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Cox Automotive author recognizes women pioneers in automotive from the 1940s and '50s

Constance Smith is an author, women’s rights advocate, inventor and Dealer Support Specialist at Dealertrack.

Constance Smith is an author, women’s rights advocate, inventor and Dealer Support Specialist at Dealertrack.  And she’s on a mission.  She wants to ensure that the groundbreaking contributions of female designers working in American car companies during the 1940s and 1950s is not lost to history.

In her recently-published book, Damsels in Design: Women Pioneers in the Automotive Industry, 1939-1959, Smith chronicles the overlooked or even mis-attributed legacy of 20 women. These women are responsible for safety and design advancements still used in cars today, including both the first substantial child safety seat and the safety latches and belts used to secure the seat inside the car.  Another young lady penned the first Head Up Display for General Motors. Others dictated styling inside and out.

About Constance Smith

Smith was one of only two women studying in the graduate Industrial Design Department at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute in the 1970s. After graduation, with models of an experimental safety vehicle and the first heated/cooled compartment for cars in her portfolio, General Motors recruited her to join their Advanced Concepts Studio. At the GM Tech Center, she worked on early liquid crystal displays, the technology at the heart of computer monitors, designed instrument panels and helped solve the engineering challenge of installing airbags. After leaving General Motors, she taught at the University of Bridgeport and Pratt. Mid-career, she received a NEA Award in Design Arts and conducted ergonomics research developing electronic components to assist the arthritically limited driver. Her passion for inventing remains. Smith was later placed at a Chevrolet franchise for training by GM in her quest to buy a Cadillac franchise before a downturn in the economy.

She was always struck by the lack of mentorship available to females in the automotive industry, and the institutional attitudes and discrimination that continued to hold women back.

Even while studying at Pratt Institute, she’d taken note of how women were treated differently, proposing a thesis on “Women in Industrial Design,” of which her male department did not approve.

“I wanted to give women the credit for what they’ve done – add them to our history books.” Smith explained.

The Book

Smith ruminated on her thesis idea for years. In 2010, research for her Damsels in Design: Women Pioneers in the Automotive Industry, 1939-1959 began in earnest.  She spent months traveling to historical archives, museums and to visit with the women (and their children) who had worked in the automotive industry during the 40s and 50s.

“That research phase was extra difficult,” Smith remembered. “Many times the women’s names had changed through marriage and divorce, making it a challenge to find them. In many cases, the women had passed away and I was interviewing their daughters.”

Her hard work bore fruit in 2012, when she sent her idea to just three book publishers – a cold email to see if there was interest. Beating the odds, one publisher responded within 24 hours and wanted to work with her on the book. (A second responded a few days later.)

“The amazing part is that it all happened before this most-recent period of recognizing women,” she said. “This was well before Hillary Clinton ran for president and Mary Barra became the CEO and Chair of GM.”

It took several more years to refine and edit the book, which hit bookstores in early 2018.

Damsels in Design: Women Pioneers in the Automotive Industry, 1939-1959 has 415 photographs, including a drawing by Audrey Moore Hodges the author discovered in 2014 of the exterior of the iconic 1950 Studebaker Champion attributed entirely to her male colleagues. The front of the car resembled the nose of an aircraft – Hodges was a draftsperson in the Ford B-245 Bomber factory –  and the rear featured the only wraparound glass window of its kind.

“My book is based on fact – interviews and physical evidence including drawings and legal documents from the women and their estates,” she added.

Coming to a big screen near you

Interest in Smith’s book has grown and she has even been approached by a number of production companies who want to work with her on a documentary film or TV movie recognizing the women and their contributions.

Learn more about Damsels in Design: Women Pioneers in the Automotive Industry, 1939-1959  in this article from Automotive News or check it out on Amazon.