Lee. Review of Ladies on the Lot by Helene M. in Gender and Society (Oct 2021) 779-781.

Williams, Stephen. “What Car Dealership Employees Earn: Lots of Money.” autoblog.com 23 Jan 2024.

Wisconsin: Land of Beer, Cheese, and Cars?

On a road trip to visit family in Milwaukee and Minnesota this summer, a stop was made at the Wisconsin Automobile Museum in Hartford, just northwest of Milwaukee. First opened in 1986, the museum is housed in the former Libby’s cannery, repurposed by the Kissel family to display a large collection of cars and automotive artifacts. Very much a museum of ‘place,’ the Wisconsin Automobile Museum devotes much of its space to auto manufacturers and automotive activities with significant histories in the state. The first floor is devoted primarily to automobiles manufactured in Wisconsin, specifically Nash, AMC, and Kissel. The second floor holds the Southeastern Wisconsin Short Track Hall of Fame, which commemorates the history of regional racing in Wisconsin. The second floor also include newer models from a variety of manufacturers, as well as a working locomotive taken out on special occasions. All of the cars in the museum were either donated or are on loan. 

Women working at Kissel

As might be expected in a museum with significant Kissel family influence, the Kissel Motor Car Company takes center stage. The company was founded by Louis Kissel and his sons in 1903. During the early auto age, the high-quality, custom built Kissel cars ‘were known to the elites of society from coast to coast’ (Savage). Besides hand-crafted automobiles, Kissel also manufactured trucks, fire trucks, cabs, and hearses until operations ceased in 1931. Of the 27,000 Kissel automobiles produced, fewer than 150 are known to exist today, of which 27 are on exhibit in the museum. While Kissel, like other automotive manufacturers of the time, was a very male dominated enterprise, there are a few cars on display that have interesting if not significant female narratives.

1904 Kissel Kar

 Silent movie actress Anita King was the first woman on record to drive a touring vehicle solo across the country. She did so in a 1904 Kissel Kar, which is now parked on the first floor of the Wisconsin museum. Referred to as ‘The Paramount Girl’ in news outlets of the day, King took 48 days to make the trip, arriving jubilantly into New York’s Times Square on October 19, 1915. Of all the Kissel cars produced, perhaps the most famous model was the two passenger Speedster, nicknamed the ‘Gold Bug.’ This bright yellow automobile was a favorite among celebrities, including Amelia Earhart, who, as noted in a collection of news clippings on display, drove the ‘Yellow Peril’ from California to Boston in 1923. Other Kissel cars with female connections on exhibit include a 1923 car owned by ‘a married woman who paid cash,’ [and kept it until 1961], as well as a 1914 touring car named ‘Annie’ after a previous owner. 

1950 Nash with 61 original miles

Nash also got its start in Wisconsin when the Thomas B. Jeffery Company was purchased by Charles Nash in 1916. One of the featured cars in the Nash collection is a bright blue 1950 model. Its claim to fame is that it was purchased by a woman with intention of learning to drive. Unfortunately, the owner never got behind the wheel; the Nash now sits at the museum with 61 original miles on the odometer.

While the museum makes an effort to feature automobiles driven or owned by women, perhaps the most noteworthy female automotive references can be found in photographs as well as promotional material intertwined with the cars on display. If one stops to look at the video of Kissel history, an old photograph of the company offices reveals two women performing administrative work. Original artwork for the ‘Kissel Kar’ calls upon illustrations of elegantly dressed women to convey style, luxury, and class.

Promotional postcards used photographs of winsome women with accompanying lines such as ‘They are good to look at’ to entice potential 1913 Kissel buyers. Wartime advertisements sponsored by Nash focus on women who have contributed to the war effort as members of the Army Nurse Corps or as brave women waiting for a loved one’s return. Post war advertising features women as Nash consumers, test driving automobiles and speaking with car dealers. Other press includes an article on the real life twins whose images promoted the Hudson ‘Twin-H-Power’ engine. And while the Short Track display does not feature any women drivers, a few future female racers can be found in a 2019 photo of the Young Racers Car Show. 

As might be expected in museums devoted to a historically masculine enterprise as the automobile, women’s participation and influence in automotive history and culture is often hidden. However, as I have discovered in many of my visits, women do have a presence in automotive museums if one makes the effort to look for them.