Clara Bryant Ford stopped making Christmas dinner to help her husband start the gasoline engine he’d contrived and dragged into the kitchen. She stood in the rain while he tested the horseless carriage he’d built. She actually came to like cold food because Henry was late for dinner so often.
She was deeply interested in her husband’s business. When she felt strongly enough about matters that were affecting the company’s future or its employees, she had no fear of making her opinion count.
"Every great man has had a great wife behind him," Henry Ford told an interviewer in 1923. "That’s the whole of it." It's hard to imagine these days, but back then Ford's comments represented an unprecedented acknowledgement of women's contributions.
Clara Bryant Ford was a great partner for Henry Ford. She supported his radical schemes for making motor cars for the masses, gently encouraged activities that would allow her driven husband to relax, and, at times, offered counsel on important company issues. She considered her role as wife an important job, and her job as mother to be a career.
Henry Ford is known as the man who put the world on wheels, but he spoke of Clara Ford as "the believer" who never wavered in her faith in his ideas and ability, who often stayed up long into the night to keep him company as he worked.
The two seemed like an ideal match – both children of well-to-do farmers raised in the Dearborn area west of Detroit. They met at a dance in 1885 and, Ford said, "I knew within half an hour she was the one for me."
Asked later about the meeting, Mrs. Ford said, "He made absolutely no impression on me." When they met some time later at another dance, however, the popular, sociable Clara Bryant went home and told her mother about the "serious-minded" man who had impressed her with a watch he had made.
They married April 11, 1888, Clara Bryant’s 22nd birthday.
Clara Ford helped design the square house her husband built the newlyweds. She admitted to being reluctant when only a couple of years later, he wanted to move to Detroit to be closer to places where he could pursue his work on engines and vehicles. But the couple moved and, in 1893, welcomed their only child, Edsel Bryant Ford.
While living in a series of rooming houses, Ford worked at Edison Illuminating Company, using scrap from the company and other materials to tinker with an engine in his free time. He described his work in great detail to his wife. She listened, and she helped.
Clara Ford dropped work on Christmas dinner to drip gasoline into a homemade engine while Ford turned the flywheel to bring the noisy, smoky contraption chugging to life in the kitchen. She spent many long nights in Ford’s work area, sewing, reading or doing other tasks to keep him company while he worked. She stood in the rain, a shawl over her head, to witness and offer encouragement as her husband drove his invention, the Quadricycle, for the first time. She said it didn’t seem "fair" to do anything else as he toiled.
Making a stand
"I always waited meals for my husband," Mrs. Ford said in a 1923 interview. "He’d be interested in something he was doing. The dinner hour would go by, the food grow cold … I learned to like cold food." She also learned to make her influence felt at times when she believed it was most important to be heard.
Union attempts to organize plant workers in the late 1930s often were met with violence and bloodshed. Clashes took place in many cities – Kansas City, Dallas and Detroit, including the Battle of the Overpass outside Ford’s Rouge Plant in Dearborn. When a contract was finally brokered with Ford in 1941, the company’s founder considered it a "surrender;" its terms were too generous, he thought. Edsel Ford, the company president, however, had long advocated coming to some type of understanding with labor unions.
Clara Ford, who had grown increasingly distressed over the plant violence and agreed with her son’s position that the company should negotiate, urged her husband in the strongest way she knew to agree to the contract: She threatened to leave him.
"What could I do?" Henry Ford said later. "Don’t ever discredit the power of a woman."
Clara Ford also was instrumental in the succession of her grandson Henry Ford II to company president. Edsel Ford’s death in 1943 left the company without a president, and the aging, heartbroken Henry Ford reassumed the role. But the elderly man’s mental state had been declining. He had lapses of forgetfulness and seemed slower after suffering strokes in 1938 and 1941.
A Henry Ford lieutenant, Harry Bennett, had his own designs on running the company and had Ford’s confidence. Henry Ford II, however, by 1945 an executive vice president, was fighting to continue family leadership. Clara and Eleanor Ford, daughter-in-law of the company founder, believed Henry Ford II was ready to lead. Clara worked during the summer of 1945 to persuade her husband that he should relinquish his presidency to his oldest grandson; he did so later that year.
Homebody at heart
Around the house, Henry Ford called his wife by the nickname Callie. He sometimes announced his arrival home with a bird whistle; his wife answered in kind. Clara ran the family’s finances, kept their homes, including the Fair Lane mansion the couple began building in 1914, and bit her tongue when her husband put his feet on the furniture.
An accomplished, devoted gardener, she called her garden club "the dearest thing in life" next to her family. Her favorite charities involved homes that helped unmarried mothers. She was frugal, sometimes going from store to store to ensure she paid what she considered a fair price for an item; she continued to darn Henry Ford’s old socks even as the company grew by leaps and bounds.
Henry Ford proudly related how his wife cared for their son, yet was not overprotective. "When my wife saw that I or the boy was due for a fall, she cleared the way so that we got it," he said. "She was wise enough to know we must each get our experience in our own way, so she kept things out of our way, let us get the fall that was coming to us, and we were the wiser and the better for it in the end."
"Motherhood is the best career," Clara Ford once told an interviewer.
She encouraged interests that offered her husband respite from the running of Ford Motor Company. The couple enjoyed dancing well into their years. She bought him books that fed his interest in bird watching. She was a gracious hostess. Though her husband didn’t drink alcohol, Mrs. Ford was known to enjoy the occasional glass of beer or cherry brandy.
Clara Ford died in 1950, having lived longer than both her son and her husband. Could Henry Ford have built an automotive empire without her? It’s certain that Ford himself wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. He said, "If I were to die and come back to another life, I would want the same wife."
