Just like any other year, this March also carries the scent of a gentle breeze and female perfume. In this all-female month, we can’t help but think of women in the auto industry and their role in its development. The ones who have made a significant impact on the course of events. The ones who have proven that no industry can be all-male, no matter how much oil or dirt there is in it.

Women are highly appreciated for their soft touch and gentleness. Despite the fact that there are more and more men entering fields that require these skills, women are still the queens.

So today we will honor that. In this post, we won’t focus too much on mechanics or engineering. Instead, we’ll look at the automotive industry through the perspective of design. Female design.

GM’s first all-female team

When you start researching pioneering female designers, you will immediately come across a group of women from the 1950s that earned the name the Damsels of Design.

This was the first team of all-female designers hired by General Motors. Just like most cases from those times, this one also begins with a man. Harley J. Earl. That’s why we prefer talking about the Damsels under the code name “Harley’s Angels”.

Harley J. Earl was the vice-president of GM’s design department which at that time carried a name of the Styling Section. He is remembered for his brave strategic contributions to GM’s development. Earl introduced a number of new design strategies, including concept cars and the idea of annual model updates to uphold consumer demand.

He first introduced female designers to his department back in the ’40s and ’50s, believing they could help make automobiles that appealed to female consumers. Why would he do that you may wonder?

Earl gave a rather smart business explanation in a press release in 1958. There, he explained that women have the final vote in three out of four automobile purchases. At that time families were just starting the trend of buying a second car. Moreover, women were often the drivers.

Why ignore their opinion then? Neglect them and you are likely to lose 75% of your market.

Instead, he launched a program on integrating women in the automaking process itself. His initiative started by him sending an official recruiter to Pratt Institute in New York to hand-select a special group of designers. The designers were all women, nine in total. Six would go to various GM vehicle divisions, and three would go to GM’s appliance division.

  • Suzanne Vanderbilt
  • Ruth Glennie
  • Margaret (Peg) Sauer
  • Marjorie Ford Pohlman
  • Jeanette Linder,
  • Sandra Longyear
  • Gere Kavanaugh
  • Jan Krebs
  • Dagmar Arnold
  • Jayne Van Alstyne

Earl called them his ‘Damsels in Design’. The group that wanted to be treated as equal members of the extensive team of studio designers.

Being a Damsel at GM

The group of women selected from Pratt all had interesting backgrounds. Each of them had some fine art and industrial design training, and a few had worked for manufacturers in other fields. Yet, none of them had ever worked in automotive design before. And some did not even own a car. Others had never traveled beyond the East Coast.

One of the newly hired designers was Jeanette Linder – a young woman who had recently married another GM designer – Peter Linder. The couple gathered media’s attention exactly because of their reversed roles. While Peter would go design refrigerators, Jeanette would work on the design team for Chevrolet. The Linders were featured in Look magazine, unpacking boxes in their tiny apartment and preparing to go to work at GM.

The other, single, Damsels were a little more hesitant to start working at GM. Not because of the new job, but because of the fact that they had to go all the way to distant Detroit.

Yet, the GM opportunity seemed too good to pass up, so the women moved to Michigan, most sharing rooms and meals together, at least initially. In the studios, the women were often treated as curiosities, but generally (though not always) with respect.

The fact that Harley J. Earl was surrounded by so many beautiful women, soon earned a name in the automotive industry. Yet, despite Earl’s well-deserved reputation as a ladies’ man, he was always respectful of his design team.

Suzanne Vanderbilt, one of the Damsels, later recalled: “Harley Earl… was a gentleman, in spite of stories that you hear. He was always a gentleman with the women. More a father figure, maybe, than boss, and commanded – as I said before – a great deal of respect.”

The work of the Damsels

Much of the team’s work was on interiors of various GM cars. None were assigned exterior design roles. But their work went far beyond fabric selection and color swatches.

Many worked on advanced projects, including secret research into technologies and interior improvements, including safety innovations that would become an important part of the automotive design in the decades to come.

