Women in Automotive History

Women in Automotive History

Cathy Burford Profile Photo

by Cathy Buford

Did you know that a woman invented the windshield wiper? Learn about some significant female inventors and innovators in automotive history.

Women’s History Month began as Women’s History Week in 1981. But let’s face it — we need a whole month to celebrate all the accomplishments of women. In fact, the list of honorees in the National Women’s Hall of Fame is staggering — women as diverse as Sojourner Truth (abolitionist), Amelia Earhart (pilot), and Lucille Ball (actress). So in 1987, Congress established Women’s History Month to promote the recognition of women in American history.

This got us at Her Certified thinking: Are there any significant female inventors or innovators in automotive history? There sure are … just a little digging revealed the following list of automotive pioneers.

Mary Anderson’s Windshield Wipers

Next time you flick on your wipers, thank Mary Anderson, who was granted a patent for the windshield wiper in 1903. Similar to what we use today, the first windshield wiper was a swinging arm with a rubber blade that could be operated manually by a lever inside the car. She tried to sell the rights in 1905 but was rejected by a Canadian firm that claimed it was “not of such commercial use as would warrant the undertaking of its sale.†Whoops. They likely regretted that decision when windshield wipers became standard in 1916.

Alice Huyler Ramsey’s Road Trip

Call it the ultimate road trip. In 1909, 22-year-old Alice Huyler Ramsey left her young family behind to trek across the country from New York to San Francisco. Her 3,800-mile trip took 59 days, with only 152 of those miles taking place on paved roads (not to mention she didn’t have any maps). Over the course of her journey, she had to change 11 tires, repair a broken brake pedal, and clean spark plugs (how’s that for car maintenance?).
Alice was quoted as saying, “Good driving has nothing to do with sex. It’s all above the collar.†In 2000, she became the first woman inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.

Florence Lawrence’s Turn Signals and Brake Lights

Turn signals and brake lights are (arguably) 2 of the most indispensable inventions in car history. But it wasn’t some guy in an auto shop who came up with them — it was silent film star Florence Lawrence. As a result of her film success, Ms. Lawrence had the funds to buy her first car in 1913. Her “auto signaling arm†was a device which, when the driver pressed a button, would raise or lower an arm with an attached sign that indicated the direction of the turn. The brake signal used the same idea, but with a “stop†sign attached. Sadly, she never patented her ideas and so received no credit (or compensation) when others in the auto industry copied her.

Wilma K. Russey’s Taxi

On New Year’s Day 1915, Wilma K. Russey became the first female New York City taxi driver — reportedly starting her career in a leopard skin hat and stole, earning a generous tip on her first venture out. She’s also credited as being an expert mechanic. How different would the world be if every cabby had fashion sense and a penchant for mechanics?

Helene Rother’s Automotive Designs

In 1943, Helene Rother became the first female automotive designer. A French jewelry designer, she was hired by General Motors to fashion elegant interior designs. She spent 4 years with GM before moving on to join Nash-Kevinator (part of present-day Chrysler), working on most of the automaker’s cars from 1948 to 1956. Her designs were promoted as “irresistible glamour on wheels,†created for consumers with discriminating taste. In 1951, she became the first woman to address the Society of Automotive Engineers and was awarded the Jackson Medal for excellence of design.

Women and the Automobile

The automobile helped usher in a new era of women’s independence and autonomy. (And now, being a woman might even get you a better rate on car insurance.) Considering that at the dawn of the automobile era, women didn’t have the right to vote and were often deemed fragile and timid — certainly not capable of running (or repairing) heavy machinery — we really have come a long way, baby.

What do you think?

Are there some women in American history you’d like to see honored? Head over to Facebook and let us know about your favorite female innovators or role models.

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