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10 of the Most Prominent Historical Female Figures in Automotive Industry

Although automotive industry was historically (and still is) driven by men, tender gender has given us a number of important figures over the years as well. Being a female in historically male-dominated field is never easy, but following 10 women have managed to cope with the pressure in more than admirable fashion. They’re responsible not only for the way we look at cars nowadays, but for their evolution as a whole. Female racers, automotive inventors, designers, journalists and executives have practically been around since the beginning of the automobile evolution. In very limited numbers – true – but still there. Their accomplishments have often remained overlooked, but no one can dispute the fact that these same accomplishments have actually been achieved. We are here to shed some light on a number of them. Enjoy our list of automotive industry’s Marie Curies, Stephanie Kwoleks and Grace Hoppers of sorts, if you will.

Helene Rother

German-born WWII refugee already had experience designing jewelry and hat pins for Parisian high class society, but it was in America where she fulfilled her true potential. She quickly became Detroit’s first female car designer working in GM’s interior designing staff. After four years in GM, she opened up her own design studio Helene Rother Associates, before she subsequently joined Nash Automobiles a year later, in 1948. Rother stayed with Nash until 1956 and left soon after Nash/Hudson merger which formed the AMC. Being an independent artist under contract, she still managed to singlehandedly transform one of the most conservative automakers into one of the most stylish ones thanks to her colorful interior designs. With Pinin Farina assigned on exterior and Helene Rother making interiors, Nash, at one point featured sort of an All-Star design team through and through.

Rother later worked with Goodyear, B.F. Goodrich, U.S. Rubber, Stromberg-Carlson and International Harvester. Thanks to this reputable portfolio of clients, she remained in auto industry for a while, but her golden years of designing interiors were far behind. However, designing in general wasn’t. Later in her life, Helene Rother switched to stained-glass window designing. A field she likely became accustomed with while working with one of her last automotive clients – the Miller-Meteor Motor Car Division of Divco-Wayne Corporation. The very same Miller-Meteor who built ambulances and funeral cars. Like everything else she touched, her stained-glass church windows quickly became coveted and remain such until today. Helene Rother practically paved the way and opened the door to all Detroit women who came after.

Bertha Benz

As it happens, Karl Benz would have probably never succeeded hadn’t it been for his wife Bertha. His obsession with perfection would have never allowed him to move far away from the beginning. At least not in time it would. Can you imagine modern auto industry without Mercedes-Benz?!

Bertha Benz is responsible for completing the very first long-distance petroleum-powered privately-owned car journey in 1888 which brought attention to their company and subsequently sold their very first models. And she did it all without her husband’s consent. In fact, he didn’t even know Bertha would embark on a 66 mile long journey from Mannheim to Pforzheim in their freshly patented motorwagen. This successfully completed long-distance trip proved the worth and reliability of their invention, but only after Bertha herself suggested substantial updates to the patent. Updates that no one would have figured were needed hadn’t she completed the trip to her mother’s in the first place.

And visiting her mother’s with her two teenage sons was Bertha’s main intention. She, however, also wanted to test out the motorwagen and garner as much publicity as possible as Karl Benz failed to market the car properly. On the road, she also demonstrated her tech-savviness – completing often-necessary small repairs. Bertha Benz figured out motorwagen could benefit from additional (third) gear for hilly terrain as her sons often had to push the car in such situations. Car’s wooden brakes failed after a while, so she saw the help of a cobbler who furbished them with a layer of leather. Along the way, she also employed the services of a blacksmith who helped mend the drive chain at one point. She even had to find her own supply of ligroin – petrol’s distillate sold only in apothecaries at the time. And not to mention the engine heating problems.

Not only did she complete the world’s first long-distance car voyage, but she also executed the world’s first thorough car test which lead to the aforementioned revisions to the Benz patent. If ever there was a highly determined woman of initiative in the automotive world, that would be Bertha Benz to whom we owe so much.

Dorothée Pullinger

Dorothée Pullinger wasn’t only one of the first female car designers – she was also one of the first car designers that put emphasis on women’s needs. She started her career in the auto industry as draughtswoman at the Paisley works of Arrol-Johnston, at the age of 16. It would take a lot of time and effort before she would finally make a breakthrough even though she applied for joining the Institution of Automobile Engineers only four years later. She was declined on the grounds that “the word person means a man and not a woman”. Having her father as a manager in the Arrol-Johnston plant didn’t help as well.

