March is Women’s History Month
“Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.” – Maya Angelou
In our modern world, it can be so easy to take things for granted, but events like Women’s History Month are part of keeping our perspective in check. As much as we like to think that we’ve come a long way, there are dozens of industries that still lack representation for women and even more industries where the accomplishments of women have gone unnoticed.
Few industries have quite the reputation for being a “boys club” quite like the automotive industry, but despite old tropes about only boys being able to like cars, women have had a stunning impact on the entire industry since its very inception.
For all you race fans out there, don’t worry, we’re going to cover women in motorsport in our next blog!
Here’s the thing. If you’ve driven a car or flown in an airplane, then you’ve been impacted by the work of Mary Anderson.
As the story goes, Mary was riding a trolley car in New York City during a blinding snowstorm, and she observed the operator sticking his head out the window to see the way ahead. At that moment, she conceived the idea of a rubber blade that could be operated by the operator from inside the trolley. To help keep the blade flush with the windshield, it would have a counterweight or a spring. In 1903, she received her patent and it wasn’t long before her mass transit solution was making its way onto cars all over the world, starting with Cadillac in 1922.
From then on, the humble windshield wiper would go on to be an oft-forgotten bit of standard equipment that is designed to keep us safe out on the road. Everything from a 747 jet to a cruise ship uses windshield wipers to see the path ahead, and it’s all thanks to Mary Anderson.
So, next time it’s raining and you fire up those wipers, remember that without Mary, you couldn’t see a thing.
For what it’s worth, Florence Lawrence doesn’t deserve to just be remembered for her contributions to the automotive industry.
She was also the first woman to be named onscreen during the credits, and she also happened to be a serious automotive enthusiast. Florence, like every other driver on the road in those early days, dealt with pervasive safety issues and general chaos. Remember, streets were still a new thing and so were cars! One day, after nearly getting into a fender bender because the person to the side of her cut her off, she decided that car safety needed an overhaul.
Her first invention in 1914 was turn indicators, which were flaps that extended out from the side of the car via a mechanical lever. Unfortunately, she didn’t patent the idea and it would be another ten years before her idea would make its way onto vehicles all over the world. She lost most of her wealth in the stock market crash of 1929 and then was essentially eliminated from the public eye.
Florence’s story is a sad story to be sure but in the end, we can still stand back in awe of not one of the first big-time female actors, but also a true car enthusiast at a time when few people were.
You may recognize that famous last name as the second half of a certain famous German car maker, and you’d be right, but that’s just not the whole story behind dear old Bertha Benz.
Yes, Bertha was the supportive wife of Karl Benz, the person who is often credited with creating the modern car as we know it today. Bertha does not deserve to live in the shadow of her husband, on the contrary, Bertha was a badass soul, who took it upon her own hands to help make her husband’s invention the talk of the German countryside.
On 5 August 1888, 39-year-old Bertha Benz took their invention, the Patent Motorcar, and drove her and her two sons over 60 miles across Germany. This made her the first person to travel any significant distance in a vehicle. Remember, people had never seen a car before, so imagine their shock and awe when a woman driving a motorized car rolls by on the country lane.
Thanks to the sheer hype of this new “devil carriage” that moved without a horse, there was plenty of buzz, but even bad publicity is good publicity. The best part? She didn’t tell her husband, for fear he would say no. Since their invention changed the world, we’d say Bertha made the right call.
Bertha Benz knew a good thing when she saw it, and she forced Karl to stand up alongside her instead of slinking in the background. She didn’t ask permission, she just got to work.
Way back in the late 1800s, being a woman meant a lack of rights and a definitive lack of respect, especially in the professional world. Few women were scientists, engineers, or worked in other STEM fields, thanks to a lack of access and a pervasively arcane attitude. In fact, women couldn’t even secure a patent until 1893, it was flat-out illegal.
Yet, in the midst of this repressive time, there was Margaret Wilcox. A mechanical engineer with a knack for solving common problems, and after riding in a blindingly cold street car in New York, she decided that passengers deserved a little better. She realized that engines already ran hot, so she designed and patented a device that channeled airflow from the hot engine to the inside of the street car. In 1893, she received her patent for the modern car heater.
Although this design was originally intended for street cars, eventually, it would be adapted for use in the mass market by Ford in 1927. So, the next time you are warm and cozy in your car during a cold snap, remember, you have Margaret Wilcox to thank.
A Thank You is Never Enough
Life without these women’s inventions would look so very different than it does today.
It’s easy to brush aside their accomplishments, but that would remove the true struggle that each and every one of them went through to just be seen. They built a name for themselves on their true grit, intelligence, compassion, and understanding at a time when the mere fact that they were women prevented them from achieving the success they deserved. This is only a small selection of the women that fundamentally changed the automotive industry over the past 150 years.
To all women who continue to continuously improve the safety, quality, and performance of all types of vehicles, we support and appreciate every single one of you.