What happens in a male-dominated automotive industry, when a group of women is radically introduced? What happens when involving skilled women professionals challenges the rife of gender inequality in the design industry? As a result, a more intricate and need-sensitive design production emerges, one that is more than a simple show business for a braggart, but also a detailed portrayal of the minute details that contribute to a larger and brighter picture. Such was the spectacular all-female American design groupGeneral Motors’ Damsels of Design.

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All-female design team in American history: GM'S Damsels of Design - Sheet1
The Damsels of Design_©GM Archives

The Design Team

The group consisted of ten sharp, tech-savvy, and gifted women. The Damsels of the design was a group founded by then-Vice President of design for GM; Harley Earl. The ‘Damsels of Design’ though a bigoted title, consisted of graduates from Pratt institute of design and Cranbrook Academy of art. Though some women had already been a part of the GM Design’s team, the larger cadre of women was only established in 1957.

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This was after the time of the second industrial revolution where women were on a rise towards financial and social empowerment. It was a positive aftermath of World War 2 where the men were required on the battlegrounds while the women were automatically enabled as homemakers as well as bread earners. It was a time when women had actually begun to be more involved in the selection process and were even held accountable for having the final say for the purchase of 7 out of 10 vehicles on an average. They were learning to be independent. They were studying design and were even considered as more than just a judge of good lace and seam. 

Four of the ten womenGere Kavanaugh, Dagmar Arnold, Jan Krebs and Jayne Van Alstyneworked for Frigidaire; a subsidiary of General Motors. They collaborated on the “Kitchen of Tomorrow” project, designing cutting-edge household and kitchen appliances. At the same time, the other sixJeanette Linder, Marjorie Ford Pohlman, Sandra Longyear, Ruth Glennie, Suzanne Vanderbilt, and Peggy Sauerworked as design leads for the interiors of different GM Brands. 

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The Damsels of Design_©GM Archives

Being A Damsel At General Motors

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The Damsels, or as they were known, Harley’s Angels, were the catalyst for reform in the business. Though the women were all graduates from famous universities of design, they weren’t experienced in automotive design. Some didn’t even own a car. But what is noteworthy is the fact that despite substantial differences and general issues, the women didn’t give up on the opportunity to be a part of GM’s design team. They moved away from their homes and lived together in Michigan where they put in hours of hard work in the design studios. 

They were the sparks in the role reversal within the company dynamics. For instance, Jeanette Linder was married to another GM Designer; Peter Linder. They grabbed the media’s attention when Peter was subjected to designing refrigerators for the subsidiary while Linda worked with the design team for Chevrolet. With all the curious outlooks and opinions in place, the Damsels of design at GM put in all their knowledge and effort to be a great asset to the company.

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The Damsels of Design_©GM Archives

The Work Of The Damsels

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Initially, Mr. Earl hired the Damsels for the styling of the interiors of the cars. However, these ladies were quickly tasked with research, design, and redevelopment work for the automobiles, which went well beyond decorating and making things seem nice. The ladies were allowed to remodel 10 different automobile interiors for General Motors, which were then shown in a feminine presentation in 1958. It was a show that was legitimately designed to display grandeur by the damsels themselves. 

The showcase involved long red drapes, custom display rings and three huge fabric cylinders filled with hundreds of chirping parakeets. This was a groundbreaking effort put in by Harley Earl, which enabled the Damsels to look at the design of cars from the perspective of form and as well as functions. Some of the smart features, which were the brainchild of these women, included: Kid-friendly back seats with magnetic game boards, storage bins for toys, and childproof locks designed as part of the Oldsmobile fiesta carousel by Sauer.

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The Corvette Design _©GM Archives

A Cadillac Eldorado Seville was remodeled by Vanderbilt and included special features such as an early car phone and a built-in memo pad. A picnic basket was included in Longyear’s exhibition-model Bonneville Polaris convertible for Pontiac. Pohlman built a customized glove box Dictaphone, a secret umbrella compartment. And a purple interior for a Buick Shalimar.

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All-female design team in American history: GM'S Damsels of Design - Sheet5
Design Feature _©GM Archives
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Design Feature_©GM Archives
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Design Feature_©GM Archives
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The corvette_©GM Archives

A very interesting take on the Chevrolet Corvette was done by Ruth Glennie, which was showered with praises in the show. The metallic silver-olive Corvette was indeed a chic addition to the company’s design profile. Ms. Glennie designed the car with interchangeable seat covers for different seasons, a storage bin to fit a purse, seats with specially built upsides for comfort and the first ever-retractable plastic seat belts. 

This beautiful car was indeed the centerpiece of the exhibition.

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The Feminine Show Display_©GM Archives
All-female design team in American history: GM'S Damsels of Design - Sheet10
The Feminine Show Display_©GM Archives
Design Feature_©GM Archives

Disordinance Of The Damsels’ Future

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Although the arrival of an all-female squad was a step forward in terms of empowerment, the fate of the damsels was not well received. The fact that such a team was hired at a certain time in the industry was rumored to be a marketing stunt. However, the women were always very respectful of Harley Earl and earned his respect just as much. The Damsels of Design migrated to other firms just a few years later, when Bill Mitchel, who wasn’t as enthused about an all-female workforce, succeeded Earl.

GM’s Damsels of Design was an all-female team, which despite all the hardships became an act of revolution in a man-dominated automotive industry. Despite their short-lived fate at the company, a public display of their efforts and capability was almost enough to raise the bars for women in the various work sections across the world. With many other things, they added to the symbolism of reputation and the female opinion in the industry, which will forever remain a great cause for celebration.

References

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  1. Altered Steel. 2021. Women in cars: The Damsels of Design | ALTERED STEEL. [online] Available at: https://alteredsteel.com/the-damsels-of-design/ [Accessed 29 August 2021].
  2. Gotthardt, A., 2021. The Pioneering Women Who Designed Car Interiors in the 1950s. [online] Artsy. Available at: <https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-pioneering-women-designed-car-interiors-1950s> [Accessed 29 August 2021].
  3. Sadler, B., 2021. MotorCities – Women & Their Contributions to the Auto Industry: Then & Now | 2019 | Story of the Week. [online] Motorcities.org. Available at: <https://www.motorcities.org/story-of-the-week/2019/women-their-contributions-to-the-auto-industry-then-now> [Accessed 29 August 2021].
  4. Gmheritagecenter.com. 2021. Archive | GM Heritage Center. [online] Available at: <https://www.gmheritagecenter.com/gm-heritage-archive/index.html> [Accessed 29 August 2021].
Author

Ayushi is an architect with a sensitivity towards global architecture and its cultural importance. She is also an exemplary artist which in turn helps her in capturing the essence of creative and colourful endeavours across the world.A keen interest in writing, researching and curating has led her to venture into the field of Architectural Journalism.

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