Damsels of Design, from left to right: Suzanne Vanderbilt, Ruth Glennie, Marjorie Ford Polhman, Harley Earl, Jeanette Linder, Sandra Longyear & Peggy Sauer. Photo courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, #X29387-2


As early as 1943, Harley Earl, Vice President of Styling at General Motors, started hiring female designers. In the mid-fifties, there was a group of women designers who were spotlighted. They were called the "Damsels of Design" and included Dagmar Arnold, Ruth Glennie, Gere Kavanaugh, Jan Hrebs, Sandra Longyear, Helene Pollins, Peggy Sauer, Jane Van Alstyne,and Suzanne Vanderbilt. All the women held college degrees and had received extensive industrial design training, seven of the nine at Pratt Institute. Two also held masters' degrees in fine art.

The Damsels were paraded in the press in photo opportunities and in public. They worked on interior automotive features in the car divisions. In the Frigidare Production Studio, they worked on appliances and detailing hardware, developing systems for cooking, laundry and food preservation. They also worked on the design project, the Kitchen of the Future.

In a May 26, 1957, press release, Earl made this statement:

Make our staff co-educational has been very successful...Besides being color and fabric specialists, our women designers are tuned especially to the woman driver's problems and they've taught us a lot...They are strong advocates of the six-way seat for greater comfort and visibility. They have designed windshield wiper knobs and other dashboard controls which are easier to find at night. And, of course, they are always on the look-out for anything that might snag their nylons...So many talented girls are entering our field of design that in three or four years, women may be designing car exteriors.

In his thirty years with GM, Earl supervised the design of nearly thirty-five million cars. He recognized the growing influence of women in automobiles. GM realized that women passed on the deciding vote in the purchases of seven out of tens cars sold. Women were credited with inspiring increased beauty in automotive interiors, for their attention to attractive color schemes, and for their increased use of power accessories on cars. Unfortunately, Earl retired in 1958, only a few years after the "Damsels" were formed, and his replacement was not as forward-thinking regarding women in automotive design. Although women lost ground without the support of Harley Earl, GM was ahead of its time in hiring women to do styling.

In an address Suzanne Vanderbilt gave to the Midwest College Placement Association on September 10, 1957, she said:

"Not too long ago, management gave the women designers at GM Styling the opportunity to express our viewpoints on cars designed especially for women. Each girl was asked to design two cars for the Divisional Studio in which she worked. We were asked to choose new fabrics and exterior colors and originate new trim design and hardware. These feminine cars caused much comment and were favorably received by corporate management and others. But I think the most significant thing about this program is that the designs were as appealing to the men who saw them as the women. It was designers' paradise, and we particularly enjoyed proving to our male counterparts 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."

-Rebecca Welz


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