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Women Auto Executives: It Took 80 Years

by John Aquino on 04/11/20

My wife's childhood friend, Constance Smith, is also a legal client of mine. I represented her in the contract negotiation of her book,  Damsels in Design: Women Pioneers in the Automotive Industry 1939-1959 (Schiffer, 2018) ( https://www.amazon.com/Damsels-Design-Pioneers-Automotive-1939-1959/dp/0764354353/ref=sr_1_3?dchild=1&keywords=Constance+Smith&qid=1586562602&sr=8-3 )She herself has been a pioneer in writing about women who developed landmark products in automotive design. It has sold well and won a number of awards, and she is working on a second book on the topic. 

I stumbled on a film called Female (1933) that runs parallel and a little sideways to Connie’s book. Little known today, it was directed by Michael Curtiz, who won an Academy Award for directing Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca nine years later, and William Wellman, two years after he made a star of James Cagney in the gangster film Public Enemy. Female is a fictitious film that tells the story of Alison Drake, the touch-minded executive of an automobile factory, who succeeds in the man's world of business until she meets an independent design engineer. It starred Ruth Chatterton, a star of the 1930s who actually lived the part, in a way, because she was also one of the few women aviators in the U.S. at the time.

Alison is portrayed as hard, powerful, bold, and innovative. It is no accident that the filmmakers shot the exterior of her home on location at Ennis House, which was designed by the architectural genius Frank Lloyd Wright. But while there are shots of some auto design sketches, it’s also telling that the cars that roll off the assembly line of her factory appear to be 1933 Fords. The emphasis is not on designs of the automobiles but on a woman doing a man’s job and acting like a man. She takes advantage of her male employees the way male movie executive would employ the “casting couch” for would-be starlets. (When she is cool to on of these men at the office after a night together and he objects, she transfers him to Montreal. He looks like he is about to say, "I feel so cheap," but doesn't.) Ultimately, Female caves to conventional 1930s thinking: while Alison has succeeded in a man’s business world, she finally opts for the traditional woman’s role of wife, homemaker, and mother. She marries the independent design engineer, turns the business over to him, and announces that she will have nine children. There’s a brief YouTube clip about the film with a running typed commentary that ends with an appropriate reaction ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0_xHLYfZ0qw ). 

The movie was still ahead of its time in portraying a woman as an automotive executive. There were women in the industry who designed innovative automotive products, but they did it without fanfare and often without credit. While Warner Bros. studio thought that a women running a car company was possible in 1933, the reality was different.  It wasn't until Dec. 10, 2013, 80 years after Female was made, that General Motors announced that it had appointed its--and the entire automobile industry's--first female chief executive officer, Mary Barra. In June 2018, Dhivya Suryadevara became GM's--and the industry's--first female chief financial officer.

Eighty years late but finally.

Copyright 2018 by John T. Aquino


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