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Women in Automotive History

women in auto history

For over a century, cars and automobiles have been seen as a stereotypically male pastime. But historically, that’s simply not the case. Women have been involved in transportation innovation since the invention of the wheel. In fact, many of the gadgets and gizmos in your car and on the road were first invented by women.

Women in automotive history often had big ideas and bad luck with patents. No matter how much they might have been overlooked in their time, their innovations shape the way we drive to this day. From the fabulously famous to the frequently forgotten, join us in celebrating these female automotive pioneers.

bertha benz

Bertha Benz (1849-1944)

Bertha Benz was the wife of engineer Karl Benz (of Mercedes-Benz fame) and she became his partner in business as well as in marriage. In 1886, Benz premiered the Benz-Patent Motorwagen, the world’s very first automobile. Two years later, Bertha Benz loaded her teenage sons into the Motorwagen and took a drive across their home country of Germany. This 66-mile drive was the first long-distance road trip ever.

Bertha’s aim had been to stir up publicity for the Motorwagen, and her plan worked. She was also able to troubleshoot some of the vehicle’s problems on her long ride. After the wooden brakes failed, she had them covered with the very first brake pads (which she called “break linings”) made of leather. Bertha Benz’s role as one of the most influential women in automotive history cannot be overstated.

women in automotive history

Mary Anderson (1866-1953)

On a trolley ride in New York City, Mary Anderson noticed that during snow or rain, the front windows had to be opened so that the motorman could see. In addition to freezing the entire cabin, this had the result of soaking the driver from head to foot. Upon her return to her home in Birmingham, Ala., Anderson designed the very first windshield wiper. Anderson’s manual windshield wiper was a rubber blade, operated by a crank. Although Anderson’s wiper was effective, the wiper only became an automobile standard after her patent expired.

women in automotive history

Charlotte Bridgwood (1861-1929) 

Former vaudeville performer Charlotte Bridgwood (stage name “Lotta Lawrence”) was tired of manually wiping her windows when it rained. But as the president of a small manufacturing company, the Bridgwood Manufacturing Company of New York, she could do something about it.

Bridgwood engineered the first electronically-operated automatic windshield cleaners. The “Storm Windshield Cleaner,” as it was called, was patented in 1918. However, her patent expired years before automatic wipers became widespread.

women in automotive history

Florence Lawrence (1886-1938)

Charlotte Bridgwood’s daughter, Florence Lawrence, inherited her mother’s knack for acting as well as her automotive ingenuity. Florence Lawrence is often said to be the “first movie star,” but she is also a star among women in automotive history. This silent-film star was a pioneer in visual cues that we use to this day: turn signals. Lawrence was an avid motorist, describing her beloved car as “almost human.” It is said that she even did all of the vehicle’s mechanical upkeep herself.

Soon enough, Lawrence started customizing her ride. The most important customizations were her invention of turn and braking signals. Her turn signals were flags that would flare out of the car’s bumper at the push of a button. Her brake signal was an actual sign that said “STOP,” which popped up when the brake pedal was pressed. Lawrence never patented these ideas, but they went on to shape traffic safety forever.

women in automotive history

Emily Post (1872-1960)

Often remembered as the matriarch of manners, Emily Post was also an active motorist. In fact, she was one of the first female auto journalists. In 1916, Post published a book called “By Motor to the Golden Gate,” about her cross-country road trip from New York City to San Francisco. In her 1922 book, “Etiquette,” Post tells women that they do not need a chaperone in the car. According to her, it’s perfectly proper for a woman to drive herself, or even to drive a male passenger.

In 1949, Post published “Motor Manners: The Bluebooklet of Traffic Etiquette,” all about the rules of the road. Although she opens “Motor Manners” with the alarming warning “Bad motor manners can all-too-often result in MURDER,” Post was one of the first writers to popularize the idea of a woman behind the wheel.

women in automotive history

Dorothee Pullinger (1894-1986)

Dorothee Pullinger was the daughter of car designer Thomas Pullinger, and she dreamed of following in his footsteps. In 1914, she applied to join the Institution of Automobile Engineers, but was refused because she was a woman (she was finally accepted some years later as IAE’s first female member). Pullinger became the manager of Galloway Motors and championed the employment of local women, even going so far as to host an auto engineering college.

At Galloway, Pullinger oversaw the development of the sleek Galloway Car, billed as a car “by ladies, for those of their own sex.” Galloway Cars were proportioned for shorter drivers (and drivers in long skirts). Pullinger was also an enthusiastic race car driver, and she even won the Scottish Six Day Car Trials in 1924. She is a founding member of the Women’s Engineering Society.

women in automotive history

Helene Rother (1908-1999)

Helene Rother was born in Germany, and she later moved to Paris, France to be a designer. In Paris, she became a successful designer of decorative hat pins. After the Nazis occupied France in 1940, Rother fled with her daughter, Ina, and eventually wound up in America in 1941. After a stint illustrating comics at Funnies Inc., Rother joined the interior styling staff at General Motors. She was one of the first women to work as an automotive designer.

