Damsels of design: first prominent all-female design team

Six of GM's "Damsels of Design" who worked on automotive interiors, photographed circa 1955. From left: Suzanne Vanderbilt, Ruth Glennie, Marjorie Ford Pohlman, Harley Earl, Jeanette Linder, Sandra Longyear and Peggy Sauer. All images courtesy General Motors Design Archive & Special Collections

Spend any time researching pioneering female designers and you'll likely run across General Motors' so-called Damsels of Design, a group of ten women brought on board by the automaker in the mid-1950s, and the first prominent all-female design team in American history. But not a lot of people know the full story of the Damsels, which is not quite the tale of female empowerment you would hope for.


Perhaps not surprisingly, the Damsels' history begins with a man. Harley J. Earl was the vice president of GM's Styling Section (now known as GM Design), where he ushered in a number of new design strategies for the automaker, including concept cars, planned obsolescence and the notion of stoking consumer demand with annual model updates. He also introduced female designers to his department in the '40s and '50s, believing they could help make automobiles that appealed to female consumers. As he put it in a 1958 press release, "The skilled feminine hands helping to shape our cars of tomorrow are worthy representatives of American women, who today cast the final vote in the purchase of three out of four automobiles."

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