Eleanor Clay Ford
It was a given that Edsel Ford someday would run the company founded by his father. In 1915 at age 21, he was made company secretary and placed on the board of directors. Sometime earlier he had met young Eleanor Clay, niece of the founder of the Hudson’s department store chain, at a dance class, and the two had been courting quietly. In 1916, Eleanor Clay married Edsel Ford. Eleanor and Edsel had four children: Henry Ford II, former president, chairman of the board and CEO of Ford; Benson, a former vice president of Ford; William Clay, a former vice president of Ford; and Josephine (Mrs. Walter Buhl Ford).
Outgoing and athletic, "Ellie" Ford is credited with helping her somewhat shy husband become more gregarious and even better traveled.
Clara Ford wrote to a friend about her daughter-in-law that she and Henry Ford "could not love Edsel’s wife more if we had picked her out ourselves."
As wife of the second generation to lead the company and mother to the third, Eleanor Ford moved easily between social circles and gatherings in which company business was the chief topic. She was a staunch supporter of her husband’s leadership (he was president from 1919 until his death in 1943) of Ford Motor Company through its expansion into the luxury car business, tractor production, the transition from the Model T, the struggles of the Depression and other developments.
The couple also found expression through patronage of the arts, spending much of the 1920s and 1930s amassing an impressive collection for themselves and for the Detroit Institute of Arts, elevating the institute to one of the premier art museums in the nation. The couple served as patron to one of the great works of art, the Diego Rivera mural depicting his view of man and machine, painted in the 1930s at the DIA.
Following her husband’s untimely death in 1943, Eleanor Ford was elected to the board of directors. Henry Ford resumed the presidency until 1945 when, according to accounts from company biographers Professor Allan Nevins and Frank Ernest Hill, Eleanor Ford threatened to sell her stock in Ford unless Henry Ford II, her eldest child, was named president instead of Henry Ford lieutenant Harry Bennett.
She lived for 33 years after her husband died, the matron of the family who later was found to have lent strong support, usually anonymously, to the DIA, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Merrill-Palmer teaching institute, the Pewabic Pottery, the Artists’ Market for promising artists and the Tau Beta charitable sorority.
Women in the Ford work force
Beyond their roles as wives, advisers, sounding boards and supporters of the earliest leaders of Ford Motor Company, women have been vital in the development and evolution of the company around the world.
Henry Ford cultivated a diverse environment that included African-Americans, the disabled, ex-convicts and others – he believed that people only need opportunity to flourish and lead useful lives.
Women also were among those hired. Some held traditional jobs as secretaries and stenographers. Yet Ford spoke in a 1923 interview of women who worked in the company’s drafting department. "There’s no point women couldn’t get to, if they wanted to, in this organization," he said.
Ford also shrewdly marketed his Model T to women, reasoning that with so many men working full time, their wives were at home doing shopping and other errands that might require driving. Ford sponsored stunts like coast-to-coast Model T drives by women, believing women comprised a major consumer group with heavy influence on family car buying.
Archival records show that Ford Motor Company employed a staff of six saleswomen in Seattle; a seventh woman headed the staff. There are records as well of women sales staff between 1920 and 1940 in Ohio and Michigan, among other places. One saleswoman, Olive Parsons, is singled out as among the nation’s leaders in sales for 1940, having sold 82 cars from a dealership in Kalamazoo, Mich.
During World War II, when nearly every able-bodied man was pressed into military service, many women took over scores of factory jobs, including making military bombers at Ford’s Willow Run plant near Ypsilanti, Mich.
Once the war ended, a number of women stayed in the work force. In the ensuing years, the numbers of women in more and more challenging positions increased.
One pioneering woman in the engineering ranks was Cynthia Campion, hired in 1964 as a metal stamping engineer after finishing her education at Lawrence Institute of Technology. "When I tried to go into the metal shop for the first time, I was politely informed that women weren’t allowed – something about a violation of safety regulations," she recalled in a 1965 interview. She donned safety glasses and flat shoes, after which the door was open.
Including the unique skills, ideas and viewpoints of women has come to be an important part of Ford Motor Company’s efforts to better serve and reflect the communities in which it does business. A team of 30 mothers and mothers-to-be was assembled to help develop the 1999 Ford Windstar minivan to ensure the vehicle met the needs of those who would be using it most.
Today, the women of Ford, both members of the company’s founding family and members of the work force from the executive offices to the assembly line, play significant roles in their chosen fields. Elena Ford, great-great-granddaughter of Henry Ford, is director of business strategy in International Automotive Operations. Ford Motor Company has seven women vice presidents: Susan M. Cischke, vice president for Environmental and Safety Engineering; Barbara L. Gasper, vice president for Investor Relations; Louise K. Goeser, vice president for Quality; Janet M. Grissom, vice president for Washington Affairs; Kathleen A. Ligocki, vice president of Ford Customer Service Division; Anne Stevens, vice president for North America Vehicle Operations; and Janet E. Valentic, vice president for Global Marketing.
Two more women from the Ford family will be among those on hand for Ford’s centennial celebration June 12-16 in Dearborn. Anne Ford and Charlotte Ford, daughters of Henry Ford II, will appear from 2:30-3 p.m. June 14 in the centennial Rotunda Tent on the Ford World Headquarters grounds. Anne Ford is the author of "Laughing Allegra," about the challenges of raising a learning-disabled child, and is chairman emeritus of the board of the National Center for Learning Disabilities. Charlotte Ford is an author and philanthropist whose most recent book is "21st Century Etiquette: Charlotte Ford’s Guide to Manners for the Modern Age."