Women Drivers Blog

50 Years of Women and Changes in the Car Industry

May 5, 2016 / 

Reflecting back on 50 years of history of women and automobiles is a great way to see the huge industry and cultural shifts that have taken place in five decades. Here are a few of the trends and events that changed the marketplace and perceptions.


Automatic transmissions: One major “shift” in cars over the last 50 years is the advent of widespread acceptance of automatic transmissions. Automatic transmissions became an obsession in the 1950s. Raphael Orlove, in the blog Jalopnik, said that the 1950s were “gadget-obsessed” and cars became equipped with pushbuttons for everything from headlight dimmers to air suspension. Detroit’s marketing choice was to tout that automatic features made it easier for women to drive. David Garman, author of Auto Opium: A Social History of American Automobile Design, quoted from a 1957 article in General Motors Engineering Journal in which Harley Earl said he “credits women with inspiring increased beauty in car interiors, for the rapid growth of power accessories.” Or love posits that power-saving devices fell into a woman’s domain, and even if a man wanted the ease of use, he could say his wife was the driving force for the automatic features. Regardless of the reasons, automatic transmissions made it simpler and often times safer to drive, which would especially appeal to busy women with families.

AutoTrader: see Internet


Better employment opportunities: In 1967, only 14.8 million women were employed year-round, full-time, compared to 36.6 million men (United States Census Bureau). Between 1960 and 1981, women earned 61 cents on the dollar compared to men. That rate began a gradual climb up to 77 cents by 2009. Today 57% of women participate in the labor force and US Census figures of median weekly earnings show women earning 82 cents on the dollar compared to men. More women in the workforce meant more disposable income, and certainly required double income families to have more than one car.


Carbon footprint: Environmental concerns have become front and center in many aspects of our lives. The impact of pollution on future generations, as well as the finite nature of carbon fuel, has created the demand for electric and hybrid vehicles. According to Evobsession.com, electric car sales increased above 220% in 2013 over 2012. Hybrid electric sales increased 26.8% during that time frame.

Car color: Tastes in car colors change over time, and we have moved away from the eye-popping colors that became vogue in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The finishes and paint technology have become longer lasting. Customers who don’t find the color they like today can customize their vehicles using car wraps, used mainly in upscale and luxury brands for a personalized look. Companies like Arlon.com are leading the way to encourage dealers to make this part of their suite of services.


Divorced or never-marrieds: The marriage rate today is 6.8 per 1,000 with a divorce rate of 3.4 per 1,000 (CDC National Survey of Family Growth). In 1960 the divorce rate was 2.6 per 1,000 and continued to rise to a high of 5.2 per 1,000 in 1980. At the same time, there has been a rising share of never-married adults. According to Pew Research, the percentage of women over 25 who have never married has risen from 8% in 1960 to 17% in 2012. Over this time period, women have made gains in obtaining higher education. In the mid-1990s, more women than men were enrolling in and completing college educations. By 2013, 37% of women ages 25 to 29 had at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to 30% of men in the same age group. These are significant demographic shifts that ultimately affect women’s independence.


Equal Rights Amendment: The Equal Rights Amendment was written in 1923 by Alice Paul, founder of the National Woman’s Party, and was introduced in every Congress between 1923 and 1972. It passed on March 22, 1972 and was sent to the states for ratification, but fell short by three states. The Equal Rights Amendment states that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States of any state on account of sex.”

Edmunds: see Internet


Fast Food: McDonald’s began serving fast food in 1955 and never looked back. The first McDonald’s drive-thru was opened in 1975 near a military base in Arizona where soldiers weren’t allowed to get out of their cars while wearing fatigues. Burger King and others followed suit. Fast forward to today, when cars have been modified to accommodate the quick and easy food habit, from multiple cup holders to automatic windows, to fold down “trays.”

Fuel Economy: Between 2008 and 2014, gas mileage ratings on new cars improved almost 22%. On the opposite end, 2008 showed 1.3% of vehicles with fuel economy rated at 32 mpg or higher; by 2014, that number rose to 16.7%. Better fuel economy, coupled with lower gas prices outlined in the next section, mean more driving or less money spent on operating a vehicle.


