Visit to the Gilmore Car Museum

This past weekend I had the opportunity to visit the Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners, Michigan as part of my newest project that focuses on women’s representation in automotive museums and collections. I last visited the Gilmore a number of years ago during a muscle car event as part of research conducted for my book. As that car show was held outdoors, I never had an opportunity to explore the many buildings on the expansive Gilmore complex.

‘Quiet, Clean, and Easy to Operate’

The Gilmore Museum was originally established in the early 1960s as a place to store and display the growing automobile collection of Donald Gilmore. Although the museum has grown significantly since that time, inhabiting a number of buildings on the 90 acre parcel, it is still very much a collector’s museum, centered on the particular automotive interests of its founder. While the collection includes popular cars from the 1950s and 60s, the overwhelming majority of vehicles on display hail from the early auto age. Not only are there rooms in the main building devoted to steam powered automobiles, the Franklin Automobile Company of the early 20th century, cars of the 1920s and 30s, as well as early Lincoln models, but there are separate on site buildings featuring the Ford Model A and Cadillac LaSalle. These automobiles represent eras in which automobile production and car culture participation was very much a white male enterprise. This narrow focus on a particular automotive experience is no doubt responsible for the invisibility of women as owners, drivers, or influencers within the automotive collections and exhibitions. The introductory video – which visitors view before entering the museum – states that the museum’s mission is ‘to tell the story of America through the automobile.’ However, the stories that are told – beginning with those of the youngest car enthusiast – are filtered through a determinedly male perspective.

1886 Benz

Of the over 400 cars currently on display, only a handful have any female reference. One of those is the 1886 Benz. Bertha Benz, the wife and business partner of automobile inventor Karl Benz, is recognized as the first person to drive an automobile over a long distance. In doing so, notes the display placard, she brought the Benz Patent-Motorwagen worldwide attention and got the company its first sales. Mrs. Benz is often rightly regarded as an ‘exceptional’ woman in automotive history, as both an influencer and outspoken proponent of women’s automobility.

The only other car directly linked to a woman is a 1971 Dodge Challenger Convertible donated to the museum by its original owner. Lena Plymale purchased the car at the age of 19, used it as a daily driver until 1978, and kept it in storage until its 2008 restoration.

Lena Plymale’s 1971 Dodge Challenger Convertible

The Benz and the Challenger are the only vehicles in the massive collection in which the ‘story’ is told by a woman. There are two others that refer to women in a general sense. The 1931 Buick Victoria Coupe is displayed alongside advertising that reflects the manufacturer’s efforts to promote this particular vehicle to women drivers; as the ad reads, the synchro-mesh transmission ‘makes every woman an expert driver, enabling her to shift gears smoothly and easily at any speed.’ The display for the 1915 Rauch & Lang Electric noted that both Mrs. Henry [Clara] Ford and Mrs. Thomas [Mina] Edison drove electric vehicles. Whether this was the women’s choice or whether they were ‘encouraged’ to drive electrics by their husbands is impossible to say.

The majority of reference to women in the museum is related not to cars, but to fashion. There are photographs, advertisements, display cases, female mannequins, and signage which link women to styles of the respective eras scattered among the various automotive displays.

What I found most disconcerting in my tour of the museum was the Automotive Activity Center geared toward the young car enthusiast, an enclosed area with auto-related play activities and information. Two of the walls were devoted to a display of vehicle designs produced by winners of the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild competition held from the 1930s to 1960s. This national auto design contest, sponsored by the Fisher Body Division of General Motors, ‘helped identify and nurture a whole generation of designers and design executives’ (Jacobus 2). As the poster on display indicates, the competition was for boys only. This production of male technological knowledge, Ruth Oldenziel writes, ‘involved an extraordinary mobilization of organizational, economic, and cultural resources’ (139) in which ‘girls found themselves excluded as a matter of course’ (141).  A large collection of early automotive toys fills two display cases on an adjoining wall. Of the hundreds of toy cars on display, only two feature a female behind the wheel. A young girl entering this activity center would not see herself; rather, she would walk away with the impression that the automotive world is a male one, reinforcing the gendered assumptions that have permeated car culture for over 100 years.

For the future [male] Cadillac owner

Certainly much of women’s invisibility in the collection can be attributed to the original intentions and interests of its founder. The Gilmore is, in fact, a reflection of an older [white] male sensibility, an expression of an automotive education in which women were absent or excluded. However, what is distressing is that in the 60 years of its existence, very little effort has been made to integrate women into the history of the automobile. While the museum claims to tell the story of America through the automobile, it is a story in which women are most often absent in other than the most stereotypical of ways.

Jacobus, John. The Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild: An Illustrated History. Jefferson NC: McFarland, 2005.

Oldenziel, Ruth. “Boys and Their Toys: The Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild, 1930-1968, and the Making of a Male Technical Domain.” In Boys and Their Toys: Masculinity, Class and Technology in America, edited by Roger Horowitz, New York: Routledge, 2001: 139-168.

A Visit to Hershey & a New Project

While there have been many histories devoted to the automobile since it first appeared on the American scene in the early twentieth century, very few pay particular attention to women’s automotive involvement or interest. This absence is not only evident in the thousands of publications devoted to automotive history, but in locations such as the automotive museum as well. My newest project examines the representation of the woman driver in a dozen or so automotive museums. It will consider how each museum positions the role of women in automotive history, the methods by which women’s automotive involvement and impact is displayed, how women’s position in automotive history is regarded in comparison to that of men, and perhaps offer suggestions as to how museums might better address the role and influence of women in automotive history and American culture. While most of the museums I plan to visit are located in southeastern Michigan and neighboring states, I took the opportunity to stop by the AACA Museum in Hershey, Pennsylvania while in town for meetings and events of the Society of Automotive Historians

The AACA Museum was originally conceived as an ‘automobile collector’s’ museum. While the museum has expanded to include both permanent and special exhibits, its foundation as a holding place for collected automobiles is evident. Many of the automobiles are accompanied by a placard which provides information about the car as well as the donor. Included are the specifications of the automobile as well as personal stories about how the car was obtained and used. As I walked through the building, I noted that there were a few cars donated or previously owned by women. These included a Berkshire green and white 1961 Nash, with a “Patti’s Met” front license plate, a 1940 Mercury handed down from father to daughter, and a 1935 White built especially for a prominent female Boston ophthalmologist. 

