Table of Contents
By Ashley Effinger
When you think about the pioneers in the automotive industry , you might not immediately associate it with women. After all, it’s a field that has been dominated by men for generations. However, there are more female trailblazers making waves than many people realize – and they’re doing big things! From driving race-winning performance cars to developing revolutionary technology to launching their own businesses in the automotive world, these inspiring “sheroes” have been pushing boundaries since day one- and they deserve the spotlight! We’re here to shine light on these determined and courageous leaders who have (quite literally) put pedal to metal over the years—all while breaking barriers in an industry long considered male dominated.
Although Madam C.J Walker is known as one of the wealthiest African American women in history, it turns out she was also quite a trendsetter on four wheels! In 1913 – when most female drivers were still held back by societal norms – this savvy entrepreneur didn’t just break free from gender barriers; she drove right past them with style and class. Instead of settling for any ordinary vehicle, Madame Walker chose to own not one but three amazing cars: a Ford Model T, Waverly Electric AND an impressive seven-passenger Cole Touring Car? Clearly nothing can stop this woman’s ambition or her killer taste in automobiles!
Born Gladys Mae West in 1930, she showed amazing ambition from the start. By 1948, this Virginia native graduated valedictorian of her historically black university and was hired as one of only two female programmers at a naval base – an impressive feat for its time! Little did she know that her efforts would make lasting waves: with Gladys behind it, we now have access to GPS technology – essential for navigation through our day-to-day lives! In 2018 alone, The US Air Force Hall Of Fame inducted Her Majesty Madame Glady West into their ranks; not surprising when you consider how significant GPS is today – cars? Check. Cell phones? Double check. Social media interaction without fail = triple check!
Bertha Benz may be a relatively unknown name in the automotive world, but her role in making history is unmatched. Unconcerned by public opinion and determined to make things happen, she took action when Carl Benz’s new invention failed to take off – literally! In an audacious move that made headlines across Germany (and likely beyond), she embarked on an unprecedented 66-mile journey from Mannheim to Pforzheim at the wheel of their vehicle – with nothing more than some supplies and two brave sons for company. That was August 1888; little did they know then that this adventure would lead to automotive innovation.
When she set off to drive the first ever Motorwagen, her goal wasn’t just self-satisfaction – it was publicity! But when those wooden brakes started failing on her long journey, this determined driver didn’t stop there. Nope – Ms Benz innovated like nobody’s business and fixed them with what we now know as brake pads: made of leather and affectionately nicknamed “break linings.” Her legacy continues to inspire today; without any overstatement necessary –Bertha is undoubtedly among the most influential women in automotive history!
After the sudden passing of her father and mother, Jenell Ross was thrust into an unexpected situation: taking over a family business. In 2010 she found herself in control of Bob Ross Automotive—the pioneering auto dealership owned by Robert (Bob) Sr., who first broke barriers as the U.S.’s first African American International Harvester Dealer. Fast forward to today, and Ms.Ross has become not just President but also Chairwoman of AIDA — making history once more as America’s only second generation female African-American Auto dealer! Throw Mercedes Benz, Buick GMC Alfa Romeo & Fiat on top that too– it’s clear this powerhouse is no ordinary woman!
After a successful run as assistant attorney general in Georgia, Juanita Powell Baranco decided to take her talents and business acumen elsewhere. She partnered up with her husband Gregory Baranco to co-found the now titanic Baranco Automotive Group back in ’78 – one of the first African American owned dealerships around Atlanta! Thirty years later their incredible efforts have paid off; their portfolio consists of multiple Mercedes-Benz’s, Acura’s and has clocked annual sales at an impressive $100 million dollars all told.
In spring of 1899, Wilhelmine Erhardt made a bold statement by demolishing the outdated notion that motor vehicles were solely for men. Wife to Gustav Erhardt – manager at Germany’s Eisenhach vehicle factory and an enthusiast in her own right – she wasn’t content with just admiring from afar; instead joining him on his ambitious cross-border trip (Innsbruck, Austria to Munich). And though it took two more years before getting behind the wheel herself , when she finally did – during 1901’s long-distance tour through Hainich mountain range – Wilhelmine almost bagged top spot!
No more hands or feet needed! In 1903, Mary Anderson revolutionized the driving experience in New York City with her world-changing invention: an automatic windshield wiper blade that could eliminate any rain and snow issues on a car’s windows. A true visionary, she was granted US Patent Number 743,801 for this “Window-cleaning device” – meaning you can now drive through stormy weather without needing to get out every few minutes just to wipe off your windshield!
Although Mary Anderson never made a penny from her groundbreaking invention, the windshield wiper, she still left an indelible mark on history! Her inventive vision in 1903 was so far ahead of its time that it provided the foundation for today’s automotive engineering and helps every driver stay safe no matter what Mother Nature throws at them. Without Mary Anderson, who knows if we’d ever have clear sight while cruising down the highway? She truly saw wonders yet to be seen by most of us back then – and even now!
