It’s an old and often used image, a scantily clad woman leaning on a cool classic car. These pictures are often found in man-caves, the rooms of teenage boys and men’s magazines, objectifying the women along with the cars. More recently, several women have shown how far we’ve moved from this image by collecting their own classic vehicles as a pursuit of passion. Instead of being collected along with the cars, these women are taking over what is classically seen as a men’s area of interest, collecting their own automobiles as they make their route.
Most of these women have always had an interest in cars. Tabetha Hammer, now president and chief executive of America’s Automotive Trust, started by restoring a 1935 John Deere tractor with her grandfather, spending over 200 hours on the project. “I didn’t go on any dates or see any movies that summer.” That tractor has brought her a long way, winning a contest for tractor restorations sponsored by Chevron and the National FFA Organization. This came with a scholarship to McPherson College, where she earned a specialized degree in vehicle preservation and restoration.
Hammer isn’t the only one. Jean-François Bouzanquet wrote “Fast Ladies:Female Racing Drivers 1888 to 1970,” in 2009, featuring 600 women and their role in shaping automotive history. One of the most famous was Bertha Benz, wife of Carl Benz. The last name is familiar because their company invented the first practical automobile in 1886, and went on to merge with another company to become Mercedes-Benz. Bertha was the first to drive a car long-distance, over 111 miles, and invented brake linings, and innovated insolation on the ignition cable using her garters.
Though Benz was the first, many women have begun to restore, transform and preserve classic cars. The Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance has acknowledged this by creating a women’s forum at their annual event to celebrate car collection. The idea comes from the chairwoman of the Pebble Beach Company, Sandra Button. She co-own a collection of cars with her husband, Martin. Hagerty, says that 30% more women have taken a policy for their specialty care in the past ten years, but the data of their census doesn’t include women like Button, who co-own their cars with a partner.
Women still face plenty of sexism and gender stereotyping. It is something that has always happened in the world of cars. Take Baroness Maria Antonietta Avanzo, a racer who competed against men like Enzo Ferrari in the 1920s. She had to get to the finish line even though other racers threw things at her, as if she was in a game of MarioKart. The judgement for female drivers or collectors is not shown in the same way today, but it is still present.
In 2019, Mattel and Mercedes-Benz honored legacies like Bertha’s and the Baroness’ by fighting gender stereotypes. They call this ‘The No Limits Initiative’. They gave 50,000 toy cars away on National STEM Day, all to girls and only girls. The car they gave out was at first put aside by the children as ‘for boys’ but then the girls were shown a video about Ewy Rosqvist, who drove the Mercedes-Benz 220SE (which the toys are modeled on) and won the Argentinian Grand Prix, the girls were a lot more accepting. It’s a reminder that gender doesn’t matter when you want to pursue a hobby.
Diane Parker, who is leading a project to ‘incubate’ female-owned start-ups for the Petersen Automotive Museum says, “This isn’t about women in a man’s world. It’s about human beings living their passion.”