While female mannequins were featured in some of the displays, and photographs that pictured women in or around historical automobiles were placed in a few of the exhibits, how women used the automobile or women’s influence in automotive history was not addressed. Some of this has to do with the nature of the museum – the exhibits were often constructed around the donated automobiles in the collection. However, someone visiting the museum could easily get the impression that women were not, in fact, a part of automotive history at all. The absence of women reinforces the notion that automobiles and automotive history are a strictly masculine enterprise.

There was one exhibit – tucked away in a corner – that included a small section devoted to the role of “Women on Road Maps.” This was part of a special exhibit earlier in the year that was transferred to the permanent road map display. As the press from the April event reads, the display highlights “how women were portrayed on map covers through the 20th century. As motoring became more accessible and popular with women and families, women were portrayed sometimes as navigators, sometimes drivers, sometimes in glamorous style, and sometimes as moms. We salute the role of women in motoring and the artistic renderings gracing map covers and travel promotion.” While the information on the map collection was interesting and informative, with full-color samples of the representative map covers, the signage was placed so high above the main display it was nearly impossible to read. It is unfortunate that the only display to address women’s automotive history in any fashion was hidden in a corner and inaccessible to all but the most determined museum visitor.

This first stop on the museum project – the AACA Museum in Hershey – was not only a nice break from the myriad of SAH activities, but further convinced me that women’s representation in automotive museums is a topic very much worth investigating. 

Women Drivers in Wartime & ‘Princess Auto Mechanic’


Since the beginning of the auto age, women’s driving has been subject to both restriction and ridicule. In the early twentieth century, when the gasoline-powered automobile made its debut, female motorists were purposefully and insistently directed toward the electric vehicle. While its cleanliness and ease of handling were promoted as perfect for the woman driver, the electric car’s lack of power and range assured that the lady behind the wheel never ventured too far from home. Such efforts to constrict women’s driving were based on the fear that the freedom and opportunity automobility promised would lead to the abandonment of women’s traditional gender roles. 

Once women dismissed the electric in favor of the faster, more powerful gasoline driven automobile, the female motorist became a subject of ridicule in the popular press. In an attempt to curtail and question women’s driving ability, the stereotype of women as too weak, nervous, mechanically inept, and distracted to safely and effectively handle an automobile was indelibly instituted into American folklore. As Michael Berger writes, ‘The development and support of a stereotype likely to limit the number of women on the road and the mileage they drove, together with the folklore that accompanied it, were reasonable developments from the perspective of those who sought to minimize the impact of the automobile as a vehicle for the liberation of women’ (259). A century later, women’s driving skills continue to be denigrated through the recirculation of women driver stereotypes. And women drivers continue to be directed toward safe, spacious, and reliable vehicles that fulfill the role of wife and mother rather than to the rugged, powerful, and performance driven vehicles typically marketed to men. 

However, while efforts to constrain women to gender-appropriate vehicles continue well into the twenty-first century, there have been periods within the past 100 years in which such restrictions have been temporarily lifted. And that is during periods of war. During the two World Wars, women from the US and abroad were called on to take jobs not only in home town factories producing munitions, building ships, and airplanes, but also overseas as drivers of fire engines, trucks, buses, jeeps, and ambulances. They delivered medical supplies, transported patients to hospitals, and drove through artillery fire to retrieve the wounded. Suddenly, the weak, incapable, and timid women – as described in the ubiquitous stereotype – were deemed eminently suitable if not necessary to carry on the transportation needs of countries at war.

US Women serving in WWII

Women who could not only drive but also work on vehicles were especially valuable. Many mechanically-inclined women left domestic chores behind to serve their respective countries through the maintenance and repair of wartime trucks and jeeps. Perhaps the most famous of these volunteers was the late Queen Elizabeth II. Dubbed the ‘gearhead monarch’ by a few automotive writers, the young Princess ‘donned a uniform and learned not only how to drive heavy trucks for the war effort but also how to wrench on them’ (Strohl). At the age of 18, Elizabeth joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service, a branch of the British Army as a second subaltern, eventually earning a promotion to Junior Commander. She was, in fact, the first woman from the royal family to serve in the military. As part of her training, the young Elizabeth had to pass a driving test, learn to read maps, and take instruction in vehicle repair and maintenance. Dubbed ‘Princess Auto Mechanic’ by the British Press, Elizabeth took her military roll seriously, driving army ambulances and learning to repair heavy trucks on the battlefield. Her wartime experience led to a lifelong love of trucks [particularly Land Rovers] and driving; she reluctantly gave up driving public roads in 2019 at the sprite age of 93. [Here’s a video of the Queen behind the wheel on the royal estate.]

Princess Auto Mechanic at work

Although discouraged from engaging in men’s work after the war, there can be little doubt that many of those women who fulfilled similar wartime roles as the ‘Princess Auto Mechanic’ emerged with a sense of purpose as well as a newfound confidence in themselves and their capabilities. As historian Kathryn Atwood writes, ‘[…] most of these women – the famous and the obscure – had one thing in common: they did not think of themselves as heroes. They followed their consciences, saw something that needed to be done, and they did it.’ Despite a century of attempts by auto manufacturers, marketers, and the media to restrict and demean women’s driving, women have demonstrated time and time again that they are not only capable if not exceptional drivers, but when called upon can draw upon inherent mechanical and driving skills in the service of their countries as well as to serve and empower themselves.

Atwood, Kathryn. Women Heroes of World War II: 32 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue. Chicago: Chicago Review Press (2019).

Berger, Michael. ‘Women Drivers!: The Emergence of Folklore and Stereotypic Opinions Concerning Feminine Automotive Behavior.’ Women’s Studies International Forum 9.3 (1986): 257-263.