After four years at GM, Rother opened her own industrial design studio. She designed cars that were easy to get in and out of, seats that could lean back and upholstery that could be easily cleaned. She had an eye for color and brought a European flair to whatever she designed. Today, the cars that Rother worked on are classics, prized by vintage car collectors.

women in automotive history

Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000)

Hedy Lamarr was another famous actress who had a hand in automotive history. Thought she found fame and fortune in film, Lamarr had a knack for invention and applied science. She drew up plans for an improved traffic stoplight, concocted a dissolving fizzy drink tablet and even gave Howard Hughes notes on the designs of his airplanes. But Hedy Lamarr’s most important scientific achievement was her use of frequency-hopping signals.

Lamarr conceived of frequency-hopping signals as a way to conceal the path of Allied torpedoes from the Germans in WWII. Though frequency-hopping signals would not be used by the Navy until 1962, Lamarr’s invention had a lasting impact. Her advances in communication technology led to today’s Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and, perhaps most important to modern vehicles, GPS. Without Hedy Lamarr, we would literally be lost.

women in automotive history

Mimi Vandermolen (1946)

Mimi Vandermolen joined Ford Motor Company’s Design Studio in 1970, but was laid off in 1974 during the oil crisis. That didn’t stop her. Vandermolen returned to Ford in 1977, and was promoted to Design Specialist in 1979. She led the interior design of the game-changing Ford Taurus, which included innovations such as ergonomic seats, rotary dials for climate control, a digital instrument panel and a complete suite of dashboard controls within the driver’s reach. The interior of your own car was most likely inspired by her Taurus design.

Vandermolen also supervised the design of the second generation 1993 Ford Probe. She favored streamlined design and focused on the experience of women drivers as a point of pride.

The Road Ahead

Women have always been making big changes behind the wheel, but they are still vastly underrepresented in the automotive industry. While 85% of car buying decisions are made by women and women buy 62% of new cars sold in the United States, only 27.1% of the automotive workforce is female. There are even less women in managerial roles. Still, women are taking strides toward workplace equality and toward automotive innovations. As more career options for women in the automotive industry become available, they’re taking more chances to push automotive technology into the future.

Which of these women in automotive history do you think had the biggest impact? Let us know in the comments below. 

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30 Thoughts on “Women in Automotive History

  1. They all had an enormous impact, but I would say Mary Anderson and Charlotte Bridgewood inventing the windshield wiper. I bet to a man that had his wife hanging out the door to clear off the windshield, it wasn’t a big deal. Somewhere along the line, be it fact or fiction, I heard a woman also invented the cup holder. Probably because they got tired of holding not only their own cup of hot coffee, but of their husbands as well. I wonder if they invented shocks as well. haha. Life sure would be a lot harder without women inventing all of these crucial mechanisms.

  2. There is one woman’s story I learned several years ago during a reenactment of her achievement. Her name is Alice Ramsey. In 1909 at the age of 22, she drove a Maxwell DA from New York to San Francisco. She was married to congressman John R. Ramsey. Prior to her cross country drive she was active in driving and motorsports including driving a Maxwell in the 1908 AAA Montauk Point endurance race.
    Her chronicle of her trip is ” Veil, Duster and Tire Iron”. She was also the first woman inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.

    Alice Taylor Ramsey, ( 1886-1983)

  3. Emily Post & Mimi Vandermolen. Emily’s manual for Motoring Manners needs to be incorporated into Driver’s Education & The Road Test. There are so many rude drivers out there; everyone is in such a hurry to get somewhere. My brother’s favor line is “Either leave earlier or get a Police Escort to wherever your going.” Mimi I can whole heartedly appreciate because as we get older the back support is something we need desperately. Everyone leans forward to do something and it has caused some major issues with our spines. I have Essential Tremors, our Cadillac and our VW both have the ergonomic seats which I can appreciate because it helps to support my back and it also helps with the tremors. I adjust the seat so that my back is supported and the headrest meets my head to keep it from shaking when I get upset because some fool has cut us off. I don’t drive but my boyfriend does and he appreciates that he can see the drive control panel without looking away from the road. Also he can make adjustment without looking away from the road (turn signals, wipers, etc.)

  4. My candidate for best woman auto pioneer was MaryEllen Dohrs of Detroit and West Palm Beach. She learned about cars from her father, a Renault dealer in Paris in the 1920s. A graduate of Pratt, she was the first female industrial engineer for General Motors and later helped design the Packard Caribbean. In retirement, she taught sculpture well into her 90s. She also did work for the CIA and owned a yacht which rescued troops from Dunkirk in 1940. Her’s was a life in full.

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