March is Women's History Month, and here at Ask Patty we think that's just dandy. What better reason for us to point out some women who have made great contributions to automotive history?
In 1902 Mary Anderson invented the first windshield wiper after riding a New York City Street car. Surprisingly, when she tried to sell the rights to her invention to a noted Canadian firm in 1905, they rejected her application saying "we do not consider it to be of such commercial value as would warrant our undertaking its sale."
After the patent expired in 1920 and the automobile manufacturing business grew exponentially, and in 1922, Cadillac became the first car manufacturer to adopt them as standard equipment. It wasn't long before windshield wipers using Anderson's basic design became standard equipment on all cars.
Believe it or not: before that, people smeared a mixture of onions and carrots on windshields to repel water. Leave it to a woman to point out the obvious!
On June 6, 1909, Alice H. Ramsey was a 22-year-old housewife and mother when she boarded a 30-horsepower Maxwell-Briscoe and began a 3,800-mile trip from New York to San Francisco, making her the first woman in history to cross the United States in an automobile. She was accompanied on her 59-day trek by two older sisters-in-law and another female friend, none of whom could drive a car.
Only 152 of the 3,600 miles traveled were paved at the time: Along the way, Ramsey changed 11 tires, cleaned the spark plugs, repaired a broken brake pedal, and had to sleep in the car when it was stuck in mud. Never mind today's GPS navigation, they didn't even have maps! The women mostly found their way by using telephone poles, following the poles with more wires in hopes that they would lead to a town. Named the "Woman Motorist of the Century" by AAA in 1960, Ramsey drove across the country more than 30 times in her lifetime.
Ironically, her husband, a New Jersey congressman, never learned to drive.
Because Canadian actress Florence Lawrence was such a success, she was able to buy her own car -- a rarity in the early 20th century, when cars were still luxury items.
In 1914, she designed the first turn signal or “auto signaling arm,” a device that, with the press of a button, raised or lowered a flag on the car’s rear bumper to let other drivers know which way a car was going to turn.
She also designed the first mechanical brake indicator, a “STOP” sign that flipped up from the car's back bumper when a driver pressed the brakes. Unfortunately, she did not patent these inventions, and received no credit for -- or profit from -- either one.
In 1916, Alice Burke and Nell Richardson (and their cat) traveled for five months and 10,700 miles promoting the women’s suffrage and right to vote message and demonstrating women’s equality at the wheel. Their yellow Saxon automobile, nicknamed the "Golden Flier," became a moving symbol of women's rights and a podium for speeches in many towns and cities.
This was no small feat in 1916, when only a small minority of women drove, and most roads were dirt, or at best graded or "paved" with gravel, making driving a difficult -- and sometimes dangerous -- endeavor.
In 1915, Wilma K. Russey became the first woman licensed to work as a taxi driver in New York; she was also an expert garage mechanic who could repair cars better than most men at the time.
Russey devoted much of her life transporting New Yorkers around the city -- and she did it in style: It's said her very first customer left her a generous tip because she was sporting a leopard-skin hat and stole.
In 1916, The Girl Scouts initiated a “Automobiling Badge” for which girls had to demonstrate driving and first-aid skills, and auto mechanics.
Today, Senior Girl Scouts who might be close to earning their driver’s licenses can earn a Car Care Badge by learning basic car maintenance skills like checking fluid levels and where they are replenished, checking tire pressure and wear, using jumper cables, and changing windshield wipers. Additional requirements include learning the principals of vehicle safety, researching safe driving practices, what to do in case of an emergency, and behaviors that will result in a "greener" ride.
In 1920, Luella Bates became the first woman truck driver to receive a driver's license in New York.
During World War I, she worked for Four Wheel Drive Auto Company as a test driver traveling throughout the state of Wisconsin in a Model B truck.
After receiving her truck drivers license, Bates spent several years traversing the United States, demonstrating the Model B truck and newly developed fire trucks.
Helene Rother (1908-1999) was a French designer of jewelry and fashion accessories who fled Nazi-occupied France with her seven-year-old daughter Ina in 1942.
She was the first woman to work as an automotive designer when she joined the interior styling staff of General Motors in Detroit in 1943, and later worked for Nash Motors where she consulted on the interior of the Nash Rambler. Eventually, she opened her own design studio in Detroit's Fisher Building, where she specialized in designs for automotive interiors, furniture, and stained glass windows.
According to Hemmings Car Collector Magazine, "She was one of the few women to succeed in a man's job during an era when the vast majority of women couldn't even see a glass ceiling because it was hidden behind steel doors."
These eight great women from automotive history are just the start of our month-long celebration of important women in the industry. We'll also be sharing small featurettes on additional women who are making great strides in today's modern times, so stay tuned!