Our Forefixers: Influential Women Innovators of the Automotive Industry

The automotive industry has a reputation (fairly or unfairly) for limiting women's roles to posing for pinup calendars next to super-fast cars. But since the very beginning, women have been an important yet underrepresented force in the industry. These innovators laid the foundation for future generations, male and female, often with little recognition. In honor of Women's History Month, here's a look at three important female forefixers, and their modern torch-bearers.
Photo portrait of Bertha Benz as a young woman.

Bertha Benz, Source | Automuseum Dr. Carl Benz

Bertha Benz

In 1888, Bertha Benz snuck out of the house with her two sons and her husband's invention—the world's first automotive vehicle. Karl Benz was reluctant to release his darling to the larger world. Bertha, however, believed that what her husband needed was proof of concept and an excellent marketing plan. She was motivated by more than tough love, though. She'd poured her significant inheritance into the family business, and she was ready for a return on her investment.

When Bertha drove the Benz motorwagen around 65 miles to visit her mother that day, it was the first journey of its kind. Along the way, she invented the first brake pad when she stopped to ask a cobbler to add leather to the brakes to improve performance. Her journey captured the attention (and imagination) of the world. She also secured a place in history and the Benz company's first sale.

Modern Trailblazer: Mary Barra, the first female CEO at a major global automaker, GM, and one of Time's "100 Most Influential People."

Alice Ramsey stands next to her Maxwell automobile.

Alice Ramsey, Source | Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress

Alice Ramsey

Alice Ramsey may not have had the right to vote in 1909, but that didn't stop the 22-year-old from making history. She drove from New York City to San Francisco with three female traveling companions. Only 152 of the 3,800 miles she drove in her 30-horsepower Maxwell runabout were paved. She navigated with road maps and by following telephone wires from town to town.

During the journey, Ramsey changed flat tires, cleaned spark plugs, and fixed a broken brake pedal. She arrived in California to great fanfare—59 days later—as the first woman to drive across the U.S. Over the years, she did the trip more than 30 times, finishing her last journey in 1975 at the age of 89. Ramsey accomplished one more first for women, posthumously. In 2000, she was the first woman inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.

Modern Trailblazer: Emily S. Miller, founder of the Rebelle Rally, a seven-day, all-female, off-road navigational rally across more than 2,000 kilometers of California desert. No GPS here either. Just a compass and a map to get to the finish line.

Source | Motorcities.org

Suzanne Vanderbilt

Suzanne Vanderbilt got her start in automotive design as one of six women dubbed GM's "Damsels of Design." Yup, it was the '50s. The female designers were GM's attempt to appeal to an increasingly powerful female demographic. They were limited to interiors, but they developed a series of innovations still in use today, including retractable seat belts and glove boxes.

By the 1960s, only Vanderbilt remained at GM. She stayed for another 23 years, eventually advancing to chief designer for Chevrolet. She was never able to break into the all-male field of designing exteriors. But she was responsible for three patents—an inflatable seat back, a safety switch for automotive panels, and a motorcycle helmet design.

Modern Trailblazer: Michelle Christensen, Acura's first female exterior design lead and the first woman to lead a supercar design team. She's responsible for the design of the second-generation Honda NSX.

Know of an innovative woman who made or is making automotive history? Leave us a comment.

Last updated June 7, 2017

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