Gas Prices: Gasoline prices are forever in the news, but the most notable history was in 1973, when an oil embargo by the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) drove prices sky high and let to fuel shortages. Within three months of the embargo, oil went from $3 to $12 per barrel. Gas lines formed, energy conservation measures were put in place, and the American automotive industry began to be outpaced by Japanese manufacturers who were building smaller, more fuel efficient models. While the embargo was lifted the next year, the domino effect continued. Price controls were put in place, daylight savings time went into effect year around for 1974-75, a national speed limit was adopted, and environmental conservation efforts began to affect policy making in Washington. The ups and downs of gas prices continue, creating an impact on the size and fuel efficiency of cars sold each year.

Global Positioning Systems: The U.S. Department of Defense began developing the GPS in 1973, using ideas from the 1960s. The system was fully operating by 1995. While publicly available GPS devices were available in the early 1980s, they were initially scrambled to reduce precision. In 2000, President Clinton signed a bill to cease military scrambling. Consumer based systems increased in accuracy by a factor of 10, according to PC Magazine, and the GPS consumer industry continues to thrive. While everyone can benefit from the GPS systems in their car, women especially can feel more confident driving alone or in unfamiliar areas.


Health and Wellness Movements: The 1980s were a time of movements toward health and awareness about diseases. The Susan G. Komen Foundation began in 1982, founded in Komen’s memory by her younger sister. The foundation advocates for self-awareness in fighting breast cancer, which claims over 40,000 women’s lives each year, according to the American Cancer Society. Breast cancer ranks second to lung cancer in deaths for women. The anti-smoking movement started in the 70s in California and by 2007 more than half of Americans lived in a city or state with smoking bans. Ash trays became a thing of the past and what used to be cigarette lighters are now ports for charging electronic devices.


Internet: Increasing and widespread use of the Internet continues to have a growing impact on everyone’s lives. Who would have imagined that the original packet network systems developed by contractors for the U.S. Department of Defense in the 1960s would make way for the many and varied uses of Internet connections. ARPANET, the first network to use Internet Protocol, spawned work by Tim Berners-Lee in the 1980s, who envisioned the World Wide Web of hypertext documents. Today it is hard to imagine shopping or buying a car without first researching carrelated web sites and social media. Women rely on car dealer reviews and educational content to help them be well-informed when they shop at a dealership. Gone are the days when Kelley Blue Book (kbb.com) was a “book” in the hands of dealers and auto financers. Edmunds, Auto Trader and other web sites level the playing field in gathering information about vehicles.


Judgement: In 1960, according to Esurance.com, there were 34 million drivers in the U.S, but represented only 39% of the driving population. By 2000, 49.8% of drivers were women. Today, there are 105.7 million female drivers compared to 104.3 million men. In the 1960s, most women depended on a man to make the decision about buying a car. Things have definitely changed. Today, 57% of women who shop for cars shop alone. Many factors have contributed to this change, including women having more confidence to be able to select their own car without depending on someone else’s opinion.


Kelley Blue Book: see Internet


Leasing: Leasing is a great opportunity for women and female executives and entrepreneurs to drive a car that suits their needs. The early 2000s saw a trend of more women under the age of 30 driving a luxury vehicle. By 2010, LeaseTrader.com reported that 51.2% of luxury car leasers under 30 were women, up from 42.6% in 2005. Most of the luxury drivers cited were living in major metropolitan areas. Leasing provides women a good way to have a higher end car with a lower payment, since the lease pays the depreciation of the car. And at the end of the lease, provided the car is kept in top shape, a woman can turn the car in for a new model.

Lee Iacocca: Often at the forefront of automobile innovation, Lee Iacocca joined the Chrysler Corporation in 1979 and began to revitalize the company. In 1984, Chrysler released the minivan, using previously non-existent front-wheel drive technology which increased interior space without having to increase exterior dimensions. Chrysler sold 208,895 minivans in 1984. Chrysler acquired AMC in 1987, bringing the profitable and attractive Jeep brand with it. Both the minivan and the Jeep brand have a strong resonance with women.

