Learn More About the Women that Pioneered GM Design
In case you didn’t know, March is Women’s History Month, thanks to a declaration by Congress in the late 80s. The success of the Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures has inspired many journalists to look for the women hidden in their own industry’s past, and there are many of them to find in the world of cars. From Mary Anderson, the inventor of the windshield wiper, to Alice Ramsey, who was the first American woman to drive across the US, women have been a part of automotive history for as long as cars have been on the road.
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One group that worked hard to pull women’s contributions from simple publicity stunt to real work was General Motors’ “Damsels of Design.” The group was created in 1955 by GM’s head designer, Harley Earl. He believed that a woman’s insight into design would benefit cars (and their appeal as a family vehicle), and the automaker’s publicity campaign took it away and gave the group its catchy name. In the end, nine women walked through the doors of General Motors’ Detroit headquarters to be the first female designers in company history, according to Automotive News. While the whole program was for positive publicity, all nine women were college-educated and qualified for their roles, and six of them focused on automobile styling.
Susan Skarsgard, manager of GM design archives and special collections, described the women as hard workers who were not fans of the “damsel” label because they wanted to be treated the same as their male counterparts. As a way to showcase their designs, Earl organized GM’s “Feminine Auto Show” in 1958. According to Automobile magazine, this was the first auto show prepared by women in history. One of the vehicles featured in the show was the “Fancy Free” Corvette with changeable seat covers. While some people might think of this as something girly, it was actually very practical, with imitation fur for cold winters and terry cloth slings for summer (and wet swimmers). The 1958 Oldsmobile “Carousel” had magnetized panels on the front seat to hold toys instead of letting them scatter all over the car. Sue Vanderbilt, one of the designers, said “We enjoyed proving to our male counterparts that we are not in the business to add lace doilies to seat backs or rhinestones to the carpets.”
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Unfortunately, women were forced out of GM’s design department soon after the show when Bill Mitchell became the new head of design. Despite the setback, women have now become a part of every part of GM, and now Mary Barra is in control of the company. We can’t wait to see what is next for women in the automotive world.