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Grosse Pointe Shores

Women take the wheel in new exhibit at Ford House

August 27, 2014

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This 1967 ad for the Tussy Mustang-to-Match sweepstakes offered drivers a chance to win a Ford Mustang in their favorite lipstick color.

GROSSE POINTE SHORES — Women have played a key role in automotive history since the car was born, and their influence is evident in “Women Who Motor: A Century of Shifting Cultural and Industry Standards” now on display in the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House garage.

Visitors will find vintage vehicles, advertisements and artifacts, including special driving clothes.

“More than 100 years (of automotive history) is on display,” said Sarah Tuxbury, communications specialist at Ford House.

The exhibition is divided into three time periods: The Early Years (1885-1945), the Post-War Years (1946-1964), and the Modern Era (1965-today). It’s not only about “how the automobile changed the lives of women, but how women changed the automobile,” explained Cindy Olsen, exhibition curator and Ford House director of material culture.

For the first section, the Ford House has borrowed from the Detroit Historical Society the 1914 Detroit Electric once owned and driven by Helen Newberry Joy, wife of Henry Joy, the Packard Motor Car Company president. The electric car offered features to appeal to women, including a built-in vase for fresh flowers, plush seats — one of which swivels and looks like an upholstered living room chair — and curtains that could be lowered on the windows. Comfortable seats, safety features and easier steering mechanisms were some of the changes made to vehicles to entice female drivers, but they ended up improving the automobile for all motorists, Tuxbury said.

“The vehicles that were marketed to women (in previous eras) helped us get to where we are today,” she said.

Other items on display include a book of driving etiquette from the 1980s by Anne and Charlotte Ford; a racing suit worn by professional racecar driver Lyn St. James, who competed circa the 1980s and 1990s; a pink raincoat and hat that came with — and matched — the pink Dodge LeFemme car, which was produced for women from 1955-56; and a complete set of accessories that also came with the LeFemme, including a purse, lipstick case, lighter and compact. Exhibition organizers weren’t able to get the actual car, but Olsen said they were “lucky to be able to get a complete set of accessories” from the LeFemme, considering how rare these are. Because early cars were open, automotive fashion sprang up to protect female drivers from dirt on the roads; a navy blue duster once worn by Clara Ford is one example of this phenomenon.

Visitors might be surprised by some of the artifacts, including a Safety Girl roadside emergency kit sold online circa 2011 that includes unlikely car repair essentials such as Chapstick, a hairbrush, deodorant, a portable sewing kit and a chocolate bar. As this demonstrates, throughout the history of the automobile, there has been this “perception of women drivers as helpless,” Olsen said.

The counter to that is the number of women included in the exhibition who made history themselves in the car industry. They include Bertha Benz — wife and business partner of Mercedes-Benz co-founder Karl Benz — who took the first lengthy car trip, about 60 miles over three days, to show that it could be done. Olsen and Tuxbury said Bertha Benz packed up her children and hit the open road in Germany to visit her mother, fixing the car by herself along the way, since this was decades before auto repair shops could be found on nearly every corner.

Then there’s Alice Ramsey, who in 1909 became the first woman to drive by herself across America, using a Maxwell touring car to get her from New York to San Francisco in 59 days. There are also glimpses into some of the many women who’ve worked on automotive design, from the ladies dubbed the “Damsels of Design” who worked for Harley Earl at General Motors after World War II, to today’s Sheryl Connelly, a futurist for Ford Motor Co. who uses trends to predict where the industry is headed.

The exhibition includes multimedia components, such as video clips from classic car commercials, a section of the Charlie Chaplin movie “Mabel at the Wheel” and more. For those who want to view more extensive content, there are several on-site iPads where visitors can see full car commercials and ads, automotive books by women, and other auto-related images.

It’s the first new exhibition in the garage in five years, Tuxbury said.

“What I really wanted people to get out of the exhibit was that women were not passive participants in the history of the development of the automobile,” Olsen said. “They were active from the get-go.”

“Women Who Motor” opened Aug. 23 and runs through 2016.

The Ford House is located at 1100 Lake Shore in Grosse Pointe Shores, between Vernier and Nile Mile roads. For more information, call (313) 884-4222 or visit

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