Generally speaking, people tend to think of the world of cars as a male dominated industry. And they’d probably be right – like a lot of sectors, the automotive industry still has a long way to go in terms of an even gender split. But this doesn’t mean that women haven’t played a big part in influencing the vehicles we drive today.
To celebrate these inspiring women, we’ve looked at five fabulous females who helped shape the automotive industry.
1. Bertha Benz
You’ll undoubtedly recognise the surname of our first influential woman, as she was married to Carl Benz, the founder of Mercedes-Benz. Bertha Benz contributed a lot of money, as well as designs for the insulation and brake pads, to the world’s first motor car, the Benz Patent-Motorwagen. However, due to the laws of the time, she was unable to hold any patent rights to the vehicle.
In addition to the funding and designs, Bertha also raised a lot of publicity for the Benz Patent-Motorwagen by driving it from Mannheim to Pforzheim, and then back again a few days later. Although only a distance of around 66 miles, automobiles had never been driven significant distances before, and always had mechanics on standby. Bertha didn’t tell her husband or anyone else that she was planning this trip, and also took her two sons along for the ride.
Bertha claimed that she decided to drive to Pforzheim to visit her mother, but she also wanted to prove that the vehicle was marketable if the public saw what it could do. She furthermore hoped to boost her husband’s confidence, demonstrating that his work had a future.
2. Mary Anderson
While Mary Anderson is a less well known name than the Benz family, her contribution to the world of automobiles is a significant one. Mary Anderson was the inventor of the windscreen wiper. After witnessing trolley drivers reach out of their windows to wipe away rain, or even get out of the vehicle, she started thinking about ways in which this problem could be solved.
Mary therefore designed the first manual lever which could be operated from inside the vehicle. This was patented in 1903, and over time would go on to be used in cars across the industry. It’s also worth noting that it was another woman who improved upon the windscreen wiper, setting the foundation for the wipers we use today. Charlotte Bridgewater developed an electronic wiper, patented in 1917.
These days, you’ll fail your MOT if your windscreen wipers don’t work. So clearly, they’re an absolutely crucial part of the vehicle!
3. Joan Newton Cuneo
Credited as being the first female race car driver, Joan Newton Cuneo won races and set records only a few years after learning to drive. Her first car in 1902 was a Locomobile Steam Car, and by 1905 she put herself forward as the only female participant in the Glidden Tour, a 1,355 mile drive from St Louis Missouri to New Your City.
Despite finishing this race, Joan and her team were not awarded any recognition – one of the roads in New Hampshire had been deemed too dangerous for women, so Joan was disqualified. However, in 1908, Joan undertook this race again, and scored a perfect 1,000 points.
Joan also took part in the 1909 Mardi Gras Races, finishing second to Ralph De Palma, considered to be the best racer of the day, in a fifty-mile race. It was just after this that the American Automobile Association had decided to ban women from such competitions. Joan had to instead console herself with setting women’s speed records, clocking 112 miles per hour in 1911.
4. Katharine Blodgett
Alongside her achievements within the automotive industry, in 1926 Katharine Blodgett was also the first woman to be awarded a PhD in physics from Cambridge University. While working at the General Electric’s Research Lab in New York, Katharine developed ways of applying monomolecular coatings to glass, making it over 99% transmissive and creating what is referred to as ‘invisible’ glass. When visible light is reflected by the layers of film on the glass, this cancels out any reflections created by the glass itself.
Invisible glass is now used on every vehicle windscreen across the world, and Katherine’s work also improved the glass used in all sorts of other things. These included camera lenses, eyeglasses, and submarine periscopes.
5. Mimi Vandermolen
Mimi Vandermolen worked for Ford from 1970, but it’s her designs during the 1980s and 90s that she is best known for. She was part of the teams that redesigned the 1974 Mustang II, as well as the Ford Granada in 1975, the Taurus in 1986 and the 1993 Ford Probe.
In 1987, Mimi was promoted to Design Executive for Small Cars, the first woman to hold this position. The role involved overseeing both interior and exterior design developments in North America, as well as running a studio that designed futuristic vehicles.
Mimi was known for making vehicles more accessible and accommodating, particularly for women. She created things like ergonomic controls and dials for climate control, in addition to a curved dashboard to make these things easier to reach. To help improve the driving experience for women, she asked her male designers to wear false nails, and even suggested that they try wearing skirts.
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