Strohl, Daniel. ‘United Kingdom’s First Truck-Driving Queen Dies at 96.’ hemmings.com

A Transnational Symposium

This past weekend I had the honor of participating in an international symposium – Wheels Across the Pacific: Transnational Histories of the Automotive Industry. It was a joint effort by the Automotive Historians of Australia [AHA] and the Society of Automotive Historians [SAH] in the US; the goal was to explore ways in which the Australian and North American auto industries shared parts and components, staff, expertise and skills, engineering, design and studio practices, business and management structures, and advertising and trade practices. There were in-person attendees in Australia, as well as international viewers all over the globe. While the time differences among participants made for a challenging evening [or morning or afternoon, depending on the time zone], the symposium was a unique opportunity to share scholarship and conversation with car folks from down under.

In terms of my own presentation, I veered somewhat from the established guidelines. As a cultural historian, I am not well versed in the ins and outs of the automotive industry on either continent. But I thought I could contribute in a different way. ‘Women and Automobiles Across Two Continents: An [Unfortunately] Brief Historiography of Women’s Automotive Scholarship in Australia and America’ examines the trajectory of women’s automotive history in both countries. What follows is both the introduction to the presentation as well as the conclusion – in which I summarize my objectives as well as present a challenge to present and future historians of the automobile. I hope to develop this brief historiography into a publication-ready paper at a later date.

Women’s cross-country automobile tours – Scharff

Since the turn of the twentieth century – and the beginning of the motor age –  writers of various persuasions in multiple locations have set upon the task of documenting the automobile’s vast and varied history. The first automotive histories – of auto companies, auto industry leaders, and popular accounts of the automobile’s impact – began to appear in the early 1920s. Scholarly examinations of automotive history first entered the scene in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Influenced by the cultural turn, historians looked beyond the auto industry and its internal dynamics to consider the automobile’s impact on society. 

Yet although scholarship witnessed the incorporation of women into various national and international histories during the mid 1970s, automotive history – a stubbornly male-dominated discipline – was slow to recognize women as influencers and participants in automotive culture. It wasn’t until the late twentieth century that five feminist historians – two Americans [Schwartz-Cowan and Scharff], one Brit [Walsh], and two Australians [Webber and Clarsen] – began the necessary if not groundbreaking process of writing women into automotive history.

Australian women out for a drive – Webber

Women’s automotive history is not only about exceptional women in automotive but is also concerned with the role of the automobile in women’s lives. Women’s automotive history challenges common perceptions of women’s engagement with the automobile as it uncovers the strategies called upon by female motorists to become recognized as legitimate automobile owners and drivers. It addresses the gendered assumptions built into automotive engineering and marketing as well as how those assumptions influence how women as drivers are regarded and portrayed. 

As a discipline, it revises current automotive history to include women as drivers and influencers, contributes to a broader understanding of women’s presence and involvement in automobile culture, and accomplishes what historian Joan Hoff Wilson defines as a feminist approach to history – ‘the actual status of groups of women should be described from their point of view and then compared with the status usually assigned to them as isolated objects judged exclusively by male standards.’

Female chauffeurs in 1920s Australia – Clarsen

This brief presentation examines the trajectory of women’s automotive history scholarship in both Australia and the US to consider how women’s automobility has been addressed. Beginning with popular histories of the 1950s, and moving through the early twenty-first century, it investigates the impact of women’s automotive history in both locations, considers the manner in which the histories diverge and overlap, and questions how and whether such scholarship has altered the dominant masculine narrative concerning the automobile and car culture.

My objective in this presentation is not only to make scholars aware of the contributions of female historians to the automotive literature, but to inspire new ideas and research. For while women’s automotive history is gaining recognition as an important subject of study, additional work needs to be done. Women of color are noticeably absent from the literature, as are women of the working class. While societal and ethnographical studies of women’s involvement with cars have started to make an impact, there are dozens of untapped female automotive cultures waiting to be explored. Writing in 1983, Charles Sanford challenged scholars to remedy the lack of literature addressing the relationship between women and the automobile. As Sanford wrote, “what is needed is both an intimate feminine viewpoint from several perspectives about women’s experience with cars and fairly objective, even statistical, studies of the same experience.” 

Australian women working in the auto industry – Glover & Edquist

It is my hope, therefore, that this brief historiography will serve as an impetus to automotive historians everywhere to consider the influence of over half the population of drivers, and to include the actions and influence of the female motorist in present and future automotive histories.

The presentation was well received and I received a number of helpful comments and questions. It was a rewarding experience; not only was I able to help strengthen the SAH’s relationship with the AHA, but also had the unique opportunity to share and learn with scholars from a country on the other side of the world.

The American automobile as ‘Mom’s Taxi’ – Cowan

A Modern Dream Cruise

One of the annual traditions in the metropolitan Motor City is the Woodward Dream Cruise. Held annually on the third Saturday of August, the cruise is a day-long celebration of car culture. Instituted in 1995 as an effort to raise money for a children’s soccer field in Ferndale, Michigan, the event now attracts more than 1.5  million visitors. Featuring more than 40,000 muscle cars and street machines, the Woodward Dream Cruise is now considered the world’s largest one-day vintage car event.

Cruisin’ Woodward in the 1970s

Woodward Avenue was chosen not only for its central location – it is the unofficial divider of metropolitan Detroit’s east and west sides – but more importantly for its significant muscle car history. It is rumored that John DeLorean found inspiration for the Pontiac GTO – considered by aficionados as the original muscle car – while driving home from General Motors in downtown Detroit to his home in Bloomfield Hills. In the glory days of muscle car culture, young men in their Chevelles, Camaros, Challengers, and Barracudas could be spotted on summer evenings drag racing from light to light down the long suburban expanse of Woodward Avenue. The original Dream Cruise was true to this vision; the two right lanes were devoted to classic muscle cars and hot rods, while auto enthusiasts and curious spectators lined up curbside to take in the style and sounds of the magnificent machines of the past.

