Jean Knows Cars (and Hats, and Women)

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"In thirty years, I have done exactly jack to foster women in this business. My life has not been about being a woman in a man's world, it's been about being as much like a man as possible in this man's world."

So wrote Jean Jennings, president and editor-in-chief of Automobile magazine, as she announced the launch of JeanKnowsCars.com. The bravery of that statement left me gobsmacked. Who tells the world that she's turned her back on her own gender? I needed to know the back story; I found myself sending her an email, which led to an invitation to visit her in Ann Arbor.

I'm a charter subscriber to the magazine. I've spent 30 years with her perched at the top of my "Conversations I'd Like To Have" list. Hearing her on my phone, telling me we'd go to the opera after the office and then I could sleep over -- she'd give me my own dog to cuddle, even -- was my fantasy come true.

Jean's CarThe Audi R8 parked in Jean's driveway.

The lineup of excellent cars in the parking lot of the nondescript office park was the only indication that I had arrived at the home of the magazine and the website. The hula hoops in the hallway and the frilly fringed lamp on her desk sat next to the covered-with-a-curtain whiteboard containing next month's story ideas and a shelf with dictionaries, Bartlett's Quotations, and Roget's Thesaurus. She has been a taxi driver, a welder, and a crash tester, but first and foremost, Jean Jennings is a writer.

She's also a boss. The office is filled with 20-somethings hired for their skills, not their experiences; and women-of-a-certain-age who have known her for decades. The magazine may have a male-dominated staff; the website is decidedly female.

Jean claims she was hired in 1985 because the boss "liked messing with the guys." Her father doubted she'd get the gig; she knew she had it nailed when the editor laughed his way through her interview. In addition to tweaking his colleagues by putting a woman on the masthead, I think he also recognized that he was getting class, brains, talent, and guts wrapped up with a wicked sense of humor.

Jean Jennings
Jean wearing a puffy fascinator.

Jean has a closet full of hats. She has four hunting dogs, wetlands and native grasses in her backyard, and a lifetime of stories and experiences that make her the perfect person to demystify the automotive world. She's certainly proven that she can get down and dirty with the boys. Her knowledge of the industry is encyclopedic and personal; she's met everyone who is anyone and has a story to tell.

But what about this woman-in-a-man's-world thing? Why the need to downplay her feminine side?

After watching her all day, I'm not so sure she does. She's all woman and all business, and that's all that matters. She's not a girly girl, that's for sure. Then, again, neither am I. She cooked me a fried-egg sandwich at one in the morning, reading a love note from her husband as she disciplined the dogs with one hand and cracked eggs with the other. She explained the shifter on the Audi R8 and gave me tips on driving technique in between tales of bad-boyfriends-past.

She greeted Honda North America's COO with a gentle joke in Japanese, never mind the half a sandwich in her up-and-out-of-the-way other hand. She wiped down the sticky cabinet faces in the lunchroom, because she couldn't ask an intern to do something she wouldn't do herself. She was a combination of hostess, executive, consumer, and media mogul. Power without ego is beautiful.

Does she have a girl's perspective on the world? Moreover, does it matter?

When she broke all the big knuckles on her right hand while opening a frozen composter, she had the doctor cast the fingers in an arc so they would fit the gear shift on the next day's test drive, polish intact. Her video on changing a tire covers the basics, but also reminds you to get everyone out of the car and to sit so that your legs aren't underneath the chassis. I don't see my dad remembering those details.

JeanKnowsCars.com is reaching out to the disenfranchised of the car world. "Every chief designer and every head of every car company in the world is a man," she repeated, as we toured and talked and ate and talked and watched and drove and talked some more. Her site is a place where it's okay to ask the dumb questions; the answers are respectful and helpful and inspire confidence. Jean Jennings may have ignored her gender for three decades, but she's found us now, for sure.

Maybe she had to be one of the boys to get to where she is right now. Maybe she was born in the right place at the right time with the right family members who knew the right people to get her toe in the door. Maybe... but I think that it's more than that.

Whoever Jean Jennings is trying to be, the overall effect is ... herself.

Ashleigh Burroughs
I tried this one on. What do you think?

a/b from The Burrow at http://ashleighburroughs.blogspot.com

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