The 1958 show

In 1958, Earl decided to host a Feminine Show. The purpose of the Show was to expose the design talents of his Damsels to all others in the company. This is why the show took place in the General Motors Styling Dome on the Warren, Michigan campus, where GM executives and company representatives from all over the country could fly in to see the talented work.

The area where the Show took place was decorated by Damsel Gere Kavanaugh with great fabric streamers and circular display areas ringed by potted flowers and trees. In the center of the Dome, three full-height fabric cylinders were filled with a hundred chirping parakeets.

The Damsels were given at least one car each to redesign – 10 in total. Much of the work shown was color and trim selection, but each one included some interesting technical innovations. One of the most noticeable designs was the one done by Ruth Glennie. Her task was to redesign a Corvette.

At that time GM, along with other manufacturers, had signed a pledge to limit horsepower and stay out of sponsored racing activities, so the Corvette program was on life support. Some of the people at GM wanted to retire the car. Yet, Earl wanted to see what could a woman do to make it live.

The Fancy Free and more

Glennie’s Corvette, a convertible, was named the ‘Fancy Free’, a name meant to evoke the freedom and joie de vivre of leisure travel. She kept the form, as instructed, but painted it in a single tone, a silver-olive color – what turned out to be a great choice. The metallic sheen looked rather golden in the sunlight, and on cloudy days it seemed to be a soft silver.

Glennie thought the Corvette might be a car one could customize for each season, and so she designed a set of three seat covers for each season that covered the standard olive-colored leather.

The other Damsels were more considered of female needs in their designs.

  • Sauer redesigned an Oldsmobile Fiesta Carousel. It featured a child-friendly backseat which included storage for toys, a magnetic game board and child-proof latches that could be controlled from the dashboard.
  • Vanderbilt redesigned a Cadillac Eldorado Seville, which had custom features such as an early car phone and built-in memo pad.
  • Longyear’s exhibition-model Bonneville Polaris convertible for Pontiac featured a storage compartment for a picnic.
  • Pohlman worked on a Buick Shalimar and designed a special glovebox Dictaphone, a hidden umbrella compartment… and purple interior.

In the end, in order to ensure that all the vehicles got seen by the show visitors, Earl asked the guests to vote for their favorite car. The winner was the Fancy Free but everyone’s biggest surprise was Jeanette Linder with her Martinique – The designer who couldn’t even drive.

What the future held

When looking back, the Damsels say they really enjoyed the show. As Suzanne Vanderbilt put it, they particularly enjoyed proving to their male counterparts that

“we are not in the business to add lace doilies to seat backs or rhinestones to the carpets, but to make the automobile just as usable and attractive to both men and women as we possibly can.”

The show was an enormous internal success, and photos of the exhibit and its cars were distributed to national magazines for publication. It seemed like it made a statement about women’s future in automotive design. Or at least it seemed so.

The Damsels without Harley

After the Show, Harley J. Earl retired… and all of a sudden everything changed. His successor, Bill Mitchell, did not share Earl’s excitement about women in the industry at all. Not even one little bit. Three years of fame went by rather quickly.

Yet, almost all of the Damsels would leave GM to go on to other design jobs. Several set up their own design consultancies. Dagmar Arnold went to IBM, where she was the first woman at the company to receive a patent for her external design of the 1301 Disk Storage Unit.

Damsels’ biggest problem at GM was the fact that they were never just designers. As they themselves put it, they were always “les femmes” or “the female designers”. While at the same time, they worked as much as men did and designed the things that men did. As a matter of fact, they really hated the name “Damsels”. It was already a reason to be looked at differently.

There were a lot of women already working in the industry at that time. Yet, most of the times nobody even noticed them. Either because the people didn’t take them seriously, or because they were working with their husbands and were kind of in their shadow at the time.

One thing Harley J. Earl did well was taking women out of the shades. Even though this was only the start, the three-year fame of the Damsels made a statement for others to consider. And even today we could take some lessons from his behavior and remember a few basic but important facts:

  • women’s opinion matters sometimes even more than men’s
  • women have more than good looks
  • a woman can be just as innovative and persistent as a man.

And the fact that there is no such thing as all-male auto industry anymore.



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