2022 Mustang Alley

However in recent years, the cruise and the cars that drive in it have changed. While there are still a few true muscle cars in attendance they have been taken over by modern muscle. This was nowhere more evident than at the traditional “Mustang Alley” display held each year in Ferndale. Once populated by classic Mustangs, 9 Mile Road is now the place to park the new generation of pony cars. What has also changed are the folks who own them. As a product of the 60s and 70s, classic muscle cars are overwhelmingly driven by members of the baby boomer generation. Now in their 70s, the grey haired men are less inclined to take an unreliable 50 year old car into the stop and go traffic of Woodward on Dream Cruise day. The newer cars reflect a changing population of muscle car aficionados. The younger generation, while acknowledging the Mustang’s significant history, prefer the speed, safety, economy, reliability and superior power of modern muscle. And once discouraged, if not outright banished, from participating in muscle car culture, women now take pleasure and pride in the power and excitement the new cars have to offer. Women are now credited with purchasing over one third of Mustangs, suggesting not only that the female motorist has become more car savvy, but also that the masculinity associated with Detroit muscle is ever-so-slowly shifting.

Past Mustang Alley participant – featured in Power Under Her Foot

A recent Detroit Free Press article made note of the changing automotive population, referring to the 2022 Woodward Dream Cruise as ‘a celebration of tradition and new.’ As an aging boomer who has done extensive research on the muscle car, I miss seeing the panther pink and grabber blue muscle cars of the past driving down the Woodward Avenue of my youth. But as one who writes about women and cars, I am delighted to see women challenging gender stereotypes and embracing performance and power through the purchase and display of fast and noisy modern muscle. 

Note: One month after this blog was posted, Phoebe Wall Howard, an auto writer for the Detroit Free Press, spoke to a number of Mustang-owning-women – which she refers to as ‘Mustang Mamas’ – in an article to promote the Detroit Auto Show.

Cars, Style, & Femininity

While in graduate school during the 2000s, I devised an independent study focused on my growing interest in the relationship between women and cars. What follows is one of the response papers in which I examine how – in the years following World War II – automotive style was reconfigured from a feminine trait to one that suggested masculinity and male power.

Ford’s Model T was so utilitarian, it remained virtually unchanged in style for nearly 20 years.

As the originator of the utilitarian, mass-produced automobile, Henry Ford had little respect for style. Ford believed the ultimate value of the motorcar rested in its reputation as a safe, efficient, and reliable mode of transportation. The car’s outward appearance, in Ford’s estimation, was of little consequence. History suggests that Ford was a rather narrow-minded man, and as such, adhered to racial, ethnic, and gendered stereotypes. His opposition to automotive style, therefore, was based not only on the belief that the car was defined primarily by functionality, but also because beauty and design were considered feminine characteristics, and should have no association with masculine automotive technology. In Ford’s “manly, efficiency-obsessed world of work,” concern for beauty was not only unwelcome, but was an indication of gender deviance (Gartman). Ford’s long-standing estrangement with his only child, Edsel, was often attributed to the elder’s intolerance of his son’s artistic leanings and suspected unmanliness. Like the “tough guys” who followed him, Ford believed “beauty belonged in the parlor and questioned the masculinity of any man who tried to put it on a car” (Gartman).

1939 Lincoln Continental designed by Henry’s ‘unmanly’ son Edsel.

The emphasis on car design rather than function was the brainchild of one of Henry Ford’s staunchest competitors. Rather than work on improving automotive technology, which was a rather costly proposition, General Motor’s Alfred Sloan concentrated on “aesthetic innovation ” (Gartman). By changing the cosmetic appearance of the car, Sloan could offer the public a wider variety of styles and models without considerable financial investment. While this proposition made sound business sense, the association of auto design with femininity presented a considerable obstacle. Auto historians offer a number of factors that contributed to the eventual acceptance of the stylish and beautiful automobile. However, there was no greater influence than that of the flamboyant and charismatic automotive designer Harvey Earl.

Earl called upon both his larger-than-life personality and his personal design philosophy to change the way consumers felt about automobile design. While Earl has been described as a “dandy” in both dress and mannerisms, he overcompensated for such characteristics by cultivating a rather crude and super-masculine demeanor. Earl personally embodied both the stylish and the masculine through his large, impeccably attired frame, off-color language, and overbearing personality. In many ways, Earl was the ultimate personification of the automobiles he designed.

Harvey Earl and the 1951 Le Sabre

Social changes also contributed to the acceptance of automobile styling and its feminine associations. As former GM designer Leonard Pilato attests, “it is hard to separate auto design from human and social factors.” Auto historian Gartman suggests the gendered division between beauty and utility was breaking down during this time, as “men subjected to the savage utility and efficiency of mass production were looking to the home and its non utilitarian consumer goods for compensation.” Earl’s automotive designs, inspired by images of fantasy and flight, provided drivers with modes of entertainment and escape. While style may have been considered feminine, the forms on which Earl based his designs, which conjured up images of jet planes, speed and futuristic spacecraft, were examples of masculine technology and ideals.  The emphasis on style rather than function also created new cultural meanings for automobiles. Rather than modes of transportation, cars became symbols of status, success, and power. The image, rather than the technology, of the car provided its owner with a new identity. As Gartman writes, the increased size of cars offered consumers “psychic compensation […] to convince them that their lives were indeed better.” 

Auto historians often maintain that auto design became embraced once it became distanced from femininity. However, I would argue that beautiful cars became desirable because they were, in fact, regarded as female. The cars of the post World War II era were extremely feminine in appearance. The smooth curves and softened angles are reminiscent of women’s bodies. The pastel tones of 1950s automobiles are mirrored in the clothing of 1950s women. Many of the cars of this period are exceptionally “pretty” by today’s standards. The pink 1956 Thunderbird and lime green 1954 Corvette on display at the Henry Ford are extremely feminine cars that men often coveted. While men are known to drive particular cars to lure the opposite sex, they also seek to acquire mastery over the cars they drive. In a patriarchy, men seek to maintain power and control over women. If an automobile is considered female, power over the car may equate power over women. This equation had special significance to many men in the years following World War II.