Before the age of luxury, cars were running red lights and making unexpected lane changes – or worse! That is until Florence Lawrence jumped into the picture. Her invention, Auto Signaling Arm – a device that would raise when you pressed on your brake pedal to alert others behind you – changed automotive history forever. We now all take for granted what she couldn’t even patent back then: turn signals and brake lights! Without her ingenuity today’s roads wouldn’t be nearly as safe (or polite).
Danica Patrick is a legend in the racing world with an inspiring career that began when she was just 10 years old. A trailblazer for female drivers, she made history twice – first as the 1st woman to lead laps and score a top five finish at the Indy 500 followed by her record setting victory of becoming the 1st woman to win a major North American open wheel series race. And if that wasn’t enough, she showed up on NASCAR’s doorstep ready to set another milestone: She became the 1st ever female driver (and youngest overall)to post fastest qualifying time at Daytona 500 before finishing 8th!
When an opportunity to join the ranks of NASCAR came knocking at Brehanna’s door during her senior year, she leapt from 0-60 in no time! Despite having zero experience with changing tires before this offer,she quickly caught on and is now blazing a trail as one of the First Black Female Tire Changers for NASCAR – making history along with Melanie Thomas in 2006.
June McCarrol may have been a nurse but she was also the heroine of over 3,500 miles: after nearly being sideswiped on California’s Indio Boulevard in 1917, she had an idea that would save lives all across America. Determined to prevent near-miss collisions and protect drivers everywhere from scary road incidents like hers, June took up her brush and personally painted lanes – white lines down the center! Impressed by this heroic act of roadway engineering genius (one Ford Model T kind!), other states responded accordingly – soon enough giving us those telltale yellowish markings seen around every corner… thank you for keeping our highways safe forevermore, Ms. McCarrol!
Emily Post was more than just the matriarch of manners. As one of America’s first female auto journalists, she boldly took to the wheel and encouraged other women to do so as well! In 1916 she wrote “By Motor To The Golden Gate,” a book detailing her remarkable cross-country road trip from NYC all way out west. Then in 1922, “Etiquette” taught us that women need not travel with chaperones while driving – they were perfectly capable doing it themselves or even accompanied by male passengers if desired! Even till 1949 when Post published “Motor Manners: The Bluebooklet Of Traffic Etiquette” about rules on the roads; apparently concerning bad motor manners could all too often lead…to *cue dramatic voice* murder?! But fear not ladies — you have an ally (and driver) behind your corner in Ms.Emily Post herself who helped popularize being woman at the helm which opened many doors.
Margaret Wilcox was no ordinary woman of the 19th century. This intrepid engineer revolutionized car travel with her 1893 patent for an internal heating system. By design, hers pulled heat from a vehicle’s engine and then redistributed it inside the cabin – giving weary travelers some well-deserved respite from cold weather! Her genius didn’t stop there though; she went on to co-invent other inventions such as baking pans, combined clothes/dishwasher machines & home heaters that transformed our lives forever. Talk about one hot inventor!
A true pioneer in motoring, Dorothée Pullinger was the first female member of The Institution of Automobile Engineers and a successful race car driver. In 1914 she applied to join IAE despite being denied due to her gender but continued undeterred by becoming manager at Galloway Motors – championing the employment of local women with an auto engineering college for them too! Not only that, but Pullinger also developed their sleek ‘Galloway Car’, designed specifically for shorter drivers (or those wearing long skirts!) She capped off this impressive career milestone when winning Scotland’s Six Day Car Trials back in 1924; leading the way as one of founding members the Women’s Engineering Society.
Shauntia Latrice “Tia” Norfleet was born with the need for speed – in more ways than one. Not only is she the daughter of NASCAR driver Bobby Norfleet, but at 14-years old she won 37 out of 52 amateur races and became a champion go kart racer! But that wasn’t enough: At 22, this bold daredevil gained another title as first African American female to be licensed by both NASCAR and ARCA – no small feat when you consider her mentors were none other than Wendell Scott (NASCAR champ), Hall of Fame Driver Alan Kulwicki & entertainer Gladys Knight! Truly an inspirational story worthy revving up any engine…or heart.
Katharine Blodgett is a true superstar of science and engineering. After becoming the first woman in history to receive her PhD from Cambridge University at just 21 years old, she went on to create window glass that blocks unwanted glare – an incredible feat for someone so young! Her development paved the way for future engineers who were able to build upon her work and make windshields even more durable than before – proof positive that age ain’t nothing but a number when it comes to ingenuity!
Hedy Lamarr, this Hollywood bombshell was more than a pretty face! From the big screen to technological inventions, this starlet had huge ambitions. As if an improved traffic stoplight and fizzy drink tablet weren’t enough of an accomplishment, she even gave Howard Hughes notes on his airplanes designs – talk about impressive! But her most noteworthy contribution came in WWII when she developed frequency-hopping signals that eventually laid groundwork for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS systems as we know them today. Thanks to Hedy Lamarr’s inventive genius, you’ll never get lost again … at least not while connected to your smartphone.
