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Inventors, designers, and C-Suite: 20 female pioneers who changed the automotive industry

While the auto industry has mainly been predominated by men until recent years, there are actually many female pioneers who have changed the industry over time. In honor of National Women’s Month, let’s take a look at 20 women who have played a large role in giving women a place in automotive.

1. Bertha Benz

In the Fall of 1888, Bertha Benz and two of her sons ventured out in the early hours of the morning to travel from Mannheim, Germany to Pforzheim, Germany in one of her husband’s Benz Patent-Motorwagens. Bertha made various repairs to the car along the way including fixing a blocked fuel pipe, repairing the ignition with a garter, and creating a set of replacement brake pads. The journey is considered to be the first long distance road trip via automobile, and Bertha and her husband, Carl, were the first couple inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.

2. Alice Ramsey

Alice Ramsey took Bertha Benz’s accomplishment one step further, as she is known for being the first woman to drive even farther, with her road trip spanning the entire United States. A man who worked for the Maxwell-Briscoe Company was impressed by her driving skills and promised Ramsey all expenses would be paid if she proved that women could drive the entire way across the United States. Traveling with two of her sisters-in-law and an eager 16-year-old friend, the 22-year-old Ramsey overcame many obstacles and drove 3,800 miles in 59 days from New York to California.

3. June Hill Robertson McCarroll

Inspired by an unfortunate car accident, June Hill Robertson McCarroll is credited to have created the first concept of traffic lanes. McCarroll, who was working as a nurse prior to becoming a physician, was run off the road in her Ford Model T in 1917 in California. She conjured up the idea of a white line being painted in the middle of the road, but when she took the suggestion to local authorities, they dismissed her. Determined, she took it upon herself to paint a line in the road, which helped her gain support for a statewide campaign. The California Highway Commission approved the measure in 1924 and most of the world quickly also began using traffic lines.

4. Margaret Wilcox

During the colder months, we all take advantage of the heaters in our car, but what many people don’t know is that the concept of car heaters was created by a woman, Margaret Wilcox. As one of the very few female engineers at the time, Wilcox was awarded a patent for an internal car heater in 1893. Her theory, which car heaters continue to be based on, was that a system could circulate air from the inside of the car through the hot engine and back, therefore warming the air in the cabin. The design has been proven to be successful, and in 2020, her patent was named one of the top 10 patents by women by Inventors Digest.

5. Genevra Delphine Mudge

While obtaining a driver’s license these days is a common practice for all adults in the United States, it hasn’t always been the case for women. Genevra Delphine Mudge is believed to be the first woman in the United States to obtain a driver’s license, which she did in 1898 in New York State. Known as the first licensed female driver, Mudge is also credited as the first woman to race a car, specifically racing a gas-powered Locomobile on dirt roads.

6. Katharine Blodgett

Katharine Blodgett was another New Yorker who made a lasting mark on the auto industry. After being the first female to obtain a PhD from Cambridge University, Blodgett went on to develop a type of liquid soap that let 99% of light pass through it even when 44 layers of it were applied on top of glass. This along with the developments made after led to the current non-reflective and anti-glare windshields that we use today.

7. Helene Rother

Helene Rother joined General Motors in 1943 and is remembered as the first female automotive designer. She started her career in France designing jewelry and lapel pins but later escaped to the United States due to World War II. She first worked as an illustrator for Marvel Comics before her time with GM, which only lasted a few years before she was recruited by Nash Motors to design their cars to give them a luxury car appearance. She was also the first woman to speak in front of the Society of Automotive Engineers in Detroit. In 2020, she was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame for her designs for the interior of vehicles.

8. Suzanne Vanderbilt

Suzanne Vanderbilt was part of a 6-woman team that was deemed the “Damsels of Design” in the 1950’s. Since driving and car buying was becoming more commonplace for females, the group was hired by General Motors to design vehicles targeted towards women. Vanderbilt is thought to be the leader of the group, implementing components such as retractable seatbelts into the designs. She worked for GM for more than two decades, ultimately earning the title of Chief Designer for Chevrolet.

9. Mimi Vandermolen

While Suzanne Vanderbilt was making strides at GM, Mimi Vandermolen became one of the first female full-time designers for the Ford Motor Company. Hired in 1970, she would go on to build the iconic 1974 Mustang before being laid off due to the oil embargo that year. However, she rejoined Ford three years later and spearheaded the design of the 1986 Taurus sedan. The Taurus was instrumental in the future of cars as it was one of the first to have features such as a curved dashboard and dials for in-cabin temperature control.

10. Juliane Blasi and Nadya Arnaout

Women working for BMW have also been recognized as pioneers of the automotive industry, including Juliane Blasi and Nadya Arnaout. The two worked together to create the impressive BMW Z4, with Blasi designing the exterior and Arnaout designing the interior. In 2009, many attendees at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit were surprised that two women were even given such an arduous task, which they greatly succeeded at. Further proving that women can compete in the industry just as well as men, the BMW Z4 would eventually receive several awards for its design.