1956 Chevrolet Bel Air

After returning from the Second World War, men often discovered that the women they left behind were infused with independence and self-sufficiency, garnered through well-paying war time work. Uncomfortable with women’s developing autonomy, men took back the work in the public sphere and sent the women home. Husbands and fathers sought to regain the dominance of the prewar years as breadwinners and heads of households. They sought to purchase cars that symbolized this reassumed status. The cars many drove were masculine in size yet feminine in appearance. They were often given feminine names and referred to as “she.” The stylish car becomes the beautiful woman men conquer by owning and driving. As Gartman writes, “in the ultra-macho subculture of auto designers, sex was surely an important appeal.” Sex and the automobile have become intertwined not only because the automobile is a site of sexual encounter, but also because the car is often perceived as a spirited woman that male drivers seek to tame.

Men with style, especially white men, have always been sexually suspect. Equating stylish cars with beautiful women allows men to appreciate automotive design while keeping masculinity intact. Harvey Earl was instrumental in making style an integral part of the auto manufacturing process, and was influential in the acceptance of the importance of auto design. It is unfortunate that the equation of stylish cars as beautiful women to be controlled and conquered remains a mode of such acceptance for so many drivers.

Gartman, David. “A History of Scholarship on American Automobile Design.” Automobile in American Life and Society. University of Michigan Dearborn.

Gartman, David. “Tough Guys and Pretty Boys: The Cultural Antagonisms of Engineering and Aesthetics in Automotive History.” Automobile in American Life and Society University of Michigan Dearborn.

Pilato, Leonard. Lecture at the Henry Ford.

‘Woman’s Place’ in American Car Culture

While in graduate school during the 2000s, I devised an independent study focused on my growing interest in the relationship between women and cars. What follows is one of the response papers in which I examine how feminist historians initially responded to the question “What is Woman’s Place in American Car Culture?”, incorporating some of the more recent literature in women’s automotive scholarship.

In 1980, Charles L. Sanford introduced a question that few in the auto industry, academia or popular culture had ever bothered to ask. And that is, “what is woman’s place in American car culture?” Sanford’s inquiry attempted to initiate an investigation into women’s limited and often invisible role in American car culture and automotive social history. Sanford made visible a notable lack in scholarship devoted to the relationship between women and cars. In the two decades that followed, feminist historians and literary scholars initiated an effort to address Sanford’s question.

Virginia Scharff, in her seminal work Taking the Wheel, and Margaret Walsh, through her work with The Henry Ford and the University of Michigan-Dearborn, as well as a number of articles focusing on distinct periods in women’s automotive experience, provide historical analyses of the automobile industry and women’s determined struggle to construct a place within it. Deborah Clarke addresses Sanford’s question through an examination of women’s literature in which the automobile assumes an important role. Clarke suggests that women have always considered themselves participants in car culture, but validation and recognition of such a place often eludes them. While Scharff, Walsh and Clarke respond to Sanford’s inquiry through the lens of varying disciplines, each uses the category of gender, and the social construction of masculinity and femininity in relation to the automobile, as the basis of analysis. Each strongly argues that the masculinity built into and associated with automobility has not only influenced auto industry decisions and policy, but has also established impenetrable barriers to woman’s relationship with the car, and woman’s place in car culture.

The automobile was imbued with masculinity from its conception. As the Industrial Revolution assured that man and machine would become irrevocably linked, the automotive industry, the product of that industry and the driver of the product were henceforth labeled masculine. This stalwart and stubborn association of automobile technology with masculinity often postponed or prevented those innovations perceived as feminine. Necessary improvements in comfort, style, luxury, economy and safety were often considered a concession to female tastes and received low priority in automobile production. Scharff provides a number of instances in which notions about gender not only blinded automakers to potential markets for their products, but set industry progress and production back unnecessarily as well. Scharff writes, “what some observers of the 1920s saw as […] a drive toward the decorative in automotive design, others interpreted as the emasculation of both industry men and the cars they made” (Wheel 113). The industry rarely asked women what they desired in a car, as acknowledgement of such responses might infer auto industry feminization. While industry leaders recognized the potential of the female customer, they grappled with how to appeal to the feminine market while keeping the masculinity of the automobile, and those who produced them, intact.

The auto industry responded by calling upon “innate” biological differences to suggest that men and women would “naturally” have different needs and expectations for the automobile. Automakers promoted women’s use of the automobile for its practical applications; thus the car, in women’s possession, became a domestic technology for the performance of prescribed gendered tasks. Unlike male drivers, women were not encouraged to identify with the car; the car was to occupy the same place in women’s lives as the vacuum cleaner and sewing machine. Scharff tells us, “as the automobile industry revolutionized the nation’s geographical, economic and cultural landscape […] it also played no small part in reinscribing assumptions about masculinity and femininity” (Wheel 112). The association of the automobile with masculinity served not only to reinforce the dominance of men’s privileged position in the car, the auto industry and society as a whole, but also affirmed woman’s proper place in public, on the road and in the home. As Scharff asserts, “auto industry decision makers, virtually all male, wanted to believe in the continued dominance and desirability of men’s privileged position in society and in economic matters” (Wheel 116). Thus woman’s “place” in car culture became where those in power wanted her to be: behind the wheel, but only in the fulfillment of her culturally prescribed domestic role.

In Driving Women, Deborah Clarke elaborates on the conflation of the car with the man who drives it. She writes, “more than any other machine, [the car] became anthropomorphized in American culture, generally functioning as both extension of the self and treasured companion” (47). As the car is associated with masculinity, car culture is a male culture. Women’s place in is most often defined in relationship to men and men’s cars. In such contexts, women are often accessories or sexual objects to be controlled or conquered. Women are utilized to enhance or confirm masculinity; their “place” is clearly subservient to that of the car and the man who drives it. As Clarke tells us, “popular myth associates cars with masculinity, and automobile advertising continues to link the car to the female body, promising men control over speed and women” (1). Yet what Sanford suggests and which Clarke confirms is that many women have a relationship with cars that is often comparable in kind and intensity to that expressed by men. Women ascribe meanings to cars; they call on the car’s ability to erase boundaries of home and the domestic sphere, and to provide a sense of independence, freedom and mobility. As Clarke writes, “the car allows women a position from which to construct individual identity, exercise individual agency, and chart a course as acknowledged individuals in American culture” (4). Yet while each of the contributors acknowledges the continuous presence of women in car culture, none offers a suggestion to make women’s presence better known. While Scharff, Walsh and Clarke are unanimous in ascribing importance to women’s participation, “given that cars often determine our place in American society,” not one of them offers a remedy for women’s continued invisibility in the auto industry and in American car culture (Clarke 8). 

