Damsels of Design

In 2014 General Motors made history by appointing Mary Barra as their CEO, making her the first woman to hold the position for an automobile manufacturer.

Yet, GM has made history before for their progressive hiring practices. In 1943 GM hired designer Helene Rother as part of their styling team, to create upholstery, lighting and hardware for car interiors, which earned her the title of “first female automotive designer.” Then, in the 1950s GM took note that more and more women were stepping into the driver’s seat and that they had a great deal of purchasing power when it came to the family vehicle, not to mention buying more cars of their own. In order to attract female buyers the company put together a team of young female designers known as the “Damsels of Designs” who were responsible for designing car interiors and car displays. While GM often promoted their work more as decorating than actual design, the women essentially did the same work as the men on the team and some of the innovations they came up with, like glove compartments and light-up mirrors, remain staples of the car industry to this day. Yet, despite the ground-breaking initiative the women were still limited in the roles they could take on and the program was shorted lived due to turn-over in management. Luckily, many of the women had very successful careers both in and out of the automotive industry. Read more >>

Six of GM’s “Damsels of Design,” photographed circa 1955. From left: Suzanne Vanderbilt, Ruth Glennie, Marjorie Ford Pohlman, Harley Earl (VP of design), Jeanette Linder, Sandra Logyear, Peggy Sauer.