Lemon Laws: The federal lemon law was enacted in 1975 to protect buyers from defective vehicles in all states. States have their own lemon laws as well. Lemon laws cover a breach of warranty and applies to the seller and manufacturer. Lemon laws help increase the confidence in a purchase, since a buyer has recourse if a vehicle has major mechanical defects.


Minivan: The minivan (see Lee Iacocca) has had a varied reputation over time, being designated as the vehicle of choice for “soccer moms.” Still, the minivan had what it takes to drive the kids around and carry all of the various gear that goes along with those kids. The crossover SUV entered the scene a few decades later, promising a better image. Still, the minivan reigns as the smallest vehicle with the most (and most comfortable) seating for up to eight passengers.

Mobile devices: Even though mobile phones for vehicles were first put in use in Sweden in 1956, it took several more years to be adopted in the United States. Finland launched a system in 1971. It wasn’t until 1983 that the first analog cellular system was deployed in North America. In the 1990s, digital cellular networks took hold and gradually came into widespread usage. Smartphones followed, allowing text messaging and mobile data. According to Statista, there were an estimated 190.5 million smartphone users in the United States. That number is expected to rise to 236.8 million by 2019. Mobile devices provide women and families with security as well as safety, and immediate access to information about car dealers.


National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: The Highway Safety Act and the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act came into being in 1966. This act created what is now the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and allowed the federal government to create and administer new safety standards for vehicles and roads. In 1960, 41% of unintentional injuries were linked to motor vehicle crashes. These acts resulted in the mandating of vehicle safety features like seat belts, shatter-resistant windshields and head rests. Roads were improved using better edge and center line marking, guardrails and illumination. These laws resulted in a decrease in motor vehicle death rates by 1970.


Oprah Winfrey: In 1986, Oprah Winfrey made talk show history and became a household name influencing women daily. The nationally syndicated Oprah Winfrey Show grossed $125 million by the end of the first year. By 1999, the media giant had co-founded Oxygen Media and dedicated it to cable and Internet programming for women. She was named the most influential woman of her generation by Life magazine. In 2004, Oprah began the 19th season of her show by giving free cars to the studio audience.


Personal and Self Help Trends: Betty Friedan was instrumental in the women’s movement. Her 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, created a resurgence in American feminism. She co-founded the National Organization for Women in 1966 and was elected its first president. Her books created the conversation about the relationships of women and men. Other books expanded the topic, including Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand (1990), which described differences in communication styles for men and women in a business setting. 1992 saw the release of John Gray’s Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, which promised to help women and men understand each other. These books dovetailed with the self-help, personal development and empowerment movements that included est, Tony Robbins and Landmark Forum.


Qualms: Despite the many changes in women’s culture in the U.S., auto buying still creates anxiety and a feeling of susceptibility. Auto buying is still largely perceived as a man’s territory, even though women make up more than half of all car buyers and influence over 80% of sales. Women are concerned or anxious at the dealership after hearing stories of intimidation or manipulation. The old sales techniques are changing, but women still have to break the barriers that prevent confident shopping.


Racial and Civil Change: The 1960s brought the era of civil change to America. Martin Luther King received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in nonviolent solutions to racial inequality. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 restored and protected voting rights. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 banned discrimination in home sales and rentals. The Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974 made it unlawful for any creditor to discriminate against applicants based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status or age. All of these acts worked to change old attitudes and begin to level the playing field for everyone.


Saturn: GM launched the Saturn brand in 1985 focusing on no haggle pricing, which appealed to women who were intimidated by price negotiation. Saturn stopped production in 2009, but other dealerships have adopted the “hassle free” concepts of pricing to make car buying less stressful. Soccer Mom: By 1996, American car dealers wanted to produce a car for the “soccer mom,” the middle-class, suburban mother (generally assumed to be stay-at-home, married and white). By 2012, minivan market share dropped from 8.1% (mid 1990s) to less than 5%, according to Edmunds.com. The stigma attached to minivans contributed to their demise, much as station wagons from the 60s to the 80s became a car for moms. Crossover SUVs, however, gained ground, increasing in market share year after year.