In “A Woman’s Place in American Car Culture,” Charles Sanford writes, “what is needed is both an intimate feminine viewpoint from several perspectives about women’s experience with cars”(140). Scharff, Walsh and Clarke have provided such insight, but it is not enough. While Clarke calls upon the car as a “vehicle” to examine women’s place, such an analysis does nothing to improve women’s standing in the automotive industry or in car culture. In order to change the mentality of the American car industry, the importance of women to American car culture must become common knowledge. Society has historically underestimated the importance of cars to women. Automakers continue to shape and construct woman’s place in car culture in its own image, persisting in the narrow, like-minded, inbred thinking that has plagued the industry for generations. Women have a place in car culture independent of that prescribed for them. It is up to them to let automakers, and the world, know exactly what it is.

Since this essay was written in 2008, new scholars have approached this topic from various points of view. In Eat My Dust, Georgine Clarsen provides a counterpart to Scharff as she shifts the focus from automakers to female motorists and their efforts to become recognized as competent drivers within early twentieth-century America. Social historian Kathleen Franz dispels the notion of the woman driver as mechanically inept by drawing on accounts of early female motorists involved in the practice of “tinkering” in her book of the same name. Katherine Parkin investigates the gendered ways Americans have purchased, driven, and repaired automobiles since the early twentieth century in Women at the Wheel: A Century of Buying, Driving, and Fixing Cars. And in my own work, I have investigated women’s participation in various car cultures – chick cars, muscle cars, motorsports, and pickup trucks – as well as examined representations of the woman driver in locations such as popular music and film. These additional twenty-first-century projects have brought more attention to the woman driver; certainly the ascension of Mary Barra to the helm of General Motors has challenged the common assumption that women have little interest or knowledge of cars. But until women are universally recognized as being men’s equal automotive culture, there remains work to be done.

Clarke, Deborah. Driving Women: Fiction and Automobile Culture in Twentieth-Century America. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.

Clarsen, Georgine. Eat My Dust: Early Women Motorists. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 2008.

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

Parkin, Katherine. Woman at the Wheel: A Century of Buying, Driving, and Fixing Cars. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017.

Sanford, Charles. “‘Woman’s Place’ in American Car Culture.” The Automobile and American Culture. D.L. Lewis & L. Goldstein, eds. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1983. 137-152.

Scharff, Virginia. Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991.

Walsh, Margaret. “At Home at the Wheel? The Woman and her Automobile in the 1950s.” The Third Eccles Centre for American Studies Plenary Lecture: Proceedings of the British Association of American Studies Annual Conference, 2006. The British Library (2007): 1-21. 

—        “Gender and Automobility: Selling Cars to American Women after the Second World War.” Charm (2009): 295-310.

—        “Gender and the Automobile in the History of the United States.” Automobile in American Life and Society. University of Michigan-Dearborn. 2004-2010.

Presentation to the AAUW

Today I had the pleasure of presenting one of my research projects to the American Association of University WomenBirmingham MI Branch. When I received the invitation to speak, I wasn’t sure what I could say that would be relevant to this intelligent and enthusiastic group of university women. When I have been asked to speak on women and cars in the past, the invitation has most often come from a group of auto historians or car enthusiasts – a natural audience for the type of work I do. So I wondered how I could make my research relevant to the AAUW – an organization of women focused on advancing gender equity in education and the workplace. However, when I discovered where the luncheon was to take place, I decided to speak on a topic that has relevance to the location – The Iroquois Club – as well as to women working toward gender equity, albeit in a rather unusual way.

Woodward Dream Cruise

As it turns out, The Iroquois Club is located on Woodward Avenue and Square Lake Road in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, an intersection that played an important role in automotive history. While many recognize Woodward Avenue as the site of the annual Dream Cruise – the world’s largest one day automotive event – this very stretch of highway was instrumental in the development of the American muscle car, a category of vehicle that ruled the roads during the 1960s and early 1970s and is the inspiration for the celebration of car culture that ties up traffic on Woodward Avenue every year. Since this research project builds on muscle car history to incorporate women’s current participation in muscle car culture, the topic of women enthusiasts of American muscle cars seemed fitting for a Birmingham/Bloomfield Hills based organization of university women.

Woodward Avenue 1970s

In terms of the AAUW goal of equity for women and girls through advocacy, education, and research, the research touches on those concerns in rather unique and perhaps surprising ways. One of the goals in all of my research – including women and muscle cars – is to emphasize how women’s participation in masculine car cultures can create female interest in historically male dominated occupations and can also, in fact, serve as a stimulus to future roles and careers in the auto industry and other autocentric environments. And what this project also examines is how women involved in automobile cultures develop unique and inventive strategies to create a sense of gender equity in environments that are overwhelmingly conservative in ideology and practice. As I argued, the working-from-within methods employed by muscle car owning women can be applied to not only car cultures, but to any historically male dominated location.

The women in attendance acknowledged the connections I established between my own work and that of the AAUW and seemed responsive to the presentation, asking good questions and talking to me about their own automotive experiences afterward. I even sold a few books, which makes me hopeful that I have made a connection with the audience in some way. Although I am not a natural speaker and am always nervous before these types of events, the women were warm, welcoming, and enthusiastic. It was both an honor and a pleasure to speak with them today.

Review of ‘Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America’

As a member of the Society of Automotive Historians, I am sometimes asked to provide a review of a book nominated for the prestigious Cugnot Award for the organization’s bi-monthly SAH Journal. One of the books under consideration in 2021 was Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America by Candacy Taylor. I was introduced to The Green Book through Cotten Seiler’s seminal text Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America while a graduate student at Eastern Michigan University; the publication came into the public consciousness with the release of the Oscar winning film of the same name. I welcomed the opportunity to read and review the most current examination of this influential and important publication. It proved to be an interesting and enlightening read. For those who may be curious about the book, I have included my review below.

Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America
By Candacy Taylor
Abrams Press, NY (2020)
360 pages, 6 ½: x 9 ½” hardcover, dustcover 
150 color and black-and-white illustrations
Price: $35
ISBN: 9781419738173

The Green Book – a travel guide for black Americans produced from 1936-1967 –  is the subject of two exemplary publications released in 2020. Driving While BlackAfrican American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights was reviewed in the March/April 2021 issue of the SAH Journal and was the recipient of a 2021 Cugnot Award of Distinction. Author Gretchen Sorin focuses her account on the history of African-American car ownership and travel, particularly how the Green Book served as an impetus for black Americans to break the societal constraints of mobility placed on them since the days of slavery. Candacy Taylor, in Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America, takes a somewhat different, yet equally impactful, approach. Relying on historical documents, photographs, oral histories, family stories, as well as personal visits to remaining businesses and building sites featured in the travel guide, Taylor provides a chronology of the Green Book within the context of historical events that made its publication valuable if not vital to the black community. 

The Green Book was created to address the need and desire of black Americans to engage in safe travel during the Jim Crow era. The publication’s byline – ‘Carry Your Green Book With You – You May Need It’ – underscores the difficulties African-Americans faced when journeying away from home through unfamiliar areas. Yet as Taylor argues, the Green Book’s influence and impact was twofold. Not only did the annual publication serve as an essential travel guide, but as an effective and indispensable marketing tool for black-owned businesses as well. Through advertising, grassroots promotion, and word of mouth, the Green Book assembled an impressive list of hotels, restaurants, entertainment venues, recreation areas, stores, service stations, salons, and vacation spots that offered safe and welcoming accommodations for black travelers. Taylor’s examination of the Green Book is unique in this regard. For while she offers historical and first-hand accounts of the dangers of driving while black in America, she also suggests that the very need for a travel guide provided recognition as well as financial support for the many black-owned business establishments featured in each issue. This shared emphasis weaves throughout each chapter, as Taylor combines historical data and personal accounts of black travel with descriptions and photographs – many taken by the author – of the sites frequented by black individuals and families as they made their way across American roads. Taylor also includes a chapter on how the Green Book served as a source of empowerment for black women, who through advertising in the publication were able to experience a measure of success running businesses that included hotels, beauty shops, tourist homes, and sex clubs. Another chapter is devoted to the Green Book’s role in the Great Migration, and how it provided information not only on safe stops along the way but also on welcoming locations in which to relocate. 

Taylor holds a master’s degree in Visual and Critical Studies and is widely recognized as an award-winning author, photographer, and cultural documentarian. Like much of her previous work, Overground Railroad is part of a broader project which includes the book, a traveling exhibition by the Smithsonian Institution, as well as a children’s book, board game, and walking tour mobile app. In the book’s afterword, Taylor includes a Green Book Site Tour, the Green Book Cover Guide, as well as recommendations for local and national activism supported by a who’s who list of prominent African-American scholars, journalists, and legal experts. Taylor’s overarching goal in this project is not only to examine the Green Book’s influence on black American travel and black-owned businesses during the era framed by Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement, but also to inspire readers to challenge the social and legal inequalities that exist in the present day. 

While The Overground Railroad is well-researched, it is more experiential than academic, often relying on recollections of family members and black business owners, as well as  observations from Taylor’s 40,000 mile road trip in which she visits and documents nearly 3,600 remaining Green Book establishments and former building sites. The book’s less scholarly, more familiar language and tone makes the book accessible to a wider, and perhaps more inclusive, audience. That being said, the Overground Railroad project has been awarded numerous fellowships and grants from prominent educational and cultural institutions and was named a New York Times Notable Book of 2020.

Prior to the release of the popular motion picture The Green Book in 2018, most Americans were unfamiliar with the publication from which it took its name or the need for its existence. Overground Railroad is both a timely and necessary follow-up to the Oscar-winning film. Throughout its adeptly researched and photo-rich chapters, Taylor not only documents the injustices and real-life dangers black Americans faced while on the road, but provides the impetus to create change through political activism. As Taylor writes, “I wanted to show [the Green Book] in the context of this country’s ongoing struggle with race and social mobility.” For the problems black Americans face today, Taylor continues, “are arguably just as debilitating and deadly as the problems the Green Book helped black people avoid more than 80 years ago” (22). Overground Railroad is recommended not only as a unique examination of a dark era of American history, but to demonstrate how, as Taylor asserts, “real change can come from simple tools that solve a problem. That is why the Green Book was so powerful” (295). 

Car Dealerships, Ferraris, and the Woman Driver

To the majority of folks, Jay Leno is a former stand-up comic who had a very nice 20-plus year run as host of The Tonight Show. However in automotive circles, Leno is recognized for a very different television offering. Since 2015, Leno has used his celebrity status to encourage interest in automotive history through “Jay Leno’s Garage,” the Emmy winning series in which Leno offers car reviews, automotive tips, and shares his automotive passion and expertise through his extensive and expensive collection of automobiles. Viewers to his show are treated to test drives of vehicles of every persuasion, from the common to the obscure, powerful to mundane, excessive to pedestrian. However, as noted in a recent article in The Drive, there is one automotive model that is notably absent from Leno’s car collection. Leno refuses to own a Ferrari not because of any particular automotive feature, but because of the arrogance and rudeness of Ferrari dealers. As Leno explains, “This is not an indictment of the car; it’s just that you’re spending a tremendous amount of money. You should be made to feel like a customer’”(qtd. in Tsui).

In his interview with The Drive, Leno appears incredulous that someone of his celebrity and status is treated in such a disrespectful manner by dealership personnel. As a white and [extremely] privileged male, Leno has most likely never had to deal with offensive and patronizing automotive dealers and service representatives. Although Leno is now recognized as someone extremely knowledgeable about cars, I suspect that due to his race and gender, he has been treated as a car savvy individual for most of his driving life. Therefore I find it interesting, and somewhat amusing, that Leno finds poor treatment at car dealership unconventional and surprising, particularly since rude and insolent behavior at car dealerships has been – and continues to be – an all too common experience among women drivers.

