I have a distinct memory of being a kid and witnessing my mother face sexism at a car dealership in the mid-1980s. She had recently learned to drive and gotten her license at the age of 41. On our way home from Clark College (which we attended together), she pulled into a used car lot because a shiny, red sedan had caught her eye. We walked around the car together to look for dings and scratches, and then she asked for a test drive. The car salesperson, an older white man, told her “you’ll have to get your husband.” My mother walked away while I informed the salesperson that he was a “bad, bad man.”
Fast forward to today. There is overwhelming evidence that car salespeople are still sexist, but I never thought I would have to work so hard to give away my hard earned money.
I have been travelling a lot lately, so the day was dedicated to running neglected errands. I had four things on my “to do” list:
- mail letters
- drop off dry cleaning
- buy a car
- buy two coffee cups
After checking off the letters and the dry cleaning, I hit the road to visit the five car dealerships in the Los Angeles area with black Challenger RTs in stock. I have had a love affair with muscle cars since I was about seven years old, and I have driven a succession of Camaros, Firebirds, and Trans-Ams since I was a teen. (You can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl, er, woman.) After five years of research on and salivation over passing Challengers, I knew exactly what I was looking for.
When my partner and I arrived at the first car dealership, Pacific Motors #2 (see photo below), the sun was shining and the Challenger they had for sale was perfect. All blacked out with a humming Hemi and open-hole spoke wheels. I tried to hide my excitement when I asked for a test drive.
The salesperson, a man in his 50s (see photo below), told me that I could not test drive the car until I had met with his finance officer to “discuss the price.” I responded with “that’s ridiculous” and insisted on a drive. He shot back that he was “on my side,” but he could not authorize a test drive until I had met with his boss to discuss price and financing.
Like my mother, I was denied a test drive because I wasn’t taken seriously as a female car buyer. I am confident that the only way a salesperson passes up a chance to make money is if they fail to recognize the opportunity. My performance of femininity is such that I am often not taken seriously in “male spaces,” like car dealerships. Men and women are treated quite differently when purchasing a car, even though women make or influence 85% of car buying decisions. In my case, it was clear to me and my partner that the salesperson couldn’t possibly conceive of a petite, blonde-haired woman purchasing a muscle car, so it wasn’t worth his time to move seven cars to get to the Challenger. His loss.
I left the lot in disbelief at the overt sexism, and I returned a few hours later in the Challenger RT I had purchased from another car lot (see photo below).
I spoke with the manager to let him know the cost of his salesperson’s sexism, and the boss was taken aback that a woman would speak so assertively to him. He dismissed my concerns and flat out denied that I had been refused a test drive. I responded with some choice words about his sexism, and he proceeded to call me a “bitch” several times and a “woman with no class,” erasing any doubt that the gender issues at this business come from the very top. (I let him know that I can’t take the opinion of men who are stuck in the 1950s seriously.)
It was jarring to see my mother’s experience of sexism repeat itself so many decades later, but this time I fought back with more than words. I filed a discrimination complaint with the Attorney General’s office, a consumer complaint with the Better Business Bureau, and an honest review on Yelp. I have learned to pick and choose my feminist fights, but this one was for my mother.
I never did get around to those coffee cups…