Social Media: Social media has increased transparency in the purchase of consumer goods, and automobiles are no exception. Car dealer review platforms have created an open place of trust, where consumers can read consumer reviews. This means that inventory and pricing are no longer the only concerns of a buyer – dealer reputation weighs heavily. For women, who write and read reviews more than men, this is an added bonus that can help build confidence and fast-track where they will be buying a car.


Television: in 1967, the first Super Bowl is where auto companies found a captive audience – with 30 second spots being purchased at $42,000. Then and now, dealer principles have historically used themselves as the pitchmen in television ads. Today, however, they are likely to include their wives and daughters who are in the business. This broadens the reach of the advertising to include the women’s market share, which is over half of the buying market. Still, the message hasn’t changed much. You are most likely to hear, “We have the best price, best selection and service in town,” rather than speaking to the other needs of consumers, including service and trust.

Title IX: The Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 was created to protect people from discrimination based on sex in education programs and activities that receive federal assistance. Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana was the author and chief Senate sponsor. In remarks on the Senate floor, Bayh stated, “We are all familiar with the stereotype of women as pretty things who go to college to find a husband, go on to graduate school because they want a more interesting husband, and finally marry, have children, and never work again. The desire of many schools not to waste a ‘man’s place’ on a woman stems from such stereotyped notions. But the facts absolutely contradict these myths about the ‘weaker sex’ and it is time to change our operating assumptions.” (118 Cong. Record 5804, 1972) This, and other efforts to revive the Women’s Rights Movement, helped women step out of traditional cultural roles, resulting in changes like postponing marriage and children to develop a career and maintaining their maiden name or hyphenating their name after marriage.


Understanding: As the women’s market share in automobiles grew, the need to change sales tactics became more apparent. Women have a different priority list when buying a car, and being understood by the sales advisor ranks in the top five reasons for purchasing from a particular sales person.


Value: Another difference in women and men when shopping for a car is the ranking of price and value in the priorities list. Women still want a good deal, but place treatment and customer service above price. This is good news to a dealership who wants to instill loyalty in their customers.


Warranties: The Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act of 1975 is a federal statute that governs warranties. It requires manufacturers and sellers of consumer products to provide detailed information about warranty coverage. This allowed consumers to compare warranties, and created competition in the marketplace to provide the best warranties and use the warranties as a sales tool (see Lemon Laws). Additionally, auto manufacturers offer extra warranties for purchase at time of sale. These warranties act as insurance against defects in parts of the vehicle not otherwise covered by the manufacturer’s warranty. Warranties provide peace of mind to many.

Warehouse clubs: Buying clubs like Costco and Sam’s Club have extended their offerings to vehicle purchases, which can provide a less threatening environment for women and families shopping for cars. Additionally, buyers can receive additional discounts beyond what is typically negotiated at a dealership.

Women employees at dealerships: In 1966, men dominated the dealership ranks. Today, according to CNW research, women make up 23% of auto dealership’s workforce, but only 1 in 10 sales advisors are women.


Generation-X: Gen-X refers to the generation after the Post World War II baby boom, with birth dates from the early 1960s to the early 1980s. When it came to their car buying habits in 2010, TrueCar.com found they were choosing family-friendly vehicles. “Generation X buyers have a work hard/play hard mentality and chose cars that were comfortable and convenient for their lifestyle. They chose larger, more luxurious cars with ample room to store equipment and luggage,” said Kristen Andersson, Automotive Analyst for TrueCar.com.


Generation-Y: Generation-Y, or more commonly called Millennials, are those born between 1977 and 1994. By August of 2014, they had purchased 26% of new vehicles that year. Their purchases tended to be compact cars and small SUVs. This countered concerns by industry experts that younger people were not as interested in buying cars as previous generations. 53% of millennial car buyers are women.


Zero-emission vehicle (ZEV): Zero-emission vehicles are those that don’t emit any tailpipe pollutants. As more of these vehicles become available, they will have broad appeal to women and families that are looking to reduce pollution caused by petroleum powered vehicles. According the HowStuffWorks.com, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that 75% of the carbon monoxide pollution in the U.S. is caused by motor vehicles.