Dorothée would finally get the chance during the WWI. She was put in charge of female munitions workers at Barrow-in-Furness plant in Cumbria. Being responsible for more than 7,000 workers gave her a good case for the future. Her father put her in charge of Arrol-Johnston’s subsidiary, the Galloway Motors. Dorothée decided to employ local women instead of men, and Galloway 10/20 influenced by Fiat 501 was born. It was more compact than most cars available at the time which instantly appealed to women. Furthermore, it had raised seat position, smaller steering wheel, lower dashboard, and handbrake positioned just beside the seat. More trunk space, more reliable engine and a rearview mirror were just a bonus. Only around 4,000 Galloway cars would end up being produced in the following years, but that was as good figure as any for independent car manufacturer of the 1920’s.

Dorothée, fed up with constantly being reminded of taking a man’s job, joined Arrol-Johnston’s sales division and left engineering for good. She served her country once again in WWII and settled in Guernsey where she passed away in 1986 at the age of 92.

Mary Anderson

Mary Anderson is the one we owe our gratitude for being able to see through our windshields on a rainy day. She patented the manual windshield wiper in 1903. It was a cold day in New York, in 1902 when she got the idea. Mary was driving on a trolley and noticed that motorman had to keep the front window panels open in order to be able to see the road due to falling sleet. You know how unpleasant and painful this can get if you’ve ever driven a bike without any facial protection. Now, multiply the pain with “God knows how many hours” and there’s your answer. Upon Mary’s arrival to her home in Alabama, she hired a designer that would build a hand-operated device to remedy this omnipresent problem.

The device consisted of a rubber blade held by an arm and a spring, and operated manually via crank from the inside of a cabin. One might think suitors would follow in droves, but in truth, Mary’s patent expired after 17 years without earning her a living. She tried to garner interest for it in Canada (where it’s rarely sunny), but to no avail. Only after her patent’s expiration date did the windshield wiper become standard in auto industry. Mary Anderson might have been dealt a rotten hand, but her name will not be forgotten.

Charlotte Bridgwood

Even though manual windshield wipers were already around for a few years, no man figured out how to upgrade them, hence the responsibility yet again fell on women. Charlotte Bridgwood took up this cup and patented electronically operated automatic wipers in 1917. Mary Anderson’s manual wipers had become somewhat exhaustive after a while and this step forward, although small, was still considerable.

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.

Florence Lawrence

Florence Lawrence wasn’t only “The First Movie Star”, but also the inventor of two of the most important car signalling features – the turn signal and the stop light. The fact her mother’s name was Charlotte Bridgwood – the same Lotta Bridgwood-Lawrence who directed the Lawrence Dramatic Company and invented the automatic windshield wiper – helped her achieve both the Hollywood fame and recognition as automotive inventor.

Her first credited invention were the “auto-signaling arms” – predecessors of modern-day turn signals. As you can imagine, city streets were a dangerous place to be if no one knew where anyone else wanted to turn. That’s why she thought of using two manually operated flags on the rear bumper of a car. Push of a button was then enough to state the driver’s intention of turning, and it still is today. Although flags have been replaced long ago.

Another one of her car-related inventions was the stop brake. She imagined it as a warning sign mounted at the back of the car that instantly flips over after the brake gets applied. This technology works slightly different today, but the process is basically the same. For some reason, Florence Lawrence never patented any of her ideas, and neither did her mother who, at that time was in the auto business. Yet, her ideas are still alive and well today, and will remain thus for unforeseeable time.

Denise McCluggage

As a racing driver, journalist, photographer and author, Denise McCluggage got her share of opportunities to be undermined by sexist dimwits. Yet, her persistence and very nature made her a pioneer of equality for American women. Her work as a journalist lead her to professional car racing when she moved to New York City in 1954. Five years later, she became the first female driver to win the feature sports-car event at Thompson Raceway in Connecticut in Porsche RS. She also won the grand touring category at Sebring in Ferrari 250GT, and achieved a class win in the Monte Carlo Rally in a Ford Falcon. These victories came in 1961 and 1964 respectively.

