No matter how we word it, there is no getting around the fact that the automotive industry is a male-dominated empire. Everywhere we look, men are the ones leading the market as they engineer, race, repair, and design the cars that we drive every day. It isn’t that women are not welcome into the automotive field, it just seems that for some reason as a global society women are very rarely at the forefront of determining which direction the automotive realm will take.
But rarely is not the same thing as never, and throughout history there have been numerous female heroines who have forever altered the way we drive and view cars. The funny thing is, half of these women are still completely unknown by the masses, and despite playing various key rolls in automotive history many of them very rarely receive the credit they rightfully deserve.
We find this utterly despairing, as it does nothing to uplift women and their influence on the car game. Too often throughout history have women’s accomplishments been overlooked, and not because they did not do their job properly or because they had poor timing when presenting a proposal, but because they were a woman. This kind of underhanded sexism has to stop somewhere, so we’re here to shine some light on the women who deserve just recognition.
Regardless of what their roles may have been in the shaping of automotive history, there is one thing all of these ladies have in common outside of their gender: they all saw a need and volunteered to help in any way that they could. This thought is both an incredibly humbling and inspiring one, and hopefully it will encourage a whole new generation of girls to put down their Barbie dolls and pick up a torque wrench so that they may one day help spearhead the automotive advancements of the future.
1. Florence Lawrence
Born in 1886, this old-fashioned auto enthusiast and actress is often referred to as “The First Movie Star” and was the first film actor to be named publicly. What most people don’t know is that Florence also invented two key safety components that everyone around the world recognizes and utilizes to this day. After witnessing one too many traffic accidents, and becoming increasingly frustrated by not knowing which direction the driver in front of her was going to take, a history report by Columbia University says Florence came up with something she called “auto-signaling arms,” which used a couple of flags on both sides of the car that could be remotely raised and lowered with the push of a button. While no one uses flags anymore, this invention has become a mandatory safety feature for auto makers the world over, and our modern interpretation of Florence’s invention is this little doohickey we like to call the “turn signal.”
The other interesting invention Florence brought into fruition was this sign that flipped up in the back of the car as a warning to cars behind her that she was slowing down. This sign had the word “stop” painted on it and was triggered by the pressing of the brake pedal. In today’s world, we utilize an electronic version of this invention called “brake lights.” For some reason, she never patented either of these crucial inventions, and after being nearly burned to death in a studio fire in 1915, Florence withdrew from the public eye. It later became known that the actress and inventor also suffered from a painful bone-marrow disease, and in 1938 Florence Lawrence committed suicide by poisoning herself with a combination of cough syrup and ant paste at her home in West Hollywood.
2. Denise McCluggage
Denise McCluggage was an American auto racing driver, journalist, author, and photographer, and her recent passing on May 6, at the age of 88 was heart-wrenching to say the least. McCluggage was a pioneer of equality for women in the U.S., both in motorsports as well as in journalism. Denise was knee-deep in auto-racing by the time she moved to New York to work at the New York Herald Tribune as a sports journalist in 1954, and around that time she ditched her MG for a Jaguar XK140 and began to race professionally. She won the grand touring category at Sebring in a Ferrari 250 GT in 1961, and later landing a class win in the Monte Carlo Rally in a Ford Falcon in 1964.
After tiring of the sport in the late 1960s, Denise went back to focusing on journalism full-time and founded a little automotive magazine we like to call AutoWeek. Denise continued her role as Senior Contributing Editor at the publication all the way up until her death and to this day is the only journalist to be inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame. As fellow automotive journalists, she stood as an inspiration to us all, and Denise shall forever remain a shining example for girls the world over who wonder if a woman really can “make it in a man’s world.”
3. Charlotte Bridgwood
Charlotte Bridgwood was not just the mother of the Florence Lawrence mentioned previously, but was also an inventor and key player in the development of a very crucial automotive component which we still use to this day. According to an article by Jean Jennings Bridgwood supposedly invented and patented the automatic windshield wiper in 1917, after fellow female inventor Mary Anderson’s manual windshield wiper began to be considered “exhaustive” by some auto enthusiasts.
