If AMC’s long-running television show Mad Men has taught us anything, it is that it is hard being a woman in a man’s world. And while Peggy Olsen’s struggle to be taken seriously as an advertising professional in the 1960s is fictional, many talented, driven, and creative women found themselves fighting a similar battle in their own professions in the 1960s and 1970s.
Suzanne Vanderbilt was one such woman, and her work as a designer at General Motors is highlighted in A Driving Force: Cranbrook and the Car, now open in the lower galleries of the Cranbrook Art Museum. A Cranbrook Academy of Art graduate, Vanderbilt was an active member of the “Damsels of Design,” the young women hired by Harley Earl to work on the interiors of vehicles for General Motors in the 1950s and 1960s.
Though the assembling of these women into a charming and attractive group of “damsels” was a PR ploy, the fact remains that these women designers did real work for GM, re-thinking car interiors at the exact moment that the auto industry began recognizing women as significant consumers of their products. Women have historically made the majority of household purchasing decisions, and as cars increasingly became associated with domestic American life it became clear that women would have a greater role in buying them. Recognizing this trend, GM acknowledged that its design, engineering, and marketing of cars would have to shift. And who better to understand the female consumer than women themselves?