The Feminine Touch: GM’s Damsels of Design

One of the side effects of the Second World War was women having to take up roles in previously male-dominated roles. Prior to the war, most American women were resigned to household duties or, for those fortunate enough to be out in the working world, desk jobs and other such roles deemed appropriate for our feminine ways.

After the war, attitudes began to change surrounding women’s duties, and suddenly doors opened to areas of society previously off limits for half the American population. One such field was that of the automobile manufacturer. GM’s first female designer, Helene Rother, was hired in 1943 to join the styling team. This in itself was revolutionary, however in 1955 GM’s Vice President, Harley J Earl, created what is now considered America’s first prominent all-female design team.

Although being a part of GM’s ‘Damsels of Design’ undoubtedly being an amazing launchpad into design careers for the 10 women who were enrolled, the job was laced with sexism and unequal opportunities. Despite this, the team’s formation must still be considered as a revolutionary act, defiant in the face of their fellow industry workers who sought to keep them as homemakers.

The Damsel’s of Design

Harley J Earl recognised that modern women held a lot of the buying power in the nuclear family. The car was seen as an extension of the home, and therefore women also had a say in which car they bought. Earl realised that the ‘feminine touch’ in automotive design could be a good marketing tool, and set out recruiting 10 women, mostly from Pratt Institute, as well as two women who already worked for GM. Suzanne Vanderbilt, Ruth Glennie, Marjorie Ford Pohlman, Jeanette Linder, Sandra Longyear and Peggy Sauer were part of GM’s interior design department, while Jan Krebs, Dagmar Arnold, Gene Kavanaugh and Jayne Van Alskyne were designing for GM owned Frigidaire designing the ‘Kitchen of Tomorrow’.

One of the damsels, Suzanne Vanderbilt, said that they “really learned from ground one how to put the car together…. But, those were the days when [there was] a misconception about interior designers, meaning you just select fabrics and sew things together…but there’s a lot more to it than that, and that’s what we tried to tell the press over and over again. We weren’t there just to decorate. Unfortunately, the projects that were publicized were decorating.”

Credit: General Motors LLC

Their roles went a lot deeper than what was promoted by GM, as oppose to just choosing fabrics and picking colours all day. In reality, the Damsels were designing doors, seats, steering wheels, knobs and more. Some of their designs were even ‘firsts’, like GM’s first retractable seatbelt used in Ruth Glennie’s ‘fancy free’ Corvette, which also came with 4 interchangeable seat covers (one for each season). Their other innovations included the glove compartment and illuminated makeup mirrors; both features that we now consider staples of modern motoring.

Vanderbilt said in an interview 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 Damsels were designing also interiors that took into account infant passengers and practical uses of cars; a car in those days wasn’t just about getting from A to B, their designs incorporated a vehicles usage in the real world.

GM decided to promote the work of the Damsels of Design with what they dubbed the ‘Feminine Autoshow’, where each member designed 2 to 3 automobiles each. This was seen as a chance to show off their ‘feminine’ taste and design prowess. The designers who were working for Frigidaire also helped design the exhibition itself, with Gene Kavanaugh adorning GM’s Styling Dome with 90 rented live canaries in floor-to -ceiling net columns for their 1958 Feminine Autoshow.

The promotional video for this is rather frustrating, and the perfect example of the promotional style GM adopted for the Damsels, saying that they were designing ‘upholstery that won’t snag their nylons’. It is clear from their work that the group weren’t designing cars with women solely in mind, instead they were designing cars for people. In the same breath, they found it frustrating that they were always coined as ‘female designers’ as oppose to just ‘designers’.

‘No women are going to stand next to my male senior designers’

Sadly, after the 1958 Autoshow, Harley J Earl retired from his position, and his successor shared none of Earl’s views. He infamously dictated that he wouldn’t stand to have women designers working with his male designers, and thus the short-lived group was disbanded. Most of the women went to work in other jobs and also set up their own design consultancies. Dagmar Arnold went to work for IBM, where she was famously the first woman in the company to secure a patent.

Credit: General Motors LLC

Jayne Van Alstyne stayed in the company for 14 years, and Suzanne Vanderbilt stayed for 23 years. Between 1963 and ’65, Vanderbilt took a sabbatical from GM to study an MFA in metalsmithing in the hopes it could help her transition to designing automobile exteriors at GM, however upon her return she found that she had been demoted, and it took her 4 years to work her way back up again.

She spent those 4 years working in Chevrolet’s Interiors Studio, and by 1972 she finally became Chief Designer of the Studio. Unfortunately, Vanderbilt was forced to take early retirement at the height of her design career due to illness, and passed away 11 years later at age 55.

Internal door design drawing by Suzanne Vanderbilt

Paving the Way

Despite all the frustration the Damsels of Design undoubtedly had to deal with in their jobs, their work is now seen as paving the way for other women in their field. Nowadays, the auto industry is no longer reserved for men, and it’s the Damsels and their counterparts in other vehicle manufacturing brands we have to thank for that.

Written by Niamh Smith

Image Credits belong to rightful owners

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