This is my last blog of this 2021 Women’s History Month, and I’m featuring the “Damsels of Design.”
In the mid-1950’s Harley J Earl, General Motors VP of Design, recognized the growing buy power of women in the home & thought that would extend to car buying. He put together a 10-member team to give GM a “feminine touch.” Four of them worked for GM-owned Frigidaire, where they helped create the “kitchen of tomorrow.”
Suzanne Vanderbilt, Ruth Glennie, Marjorie Ford Pohlman, Jeanette Linder, Sandra Longyear, & Peggy Sauer were the six members who made up the first female automotive design team. Specifically, they worked on all interior design elements, including seats, doors, trim, detailing, color, fabrics, everything except the instrument panel, which was off-limits to women. They were considered the first prominent all-female design team in American History.
The “Damsels of Design” team, a name I’ve heard they detested because they felt it didn’t give them the respect they deserved as industrial designers, worked on the design elements for the Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile & Pontiac brands.
Suzanne Vanderbilt relates the ingrained sexism directed at the designers as a real impediment to their careers and a constant thorn in their sides: “What distressed most of us was that we could never be identified as just designers. We were always ‘la femmes’, or ‘the female designers’, … but as designer[s], we designed the same as the men did.”
As Vanderbilt put it, [they] “particularly enjoyed proving to our male counterparts that we are not in the business to add lace doilies to seatbacks or rhinestones to the carpets, but to make the automobile just as usable and attractive to both men and women as we possibly can.”
With the Corvette, they introduced the 1st retractable seat belt. Other innovations include glove compartments, light-up mirrors (makeup mirrors), storage consoles, child safety latches, & seasonal seat covers. Some of their design elements were industry-changing, and most of them that I’ve seen are super cool.
After the 1958 Feminine Auto Show, Mr. Earl announced his retirement & unfortunately, his successor did not share his enthusiasm about women in industrial design. The man who came after him kind of famously said, ‘No women are going to stand next to my male senior designers.’ From what I’ve read, at least some women believe things would have been different if Mr. Earl hadn’t retired when he did.
Vanderbilt stayed on with General Motors & in the 1960s, she developed a patent for an inflatable seatback (lumbar support). Although GM considered her invention, they didn’t use it until decades later.
As a woman, I like to imagine that if they had been allowed to continue to innovate, they would have made many more advancements.
I can’t go on without saying, Thank YOU to every woman who came before me and changed the workplace for us who came after you. I am eternally grateful for each and every one of you.
Happily, and better late than never, General Motors is now a leader in inequality. According to their Diversity & Inclusion Report, they have “a strong legacy of firsts.” (see graphic)
“General Motors has long understood that unique perspectives are key to success in the marketplace and being on the cutting edge of technological innovation in the fast-paced automotive industry. General Motors is determined to be at the forefront of change, leveraging our creativity and different perspectives to define the new era of mobility. “
I’m a proud representative of the automotive industry & I’m very blessed to belong to a local family of dealerships who highly value women in automotive.
Happy Women’s History Month. It’s been a quick & fantastic journey!