In 1955, Ruth Glennie left Boston to drive to Detroit for a job almost unheard of for a woman at the time: designing cars for General Motors.
"I didn't know anything in particular about cars. I had a car, and that was about it," she told Automotive News. She's now Ruth Glennie Peterson, 82. "We were all green. None of us had any experience. I had worked before, but the others had all just gotten out of school."
The others included eight more "Damsels of Design" that GM Vice President of Styling Harley Earl had hired. The nine women ranged in age from 22 to 34. All were college-educated. Of the nine, six were assigned to style automobiles.
'A publicity thing'
Glennie, who had studied industrial design at Pratt Institute, worked on Chevrolets.
"We were a publicity thing," she says. "It was Harley Earl's idea that it was a good thing to publicize that they'd hired a bunch of women all at once. It was an excellent job, though."
GM paraded the women out for photographs and newspaper stories, says Susan Skarsgard, manager of GM's design archives and special collections in Warren, Mich.
"Most of them did not like to be referred to as a damsel," Skarsgard says. "They weren't really into the whole PR thing. They felt they were no different from the men, and they wanted to be treated like the men."
But Earl's support of the women was genuine, Skarsgard says.
He told The Christian Science Monitor in 1958: "I don't know why the ladies shouldn't be represented in the designing of cars, refrigerators and other appliances."
Earl also predicted that in three to five years women would be designing automobile exteriors, Skarsgard says. She adds: "So he had a plan to have women be a major part of the design process."
In 1958, Earl put his words into action and held a "Feminine Show" in the Design Dome at GM's Technical Center in Warren.
In the show, the damsels styled the interiors of 10 GM vehicles and selected paint for the exteriors.
'Fancy Free' Corvette
Among them was a 1958 Corvette by Glennie known as the Fancy Free. Its seats were fitted with changeable covers. For spring, the basic seat insert was silver-olive. It was made of perforated leather that matched the solid metallic light-green exterior she chose, Glennie says. For the summer, there was a bright yellow terry cloth sling; for autumn, a red-orange cloth; and for winter, black imitation fur.
The idea for the different seat covers "just occurred to me," Glennie says. "I looked at what makes the driver more comfortable and the vehicle easier to operate."
The Fancy Free's seats were specially contoured with built-up sides with a pinched waist. There were retractable, self-adjusting plastic seat belts, too.
One of Glennie's colleagues, Jeanette Linder, styled a 1958 Impala convertible called the Martinique. It had a yellow umbrella holder under the driver's side instrument panel. She also designed a three-piece set of fiberglass luggage to match the pastel-striped cloth upholstery.
In late 1958, Bill Mitchell succeeded Earl as GM's design boss. Mitchell moved the women out of the design studio -- by some accounts, so he could cuss more freely, Skarsgard says.
A lot of the women quit after Mitchell arrived, she says. Skarsgard estimates Mitchell's actions might have set GM female designers back 10 years.
"After Earl left, those women weren't really valued again," Skarsgard says. "It's not a happy story, but it's the story."