To this day, Denise McCluggage is the only woman inducted into the Sebring International Raceway Hall of Fame. Moreover, she’s the only automotive journalist ever to be inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame. That says a lot about the rest of us. Denise McCluggage was, and still is the inspiration to us all – not only us automotive journalists and women aspiring to make it in the auto industry – but to every human being fighting for recognition in a field of their choosing. Sadly, miss McCluggage passed away on May 6 2015, aged 88.

Mimi Vandermolen

Vandermolen joined the Ford Motor Company’s Design Studio in 1970 and contributed to “not exactly stellar” Ford Mustang II’s design before being laid off in 1974 due to oil crisis downsizing. Still, Mustang II based on Ford Pinto had achieved what it was supposed to. It wasn’t long before Ford took Mimi back and promoted her to Design Specialist in 1979. At roughly the same time, she was also invited to join the team Taurus. The same team of designers that would spawn a “Rounded Edge Revolution.” And it was Mimi Vandermolen who led the interior design of the mid-eighties game-changing Taurus.

If you remember the car, you’ll also remember it wasn’t revolutionary on the outside alone. Mimi Vandermolen decided to finally discard the impractical straight dashboard and position all the controls at driver’s reach. She also introduced the rotary dials, ergonomic seats, and optional digital instrument panel. Whether you like it or not, first generation Taurus was a major success for the Blue Oval, resulting in 25% of their total North American sales for the initial years. In 1987 she was promoted to position of Design Executive for small cars. First project that Mimi supervised from start to finish was the second generation 1993 Ford Probe. Just like Dorothée Pullinger decades before, Mimi Vandermolen also emphasized on female drivers. She, however, did it in somewhat peculiar fashion. By threatening to make men working for her wear skirts while entering end exiting the car, and making them wear fake fingernails.

Joan Newton Cuneo

Female racing drivers don’t really go beyond Joan Newton Cuneo. She was the first notable US female driver, and as such she closed the door for other women, for many years. Men of the time simply didn’t like being inferior to a woman, especially not in a game traditionally considered their own. If car racing could have been considered traditional in any sense at the turn of the twentieth century, that is. In sort of a paradox, it was a car accident that actually launched her racing career. During the first Glidden Tour, Cuneo tried to avoid another competitor Harlan Whipple going in reverse (Lawrence only invented the brake sign later, remember), and ended up in a stream. She embarked from the car unscathed, but her 1903 White Model C steam touring car soon failed her.

She was much more successful at the 1909 Mardi Gras Races in New Orleans, Louisiana. There she finished second behind legendary Ralph de Palma in a 50-mile event. She also set numerous speed records for women and won three first places in shorter events. This is when AAA banned her and all other potential female drivers for dickhead reasons mentioned above. Joan Newton Cuneo had to settle for setting speed records from then on, but would soon withdraw from car racing entirely. Her legacy, however, lived on. She was the first female car racer to compete successfully with men. More than that, she was the first woman that, not only held her own, but easily defeated most male racers she was pitted against.

June McCarroll

Although she didn’t exactly influence cars in any way, June McCarroll sure did influence transportation as we know it. This former nurse and physician is responsible for painting the first line separators. Even simple things as lines down the middle of the road were once things that needed to be invented. McCarroll got the idea after one particularly harrowing experience in 1917. She was driving her Ford Model T (what else) with one large truck coming her way. Trucks were, and still are “kings of the road”, but at least line separators limit their reign over roads today. A thing that wasn’t the case back then when McCarroll had to skid off the road in order to evade the oncoming “king”.

She thought of the idea immediately after that nearly fatal incident, but Riverside Country Board of Supervisors didn’t share her enthusiasm. Again, likely because she was a woman. Woman as she was, Doctor McCarroll decided to take matters into her own hands and personally painted the white stripe on today’s Indio Boulevard, in 1917. By 1924, California was the first state with mandatory center lines establishing it as automotive regulations pioneering leader. A status it still boasts today. And we have a female nurse to thank for, of all people.

Categories: List Articles

Nikola Potrebić
About Nikola Potrebić

Although driving a piece of junk, Nikola is a true car enthusiast. Very few things move him as muscle cars do - especially those from the golden era. Which makes him wonder: why wasn't he born a few decades earlier? Well, at least he's been able to enjoy the likes of Pontiak Aztek, Fiat Multipla, and the likes this way - right?