9 Women Who Change and Influenced the Automobile Industry
Women’s History month is around the corner and we couldn’t be more excited. Historically, the automobile industry has had a reputation of being a man’s territory, however, there are some pretty innovative and influential women that have played a major role. Today, we want to highlight 9 women who changed and influenced the automobile industry we know today. Check out these changemakers.
Margaret A. Wilcox
You can thank Margaret A. Wilcox for that toasty warm car ride the next time you’re driving in Minnesota’s January subzero temperatures. Ms. Wilcox was one of the few female mechanical engineers in the late 1800s. She invented a way to direct the warm air from over the engines back into the car and warm the occupants’ toes. Her invention was received well but there were a few safety concerns because the temperature couldn’t be controlled. Wilcox was able to get a patent for her heating device in 1893 and her design is the basis of today’s modern heating system in cars.
Alice Ramsey was the first woman to travel from New York City to San Francisco and only 152 miles out of 3,800 miles were actually paved. She was 22-years-old when she first made the trip with her three female friends who couldn’t drive. During the 3,800-mile road trip Ramsey had to change 11 flat tires, kept the spark plugs clean, had to use water to cool the radiator, and they had to replace a broken brake pedal. Ramsey was also the first woman to be inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2000.
Suzanne Vanderbilt was one of six women who were called GM’s “Damsels of Design”. It’s cringe-worthy by today’s standards but remember, this is the 50’s we’re talking about. In an effort to appeal to their growing female demographic, General Motors hired six women to design the interior of GM’s cars. Vanderbilt herself is credited with many inventions that are still in use today like retractable seat belts and glove boxes. Staying with GM for the next 23 years, Vanderbilt eventually worked her up to the chief designer for Chevrolet. She was never able to completely break into the male dominated industry, Vanderbilt is responsible for three patents—an inflatable seat back, a safety switch for automotive panels, and a motorcycle helmet design.
Born and raised in Germany during World War II, Helene Rother barely made it out of the country alive. I’m not being overly dramatic when I say that either. Rother became a refugee in a refugee camp in Casablanca with her seven-year-old daughter. Unable to attain a visa to leave Europe, Rother somehow managed to find a way to the US and pursue her American dream. Rother began her career as a jewelry and hat pin designer, she later found herself at General Motors in their interior design department. She is the first woman who worked on a design team in Detroit. After being with GM for four years, Rother opened her own design studio. A year later, Rother joined her company with Nash Automobiles but then left the company in 1956 when Nash Automobiles merged with Hudson which formed AMC. Rother kept her status as an independent designer and worked with Goodyear, B.F. Goodrich, U.S. Rubber, Stromberg-Carlson, and International Harvester.
After seeing trolley drives get out and wipe their windshields in the rain, Mary Anderson knew there had to be a better way. Anderson designed the first manual lever that operated a wiper from inside the car. Thanks to her thinking, we can drive more safely in the rain!
Charlotte Bridgwood took Mary Anderson’s manual windshield wiper up a notch with patenting the first electronic windshield wipers in 1917. According to Autowise.com,
“Just like Anderson, however, Bridgwood too never received too many compliments for her work. Neither did she get any substantial financial satisfaction. Her small company produced automatic wipers for a while but her patent also expired in 1920, leaving wipers up for grabs by large automotive companies. They became standard pieces of equipment in personal cars only a few years later with Cadillac leading the pack.”
You know how they say that behind every successful man is a woman? Here’s the perfect example of that saying. Bertha Benz’s husband, Karl Benz, designed what is considered the first practical automobile. She believed in Karl so much that she invested her entire dowry into Benz’s company. In 1886, Karl Benz registered the first patent for the Motor Car. The public was skeptical at first and unwilling to purchase some motorized, what was it called, oh a car. They turned their noses up at Karl Benz and his invention but Bertha, who was far better with business than her husband, took it upon herself to show people what the Motor Car could do. Without her husband’s content, and with her two teenage sons by her side, Bertha drove from Mannheim to Pforzheim. The rest is history and Bertha Benz is known as a trailblazer and quite possibly the best PR agent ever. She also discovered during her journey that brake pads would be beneficial to help brakes endure longer trips.
Do you know how the windows on cars don’t have a glare? We have Katharine Blodgett to thank for that discovery. Blodgett, a physicist, and chemist at General Electric discovered a way to create an “invisible” glass surface, what we know today as non-reflective windows. She was also the first woman awarded a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Cambridge.
Joan Newton Cuneo
The first woman race car driver, Joan Newton Cuneo who made the boys so nervous, they banned women from race car driving. Why? Men didn’t like to feel inferior to a woman in a sport that traditionally had been “theirs”. Cuneo set many speed records for women and won three first places in shorter events. She retired from racing after AAA banned women from the tracks but she is known as being the first female race car driver to not only compete against men but to also win several races against those she was pitted against.
That’s it for our trip down memory lane. As you celebrate Women’s History Month, share this article with your daughters, nieces, any young girl in your life. These women are not only inspiring but prove that nothing can stop a woman when she’s determined. As the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt theme song says, “‘Cause females are strong as hell.”