In 2014 – in an examination of women’s online car advice sites – I discussed women’s common experience at automotive dealerships, drawing particular attention to how it contrasted to that of men. As I wrote:

To the majority of car-owning women, visiting an automotive dealership or service establishment is an unpleasant, unnerving, and frustrating experience. When seeking to purchase or service an automobile, women are often subject to sexist, dismissive, and patronizing behavior from automotive personnel. Women must often tolerate unwanted invitations or inappropriate comments regarding their appearance or sexuality, are withheld crucial information due to an assumed lack of basic car buying knowledge, and are ignored or dismissed when accompanied by a male companion. Although women influence nearly 85 percent of new car sales (Muley), the experience of women at automotive dealerships differs significantly from that of male drivers. Not only are women subject to inferior treatment, but they also often wind up paying considerably more for a vehicle than a male customer (Ayres). It would seem that such insolent behavior—as detrimental to future car sales—would be discouraged in those who sell and service cars. However, its continued existence suggests it is part of a broader strategy to maintain masculine control of the auto showroom as well as to limit and contest women’s financial and automotive competence.

This inferior treatment, as I noted, is based on a number of underlying factors. The first is the longstanding association between automobiles and masculinity. The second is an outdated but ingrained automotive sales technique which has its origins in horse-trading and its tradition of male contestation.

Antiquated notions of masculinity and femininity have traditionally linked technological expertise with the male gender. During the early years of automobility, this association was effectively applied to cars. While early automotive accounts reveal a growing female curiosity in the gasoline-powered automobile, fears over what women might do with a powerful machine created anxiety among male keepers of the status quo. Consequently, attempts were made to stifle women’s interest in automobiles, often through the association of driving ability with physical strength and mechanical expertise, qualities considered lacking in the woman driver. As historian Julie Wosk remarks, “men had long been portrayed as strong and technically able, women as frail and technically incompetent, or at least unsuited to engaging in complex technical operations” (9).

In the years following World War I, industrialization threatened traditional sources of male identity. The physical strength and mechanical ability necessary for the operation and maintenance of automobiles provided a means by which men could reassert themselves as masculine. Linking automobile use to technical expertise established men as more authentic drivers and initiated the longstanding association of the automobile with masculinity. As Clay McShane notes, “when men claimed mechanical ability as a gender trait, implicitly they excluded women from automobility” (156).

The association between masculinity and automotive technology was exacerbated in the years following World War II. Male teens often engaged in hot rod or muscle car culture as a means to further their automotive education and construct themselves as masculine. Aligning masculinity with cars, mechanical proficiency, and risky driving placed young women on the margins of teenage car culture, as either passengers or “avid spectators” (Genat 47). The exclusion of women from these sites of automotive education and practice assured that automotive knowledge would remain in men’s hands. It could be argued that the computerization of the automobile in the twenty-first century has leveled the playing field, as mechanical ability is no longer a prerequisite for servicing automobiles. Yet despite the fact that auto repair personnel are more likely to be diagnosticians than mechanics, the association of technological expertise and masculinity stubbornly remains. Women often feel compelled to bring men along with them to the dealership when purchasing or servicing an automobile, not because a man is inherently more car savvy, but because his maleness is considered unquestioned evidence of automotive knowledge.

Horse-trading and its tradition of male contestation were incorporated into the bicycle and automotive trades that followed. As women were seldom actors in the horse-trading arena, they were unfamiliar with commonplace bartering methods and uncomfortable in the hyper-masculine environment in which such tactics were practiced. While women, in the twentieth century, were increasingly cast in the role of consumer, their experience as buyers was limited to that of one-price retailing. Consequently, most women were totally unequipped to participate in a car buying process that relied on aggressive bartering. Women’s discomfort was intensified by the misogynist atmosphere of the showroom, in which the negotiation process was often framed in the violent language of physical and sexual conquest. Salesmen often called upon such rhetoric to take advantage of the female car buyer, believing that keeping women drivers less informed and more easily intimidated was an effective means to guarantee higher profit margins. While the women’s movement of the 1970s, and the subsequent growth of women in the workforce, may have increased the auto industry’s awareness of women as a distinct and profitable market segment, as Gelber notes, “the message often failed to percolate down to the showroom floor” (158). Although in the twenty-first century, women make up nearly half of automobile consumers (Bird), a lack of automotive knowledge and uneasiness with negotiating techniques ensures they will be treated in much the same manner as their horse-buying counterparts of a hundred years past.

Women have become increasingly car savvy since this article was written, due in part to vigorous automotive research as well as participation on online automotive sites and forums. The rise of women in the auto industry, including an increase in the number of female auto dealers, has also somewhat weakened the association of cars and masculinity, resulting in a more comfortable and less confrontational car buying experience. But there is little doubt that bad behavior against female automotive consumers remains. Therefore, while Leno may be admired for his stance against Ferrari dealerships, he should understand that he is by no means alone. For women have been treated with disrespect not only by fancy luxury car dealers, but by salespeople of all makes and models of cars since the first Model T drove off the car lot over 100 years ago.

Note: portions of this blog are excerpted from “Women Auto Know: Automotive Knowledge, Auto Activism, and Women’s Online Car Advice”.

Ayres, Ian. “Fair Driving: Gender and Race Discrimination in Retail Car Negotiations.” Harvard Law Review 104, 4 (1991): 817–872.

Bird, Colin. “Women Buying More Cars, Favor Imports.” Cars.com 31 Mar 2011.

Gelber, Steven M. Horse Trading in the Age of Cars: Men in the Marketplace. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

Genat, Robert. Woodward Avenue: Cruising the Legendary Strip. North Branch, MN: CarTech., 2010.

Lezotte, Chris. “Women Auto Know: Automotive Knowledge, Auto Activism, and Women’s Online Car Advice.” Feminist Media Studies (2014 ): 1-17.

McShane, Clay. Down the Asphalt Path: The Automobile and the American City. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Muley, Miriam. “Growing the 85% Niche: Women and Women of Color.” AskPatty.com. 2008.

Tsui, Chris. “Jay Leno Won’t Buy a Ferrari Because He Hates the Dealerships.” TheDrive.com 4 Feb 2022.

Wosk, Julie. Women and the Machine: Representations from the Spinning Wheel to the Electronic Age. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003..