Sadly, while Bridgwood’s invention was indeed sound in design, she neglected to pursue its commercial production, and after Bridgwood’s patent expired in 1920 auto makers began to tinker with the idea of installing these revolutionary windshield wipers on various vehicles to keep rain from impeding a driver’s line of sight. Within a few years Cadillac made its move and became the first car company in the world to include automatic windshield wipers on every vehicle it manufactured, forever solidifying this invention as one of the most crucial automotive components on a car.
4. Danica Patrick
Danica Patrick is probably the most widely recognized woman out of all the famous females in this cheat sheet, and for a multitude of reasons. She is not only a successful auto racing driver, but she is also a model, an advertising spokeswoman, and all around badass. To this day, Danica remains the most successful woman in the history of American open-wheel racing, she competes both in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, and in 2013 she became the first female NASCAR driver to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series pole according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. Danica was also named Rookie of the Year for both the 2005 Indianapolis 500 and the 2005 IndyCar Series seasons .
What started as go-karting at the age of 10 gave way six years later to racing in British national series events with Formula One world champion Jenson Button. She later earned a second-place finish in Britain’s Formula Ford Festival, which proved to be the highest finish by an American in the event. While Danica’s chief NASCAR sponsor, GoDaddy, has reportedly stopped sponsoring the sport this year to pursue other ventures, there is no doubt in our mind that the 33-year-old is going to find a way to keep racing and turning heads regardless of what sponsor chooses to keep her in the public eye.
5. Bertha Benz
Not only did Bertha Benz successfully complete the world’s first long distance road trip in 1888, but she also helped gain marketing momentum for an invention we like to commonly refer to as the automobile. A report by Wired says at this point her husband, famed German engineer Karl Benz, had already invented something they liked to call the “motorwagen.” But despite the fact that the vehicle worked well, Karl neglected to properly market the vehicle and the couple were facing financial ruin after sizable financial investments from both parties. So sick with worry, and sick of her husband’s hesitations, Bertha Benz took her two teenage sons and traveled 66 miles to visit her mother. Prior to leaving she purposefully did not make mention of her journey to her husband, and only notified him of her intentions upon arrival at her mother’s house by telegraph.
This little road trip of hers was designed to serve several purposes. First of all, Bertha honestly wanted to visit her mother. But she also wanted to garner as much attention as possible for this expensive investment that her husband and she had both doted upon for years. Bertha was also very keen on seeing exactly how this “motorwagen” would perform on a far more arduously lengthy coarse. Along the way the engineering mother of five noticed that the brakes were not working as well as they should, and after speaking with a blacksmith, Bertha came away with the notion of inventing something called “brake linings” which are the great-grandmother of modern day brake pads and shoes. In 2008, the Bertha Benz Memorial Route was officially approved as a route of the industrial heritage of mankind, because it follows Bertha Benz’s path during the world’s first long-distance journey by automobile in 1888. Now it is possible to follow the 194 kilometers of signs indicating her route from Mannheim via Heidelberg to Pforzheim (Black Forest) and back.
6. Michelle Christensen
Here is a woman from today’s modern age, who has developed and designed something that all sensible men will covet, and I am not talking about that last IPA in the fridge. This amazing entity in front of you is the NSX, and this latest reincarnation from Honda/Acura thankfully will offer guaranteed respite from the absence of the badge. Too long have we gone without our Honda-powered flagship, and this latest model gives us a taste of what is to come if Honda keeps good its promise and releases a Type-R edition. Not convinced that this car is going to bring the thunder? Here is a video to alleviate any doubt from one’s mind.
But enough about the car. A profile by the LA Times paints Michelle Christensen as a woman of many thoughts, designs, dreams, and passions. She knows cars and the importance of proper aerodynamics, but most importantly she knows what we want as a consumer. According to report a few months back by Automotive News, Christensen “joined the team for the production car shortly after Acura unveiled its NSX concept at the 2012 Detroit show” and by signing on with Honda, Michelle has placed herself in the history books as the first woman to lead a supercar design team . Michelle says that working on muscle cars with her father as a small girl inspired her desire to improve upon a car’s design, and led to her graduation from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif.