11. Michelle Christensen

Another prominent designer in the luxury automotive segment is Michelle Christensen, who grew up watching her dad work on muscle cars and learned a lot about cars from him. She started working for Acura in 2005 and ten years later, at the age of 34, she designed the Acura NSX, which was built to compete with Ferrari’s sporty vehicles. The success of the project earned her the Woman on Top award from Marie Claire magazine, and she would then go on to work at Faraday Future and Nissan Design America.

12. Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr is most famously known as an actress, but she also undoubtedly made a name for herself in the auto industry as well. During the Second World War, she developed a system that intercepted torpedo signals and caused signals from opposing naval ships to “hop.” While it took two decades to finally be implemented on ships, the signal-hopping she invented is now utilized in our cars for Bluetooth, GPS, and Wi-Fi capabilities.

13. Gladys Mae West

Similar to Hedy Lamarr, Gladys Mae West’s contribution to the auto industry involved the advancement of GPS technology. West was employed at the U.S. Naval Weapons Laboratory and was tasked with exploring satellites that could measure the depth of the oceans. Her developments led to a satellite nicknamed GEOSAT, which could computerize the earth’s surfaces and subsequently be used for GPS tracking.

14. Emily Post

Emily Post is most well-known for her pristine etiquette lessons and her nickname as the “Matriarch of Manners,” but she was also one of the first female automotive journalists and a woman who strongly advocated for women driving themselves in the car. She first published a book about a cross-country road trip she and her son went on in 1916 and later wrote two books that intertwined both etiquette and automotive, titling them “Etiquette” (1922) and “Motor Manners: The Bluebooklet of Traffic Etiquette” (1949).

15. Courtney Caldwell

Another important person in automotive journalism is Courtney Caldwell. Although she has kept a low profile over the years, she founded American Woman Motorscene, which was later named American Woman Road & Travel and is now Road & Travel Magazine. The magazine was the first automotive publication geared towards women and focuses on practical information such as driver safety tips, advice regarding buying cars, and recommendations for trip planning. The magazine was initially started by Caldwell in 1989, and in 2000 it was one of the first automotive publications to go all-digital.

16. Mary Anderson

Mary Anderson and Charlotte Bridgwood are both credited for creating the very useful devices we now call windshield wipers. Anderson first came up with the idea when she was on a trolley in New York City and the driver continuously had to get out of the vehicle to wipe snow off of the windshield. Her initial invention was a spring-loaded arm made with a rubber blade that could be operated from inside the car, and Bridgwood entered the picture 15 years later when she tweaked the idea to make the wipers electric. Surprisingly, their inventions were actually not immediately accepted by the auto industry and their patents expired before windshield wipers began appearing on vehicles everywhere.

17. Florence Lawrence

Florence Lawrence was another important figure in the automotive industry, as she is believed to be the founder of turn signals. Although she was widely known as an actress, she also loved cars and rumor has it she even conducted mechanical maintenance on her car by herself. She also installed turn signals on her car, which were made with actual flags that emerged when she pressed a button, and a brake signal, which was a sign labeled “STOP” that emerged when she hit the brake pedal.

18. Dorothee Aurélie Marianne Pullinger

Dorothée Aurélie Marianne Pullinger was a business-savvy automotive engineer who started her career with Scottish automaker Arrol-Johnston. During World War I, she used her bilingual skills (French and English) in England to oversee more than 7,000 employees on a team that manufactured high explosive shells. After the war, she returned to her homeland of Scotland and was appointed a manager and director of Galloway Motors Ltd. While at Galloway, she hired many female employees and worked to design and engineer a car geared towards women’s wishes. Pullinger was rightfully inducted into the Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame in 2012.

19. Mary Barra

Perhaps one of the most influential figures in the automotive industry today is Mary Barra. Barra started her successful career with General Motors at just 18 years old, conducting vehicle inspections to pay for her college education. She worked her way up as an engineer for the automaker and more than 30 years after joining GM, she was named the Chief Executive Officer. This made her the first female CEO of any automaker, potentially paving the way for many more.

20. Stephanie Kwolek

Stephanie Kwolek’s contributions to the world span much greater than the auto industry, as she invented the heat-resistant, synthetic fiber known as Kevlar. While Kevlar is mostly known for its usage in police and military operations, it is also utilized in today’s brake pads, as it is able to handle wear and tear much better than other materials. It has also historically been used in place of steel in racing tires.

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Kimberly Hurley
Kimberly Hurley
Kimberly Hurley is a contributing writer and investigative journalist for CBT News, with over a decade of experience specializing in automotive, healthcare, and manufacturing. She enjoys working with industry professionals throughout the world to develop engaging, and accurate content.

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