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July 06, 2016

Ways Women Are Advancing Motoring History

4__wak__birdsall_jackie__toyotaA 32-year-old woman, Jackie Birdsall, is one of two senior engineers in the U.S. who helped develop fuel cells for Toyota's Mirai, which is on sale in California and is soon coming to the northeast.

That got me thinking about how far women have come in the world of automobiles -- not just those who work for car companies, but those who drive, buy, and love cars.

3__wak__mary-barra__gm_ceoThe first woman ever to head a car company, Mary Barra, runs General Motors as its CEO, one of the largest corporations in the world. On the Fortune Global 500, it ranks 21st. The automotive industry continues to hire talented women who are designing trucks and cars, and are engineering the technologies that are transforming our transportation.

It is also true that women today play a leading role in 85 percent of auto purchasing decisions. Women bought 40 percent of the 16 million cars sold in 2014. How did that happen?

The desire of women to be behind the wheel was hinted at in a response given to a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector by a farm woman in the 1920s. He asked why her family chose to buy a car instead of installing indoor plumbing. "You can't go to town in a bathtub," she replied.

1__wak__corvette-historical-brochure-1953__lo_resIt took time for women to get into the driver's seat in significant numbers. We tend to think World War II was a turning point. And, in a way, it was. Men went to war; women took over work in the factories. Driving during the war was somewhat limited by rations on gasoline and rubber, by imposed speed limits, by unsafe road conditions, and the entire war effort. But women were left to take care of and drive the cars. The war gave way to a new era: one of independence for women.

It is interesting to note that even before this newfound independence, car companies had been advertising to women and featuring them in their ads. Ad copy in 1932 encouraged women to make sure to change their (Quaker) oil. In 1940, a General Motors ad read, "Can a woman buy the family car . . . Wisely?"

2__wak__oldsmobile_hydra-matic-drive__lo_resAn economic boom lasted from 1948 to 1973. Affluence prompted families to purchase two cars, as the automobile became intricately woven into our ways of life. The auto industry was gaining sales. Styling and technology improvements to engines, steering, suspension, brakes, and tires made operating a car safer and more manageable. Women were on the road.

Suburbia expanded simultaneously as cars improved. That made driving not only easier, it became a necessity. Advertising featured women claiming what the particular brand offered them -- Here's What I Like in My '52 Dodge. It was the same then as it is now: safety, styling, and dependability.

In 1964, Woman's Day published a column written directly to women about their relationship to their automobiles -- tips on driving and taking care of a car. Woman's Day was hoping to attract auto advertising but it failed. The ad agencies didn't understand that women were influencing car purchases.

Throughout the 1960s car ads predominantly featured men behind the wheel, they talked about horsepower and speed. Still today, car advertising leans on the male-behind-the-wheel motif. Advertisers are totally aware of the statistics. They know that women are smart, wealthy, and independent. And they want to appeal to women; so they put handsome actor Matthew McConaughey behind the wheel.

If you assert that women are gaining ground on all automotive fronts -- making cars, buying, selling cars, and driving cars -- the question remains, what ground needs to be gained? Women have had traction all along.

Kate McLeod-headshotby Kate McLeod for Motor Matters

Kate has written for magazines and newspapers for over 20 years. She has written for More,,, Houston Chronicle, Motion, Chief Executive, The New York Daily News, The New York Sun, and Her column, GirlDriver, USA is syndicated in seven newspapers in Upstate New York. Ms. McLeod is the author of Beetlemania, The Car That Captured the Hearts of Millions. She holds an MFA from Catholic University in Washington, D.C. and is also a playwright.   She is former First Vice President of the International Motor Press Association and a member of both The Authors and Dramatists Guilds.

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