7. Leilani Münter
While she may not be as widely known or highly revered as Danica Patrick, this 41-year-old race car driver and environmental activist still has our undivided attention as she continues to push back against gender stereotypes in the ARCA Racing Series while advocating environmental stewardship. According to her website, the biologist and lifelong vegetarian has worked as a photo double for Catherine Zeta-Jones, lobbied on Capital Hill for environmental change, exposed the cruelties of Japanese dolphin hunting, and has even set-up solar panels on the roof of her home so that they can charge her electric Tesla Motors Model S.
Sports Illustrated has labeled Leilani as one of the top female race car drivers in the world, Glamour Magazine has called her an “Eco Hero,” and ELLE Magazine even awarded her its Genius Award in 2012 for being an all-round awesome environmentalist and leader. In her free time, Leilani likes to blog for the green section of the Huffington Post, serve as Ambassador to the National Wildlife Federation, and relishes in the title of being the No. 1 Eco Athlete In The World, according to the Discovery Channel.
8. Mary Barra
As acting Chief Executive Officer of General Motors, Mary Barra has placed herself in the history books as the first female CEO of a major global automaker. The 53-year-old businesswoman has been featured on the cover of Time’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” issue, managed the entire Detroit/Hamtramck Assembly plant, and has been listed as the seventh most powerful woman in the world by Forbes. Fortune magazine has also given this enterprising powerhouse due praise, placing her second on its list of the 50 most powerful women in business.
Mary is a member of the Stanford Graduate School of Business Advisory Council, a member of the Board of Trustees for the Detroit Country Day School, and has raised a record $2.4 million for scholarships and community arts programs through the College for Creative Studies in 2014 by chairing the Detroit International Wine Auction alongside her husband. She also reportedly chaired the 2012 Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute’s annual dinner, which raised nearly $1.7 million for cancer research.
9. Juliane Blasi and Nadya Arnaout
Here sits a double whammy of girl power, all brought to the forefront courtesy of an astounding automobile: the latest BMW Z4. But according to a report by the New York Times, before German designers Juliane Blasi and Nadya Arnaout were tasked with handling the complete redesign of the vehicle’s interior and exterior, they had to pass a test; BMW apparently held a competition where designers had to first submit sketches and then full-size clay models of what they thought the car should look like, and to keep the voting process as unbiased as possible, all of the artists designs were anonymously listed. Once the two ladies were chosen as the winners of the contest, they went right to work designing the Z4, turning it into a sportster that reporters ironically called “more aggressive and more masculine.”
We should also tip our hats to Juliane and Nadya’s boss, Adrian van Hooydonk, who wanted to give everyone a fair chance in the competition, regardless of gender. “We could have influenced the sketch competition, if we had wanted to let male designers win. But we didn’t because we are absolutely convinced that the most important thing for the company is to get the best possible design.”
10. Jean Jennings
Jean Jennings is probably best known as the former president and editor of Automobile Magazine, and as Good Morning America’s automotive correspondent from 1994 to 2000. All told, Jean has been writing about cars and the car business for more than thirty years, after learning about cars at the kitchen table as a little girl. According to Jean’s LinkedIn profile, by the time she was 18, she had built her own custom taxi and was a part of the Yellow Cab Company of Ann Arbor, Mich., as an owner/operator. After that, Jennings worked at Chrysler’s test track as a test driver, welder, and mechanic in the impact lab and later became an editor for Automotive News. She then wrote for Car and Driver magazine for five years, and helped establish Automobile Magazine, becoming the publication’s first executive editor. Jean then became editor-in-chief in the year 2000, and was crowned president of the publication in 2006.
Jennings has won numerous awards for her writing style and even received the Ken Purdy Award for Excellence in Automotive Journalism in 2007. Jean often says her lifelong goal is to give women a voice in automotive industry. She has appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, has been a regular contributor to Fox Business Network, CNBC’s Closing Bell, as well as CBS’s This Morning and the evening news, and has appeared on CNN’s American Morning along with the company’s Headline News station. She currently runs her own website as chief editor of the automotive blog JeanKnowsCars.com.