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Madam C.J. Walker and a Forgotten History About Women & Electric Vehicles

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As we close out Women’s History Month, I wanted to share some of the revelations I discovered after watching Netflix’s new series, Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker. Madam C.J. Walker’s legacy will forever be associated with her pioneering business focused on selling hair care products for African-American women, which led to her being the first American woman self-made female millionaire. Her story is a textbook example of capitalism in its purest form: anticipating consumer demand and mastering market-based competition. Of the many interesting aspect’s of Walker’s life, one I found fascinating is that Madam Walker was known to drive around in her electric-powered Waverley automobile. That’s right, Madam C.J. Walker was an electric vehicle owner back in the early 1900s!

Madam C.J. Walker in her Waverley electric automobile on West Street in Indianapolis in the 1910s.

Madam Walker in her Waverley automobile—an early electric vehicle. Photo courtesy of Madam Walker Family Archive

The Marketing of Electric Vehicles to Women

Electric vehicles were common during a time when steam, gasoline, and electric cars competed for market dominance. Baker ElectricDetroit ElectricColumbia Electric, and the Electric Vehicle Company—which was the largest EV manufacturer were popular brands. However, the Waverley Electric was the preferred EV for many of celebrities of the day like Thomas Edison. Waverley electric cars trace their roots from bicycles and were produced from 1896 to 1914 by Pope-Waverly, a subsidiary of the Pope Motor Car company. (Fun fact: Albert August Pope was both a manufacturer of bicycles and automobiles.).

Waverley distinguished itself from its gasoline-reliant competitors by focusing on the luxurious aspects of automobile ownership. Options such as detachable tops, mud guards, and black leather upholstery were offered to attract the more sophisticated buyer. In the course of targeting high-end customers, Waverley realized that women represented an untapped consumer market. A widely accepted notion at the time was that gasoline vehicles—being powerful, complicated, fast, dirty, and capable of long-distance trips were better suited for men, while electric cars were short on power, simple, comfortable, clean, and quiet, and had limited range, which better suited women. These sexist views may have originated from the fact that in the early days gasoline cars needed to be started by turning a crank—an arduous task, while electric cars were able to start with merely a flip of a switch. ‘Cranking’ a gas-powered car supposedly could break one’s arm if not done properly, but it did not require great strength–and women were just as capable of cranking as men.

Waverley advertised their cars could be driven “by women of refinement, without coachman, chauffeur or escort.” Some ads featured depictions of only women with targeted messaging such as “Delicate gowns not marred in this roomy election.” The ads described the vehicles as “swift, silent, ever-ready…essential in the daily round of social engagements, shopping tours, trips with the children.”

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A Waverley advertisement featuring all women.

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Another Waverley advertisement featuring women with targeted messaging for women.

Over time, Americans increased their demand for gasoline powered cars which resulted in the disappearance of the EV until recent times. In the 2006 documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?, the filmmakers explored the roles of automakers, oil lobbyists, the Federal government, and the consumer in effectively ‘killing’ the EV.

Data, Data, Data

Fast forward to present day and it is clear that more men than women own EVs. In looking at EV models such as the Chevrolet Bolt and the Nissan Leaf, registration data for the Bolt shows owner registration split 69% men and 31% women, while Nissan Leaf registrations are split 66% men when compared to 34% women. (see here) Even as popular as Tesla EVs are, the gender breakdown is consistent with the Bolt and the Leaf at 69% men versus only 31% women. (see here)

Recently, I came across a blogpost entitled “EVs are for Women, Too: A Missing Demographic.” I was intrigued by the headline and found myself yearning for more current data on women and EVs. I was pleased to find a study underway conducted by UC-Davis on whether gender differences in early electric vehicles are pervasive across markets beyond California. And I was unsurprised to learn studies have shown that highly educated women have greater environmental and fuel efficiency awareness than men.” (Full study here.) Another study by AAA in 2018 showed women are more likely to cite environmental concerns as a reason for buying an EVs than men, 90 % to 68 %.

Closing Thoughts…

Given the history with women and EVs, the logical question to ask is why there are such drastic splits among gender today? Does sexism and and gender stereotyping still play a role in how EVs are marketed? What lessons can we learn from the past to ensure there is a safer, cleaner, all electric future? I have a hunch on what the answers are for some of these questions, and I am looking forward to exploring further.

Stay safe.

Originally published in LinkedIn Pulse

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