The ‘Damsels of Design,’ Women Who Changed Automotive History | WBEZ
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The 'Damsels of Design,' Women Who Changed Automotive History

For all of the horror that emerged from the WWII, there were some bright spots: With the men out fighting, women were brought into the workplace.

In the mid 1950s, a visionary executive believed women could have a lasting impact on the automobile industry. Harley J. Earl, then the vice president of design at General Motors, introduced “The Damsels of Design,” a group of industrial designers.

“[Earl] really recognized before his contemporaries that women in postwar era really had a lot more buying power, and they were making a lot more decisions about the home, and kind of the car as an extension of the home” says Rebecca Veit, Designing Women columnist at the magazine Core77.

Veit says Earl believed this 10-member design team could give GM “the feminine touch” — a softer aesthetic sensibility that American car consumers could appreciate.

“GM’s PR department really saw a great opportunity to promote the women they were bringing in, and dubbed them ‘The Damsels of Design,’” says Veit. “From everything I’ve read, they really kind of hated the name and being called ‘The Damsels’ — they really felt that it didn’t give them a fair shake as designers.”

Four of the "Damsels” worked as industrial designers for GM-owned Frigidaire, where they helped create the Kitchen of Tomorrow, while the remaining six were tapped specifically for the General Motors Interior-Design Department. Taken together, they’re now considered the first prominent all-female design team in American history.

The Carousel's child-friendly backseat included storage for toys, a magnetic game board and child-proof latches that could be controlled from the dashboard. Credit: General Motors Design Archive & Special Collections/Courtesy

“They were really designing [car] interiors from the ground up,” says Veit. “The PR department at GM kind of promoted them as decorators, saying, ‘Oh, you know, they’re throwing around fabrics and choosing colors,’ but really they were doing the exact same work that the men there were doing.”

Some of the Damsels also worked on designed displays and exhibits for the GM Styling Department, which is now known as GM Design.

“One thing that GM specifically did was to promote them with what they called the ‘Feminine Autoshow,’” says Veit. “This was really a time for them to show their taste and design prowess. They designed two to three automobiles each, and really put in some interesting innovations.”

With the Corvette, the Damsels introduced the first retractable seat belt, and they also developed other innovations, like glove compartments and light-up mirrors — features that would remain in GM cars for decades to come.

“They had fun storage consoles for picnics and for umbrellas, and they also put in some new safety features,” says Veit. “They had some of the first safety latches that could be controlled on the dashboard for children in the back seat.”

Veit says the Damsels were thinking more “holistically” about automobiles and the different ways that a car would actually be used in the real world. But they weren’t the only women in the design field at the time.

“There were a lot of women in America, as well as Europe, who were designing and kind of flying under the radar either because they weren’t taken seriously, or because they were working with their husbands and they were kind of in their shadow at the time,” Veit says.

But the story of the Damsels didn’t end happily.

Suzanne Vanderbilt demonstrating an early car phone and built-in memo pad — custom features for her 1958 exhibition-model Cadillac Eldorado Seville. Credit: General Motors Design Archive Special Collections/Courtesy

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