Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Garage for Women Only (Boston 1921)

Pauline Leiner (1921)
Garage for Women Only

Location: Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Opened/Closed: c. 1921

More than most, this is a pretty thorough description of a very early effort to open a women-only garage--very likely the first such venture in the United States. Instead of vague if intriguing generalities--as we had with the women-only garages in London (1929) and Paris (1926)--we actually have a real woman with a real name: Pauline Leiner. Not only that, but real, verifiable information on her life from other sources.

All the quotations below are pulled from an article in the Boston Daily Globe, August 21, 1921.

Let's permit the (unidentified) journalist  to introduce us to Miss Pauline Leiner as she was introduced to the newspaper readers of Boston. First off, note that we're collectively reassured that she really is "feminine"--in case you were overly burdened by such concerns--and that she's "not the type of person" you would confuse with a male mechanic:


There the Woman Who Wants to Tinker Her Own Car Can Get as Dirty as She Likes, With No Male to Offer Advise

"Why shouldn't a woman make a success of managing a garage?" This was the challenge offered a few days ago to a representative of the Sunday Globe by Miss Pauline Leiner, who is presently to occupy this rather unusual business niche.

Miss Leiner is not the type of person you would associate with jumpers and cotton waste and grease cups or the ideosyncrasies of manifolds or carburetors. She's small and poised, with soft black hair, with more than a suggestion of something sensitively feminine about her. In the hazel eyes there is a hint of amusement and in the slow drawl the merest hint of pride at being the first woman in the country, so far as anyone knows, to assume the managership of such an, one might almost say, unromantic place as a garage.

But behind the drawl and the slight amusement in the eyes there is evidently a determination to lay firm young hands on this unexpected business and to make a go of it. As she says, "Why shouldn't a woman make a success of it?"

So how did Pauline Leiner get to the point where she had the knowledge, the background, and the confidence to venture into auto mechanics? Today we readily recall how the second World War opened up opportunities for American women in traditional male blue-collar occupations. We sometimes forget that the first World War had a similar impact. In particular, Leiner's service in the Motor Corps introduced her to the world of "skilled mechanics." Also take note of the all-women farm where Leiner apparently drove a tractor:

Miss Leiner is not a Boston girl, but in 1916 she came here from New York with friends and became drawn into all sorts of war-time activities. It was early in the days when the possibility that women might have to take the places of men in industrial work to be released for service was just beginning  to make itself felt.

Female drivers of the Motor Corps,
East Newton Street Armory, Boston
The motor corps was organized and in order to be eligible for service in such an organization it was imperative that recruits be skilled mechanics as well as trained chauffeurs. Miss Leiner thereupon took the
Y. M. C. A. automobile school and graduated.

But the influenza cut short her activities along this line and after convalescence, when the work of the motor corps was diminishing somewhat, she knew that she must do work which would keep her out doors.

The Westwood Land Unit was being built up and Miss Leiner seized her chance at its advantages, with the result that she learned what it was to work 12 hours a day on a farm where a crowd of young women did all the work normally done by men absent on different business.
Motor Corps of America (1919)

Miss Leiner has only recently finished a what you might call post-war engagement driving a tractor as well as having charge of a farm at Charles River Village.

Of course "the influenza" is a reference to the "Spanish Flu" pandemic of 1918, which killed between 20 and 40 million people worldwide.  

Apparently Leiner was to manage the new business with the backing of a (presumably male) Brookline garage proprietor. It seems he had become aware of the fact that over the war years, many women had assumed responsibility for automobile maintenance and repair. And while they were reluctant to turn all that back over to the men, they didn't especially want to "go into a regular ordinary garage run by men, put on overalls and go to work in full view by cynical eyes."

Plus, what we would identify as old-fashioned misogyny entered into it. The "sight of a woman tinkering with an automobile" brought out the "fair old devil" in their male co-workers, which was--in a colossal understatement-- a "little short of maddening for the woman." (I guess that's how we allude to sexual harrassment in 1921.) The solution? A garage for women only and with all-women mechanics, since "a stray male helper or two, obscure in position, would surely spoil the whole effect." It is reported that the all-women garage would be opened "within a month or two."

Pauline Leiner herself explains it best, and how, in terms of women, she was eager to "give 'em a place":

"The day is about gone, don't you think, for people to think any sort of work women may elect to do is queer? I drive an automobile and I'm only one of thousands of women.

"Time and time again I've had to stand around, waste time, become almost apoplectic from exasperation trying to get some simple adjustment made when, if I could lay my hand on a couple of tools and get the space to work in, I could have had the whole thing done in no time without bothering anyone, with no wear or tear on my own disposition.

"There are, I'm confident, any number of women who just wish they had some place where they could look out for their own cars. We're going to give 'em that place.

"For the woman who'd just as soon pitch in and get her hands greasy, if she has to, in order to get her car fixed speedily, or who like the 'feel' of tuning up the connections and all that--why, this--what you might call--Adamless Eden, where there won't be any gimlet-eyed males staring supercilliously and exclaiming, 'That ain't th' way you do it, ma'am."

Of course there is the mandatory lame joke--something about jacks decorated with pink ribbons--so it's no surprise that the reporter found Leiner "extremely reticent about any decorative factors." But we do find out the following regarding the garage facility as she envisioned it:

There is a large room with a fireplace, which will be utilized as a lounge and waiting room, which is to be decorated somehow, but I don't believe it will be with pink ribbons or anything sticky.

The building will have telephones everywhere. Miss Leiner is a woman. She knows that women always want to telephone someone, no matter where they are.

There will be lockers where patrons may keep working jumpers and such paraphernalia as they require for the hours when they retire from the world and become immersed in the interiors of greasy engines.

I asked her if she anticipated any difficulty in finding girls or women fitted, mechanically, to take the positions held in garages by men. "Not at all. There are too many women, just like me, who became skilled mechanicians during the war and who, I believe, would welcome a chance to enter a work about which there is a fascination, you know."

I haven't found a lot about Pauline Leiner apart from this article, but this is what I do know. She was born on April 27, 1895. The supposed "drawl" in her voice? That may have been from her father, who was born in Louisiana (her mother was born in New York). In 1920, at the age of 25, Leiner was living in a boardinghouse in Needham, Massachusetts and working as a gardener. She was single, never married, and would remain single her entire life. I'm not sure how long she stayed in the auto mechanics field, but at some point she returned to agriculture. When she retired, she was a manager of a dairy farm on Millbrook Road in Litchfield, Connecticut. She died on July 14, 1997 at the age of 102.

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant.
    Elizabeth Kriesten, mechanic


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