Dorothy Levitt was a real trailblazer – not only did she become the first British female racing driver, but she also taught Queen Alexandra to drive – alongside royal princesses and broke records for water speed. Better still, her 1909 book “The Woman and Car” is credited with being ahead of its time; in it, this pioneering automotive visionary recommended that women drivers should have rear-view mirrors inside their vehicles as a safety feature! Sure enough, manufacturers caught on fast – like really fast – following up by adding them into cars just five years later. Who knows where we’d be without such smart advice?
Despite being laid off by Ford Motor Company during the oil crisis of ’74, Mimi Vandermolen had a never-quit attitude. She returned to her post in 1977 and eventually rose through the ranks as Design Specialist. Under her leadership came two iconic automotive creations – The game changing Ford Taurus with its innovative ergonomic seats, rotary dials for climate control and digital instrument panel; plus 1993’s sleek second generation Ford Probe that catered especially well to women drivers! Whether you realize it or not, much of your own car is likely inspired by this legendary designer’s bold designs.
Patrice Banks was determined to shake up the auto industry after realizing she didn’t need a degree in automotive technology – or even be an “auto air-head” – to work on cars. So, with that inspiring thought and her mission of creating a safe space for women, Girls Auto Clinic (GAC) was born in 2013! In 2017, she published Girls Auto Clinic Glove Box Guide , which covers the basics of auto repairs, maintenance, and emergencies. As she says: “Women don’t know that [caring for their car] because there’s nobody speaking like them. The industry is run by men.” Well Ms Banks has certainly taken care of business then – dare we say this female founder put the service center firmly back into ‘service’?!
Legendary Joan Newton Cuneo had a need for speed that couldn’t be tamed and she left her mark on the auto racing world! She pushed boundaries as the first female race car driver, racking up notable wins at three different events. Her accomplishments were so impressive that they even threatened male drivers—so much so, in fact, that women ended up being banned from competing outright. Although it led to an early retirement for Joane Nuevo Cuno’s career didn’t end there: decades later we still remember her blazing trails as one of history’s fiercest femme fatales behind the wheel.
At 22, Alice Ramsey proved that a girl can do anything when she set out on an epic 6,000-kilometer road trip from New York to San Francisco. Despite having only 244 kilometers of paved roads in the entire journey and being accompanied by three friends who didn’t know how to drive, she changed 11 flat tires, cleaned spark plugs with her own two hands (and some water), cooled off the radiator herself – even replacing a broken brake pedal along the way! Talk about driver dedication; it’s no wonder why 2000 saw Ramsey become the first woman to be inducted into The Automotive Hall Of Fame for such outstanding feats.
Stephanie Kwolek deserves more than a mention – her revolutionary invention of Kevlar saved countless lives! This synthetic fiber is five times stronger than steel, lighter than fiberglass and to top it off: bulletproof. In the early 70s it first saw action as an alternative for steel in racing tires, then went on to become part of reinforced brake pads we use today. Talk about strongwomen making changes that impact generations- this incredible chemist goes down in history with all she achieved from creating such an amazing product!
In the 1950s, GM sparked a revolution in their design department when they launched “Damsels of Design”, America’s first all-woman team. Unfortunately for these ladies and female consumers alike, one man had an impassioned though misguided opinion on the matter: Bill Mitchell claimed he’d never let women stand next to senior designers! Despite this stumbling block, Suzanne Vanderbilt refused to give up her seat at the table — she went on climbing ladders until finally becoming Chief Designer of Chevrolet Interiors Studio. Vanderbilt projects consisted of small cars such as the Nova, Camaro and Chevette. Her contributions surely left ripples throughout auto history; we owe a lot to Ms. Vanderbilt and other strong Damsel survivors who bravely pushed forward despite adversity – merci beaucoup mademoiselles!
Making a huge name for herself in the NASCAR world, Dr. Jennifer Satterfield-Siegel is certainly doing it all – celebrating countless successes as an industry trailblazer! Not only is she Board Certified Pediatric Dentist but also co-owner of Rev Racing with her husband Max since 2010 AND part of the influential Motorsports Diversity Program; clearly making sure black women are represented within this predominantly male dominated sport. She’s even racked up numerous awards to add to her long list of accomplishments – truly embodying what “girl power” really means!
Melissa Harville-Lebron is pioneering NASCAR’s future – as the first African American woman to own a sole team and driving force behind E2 Northeast Motorsports, she’s putting her foot on the pedal of progress. And it doesn’t stop there; Under W.M Stone Enterprises umbrella, this historic multicultural motorsport outfit has four members in competitive racing – two in Camping World Truck Series & further two making a name for themselves at NASCR’s famous Whelen All-American Series!
It’s a high-octane affair! Women are taking the wheel and revving up change – from buying cars to driving innovation. We hope that these leading women in automotive have taught you something new. 85% of automotive decisions may be in female hands, but only 27.1% women make up for the auto workforce with managerial roles being even more scarce. But what these dynamic ladies lack in numbers they absolutely more than make up for it ambition – paving an exciting Road Ahead towards workplace equality and cutting edge tech advancements that will send us swerving into gear ahead of our 4×4 peers!
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