From record-breaking races to inspirational innovation, women have been an invaluable force in the automotive industry since its inception. As we recognize Women’s History Month in March, here are 10 women whose contributions to the car world have earned them a place in history.
A mathematician by trade, Gladys West is credited with making GPS technology possible. After graduating from Virginia State University in 1948, she taught math and science in high school. She was the second black woman ever hired at the Naval Proving Ground in Dahlgren, Virginia, in 1956. She began working in satellites in the early 1960s, and in a few years she had programmed an IBM computer to deliver increasingly accurate calculations to model the shape of the Earth.
That data, and the complex algorithms to account for gravitational, tidal and other variations, ultimately became the basis for Global Positioning Systems (GPS).
She thought she’d be a singer, or a secretary, or a veterinarian. Instead, Danica Patrick became the most successful woman in the history of American open-wheel racing.
A trailblazer right out of high school, Patrick was the first woman to win an IndyCar Series race, first to clinch a pole position in the NASCAR Cup Series and the most starts, laps led and Top 10s in the NASCAR Cup Series. She netted the highest finish by a woman in the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500 – one of only 14 drivers to have led both races. Her victory in the 2008 Indy Japan 300 is the only win by a woman in an IndyCar Series race.
Throughout her racing career, Patrick dabbled in show business. She made her acting debut in a 2010 episode of “CSI: NY” and hosted several TV shows on Spike, and was featured in the 2005 documentary “Girl Racers.” She’s appeared in a total of 14 Super Bowl commercials, more than any other celebrity. People magazine named her one of the most beautiful people in the world in 2006.
Considered one of the first female mechanical engineers, Margaret Wilcox was granted multiple U.S. patents for her inventions. Most notably, in 1893, she was granted a patent for the car heater. The system consisted of a combustion chamber located under the car, and pipes to transmit hot water. Her system redirected air that was over the engine to the inside of the car to allow passengers to stay warm.
Wilcox’s invention became the basic system on which modern car heaters operate today.
Born in Germany, Bertha Benz was the business partner and wife of automobile inventor Carl Benz. In 1888, she was the first person to drive an automobile over a long distance. Without her husband’s knowledge, Bertha drove the Benz Patent Motor Car from Mannheim to Pforzheim, which is about 65 miles. Much of the route was rugged and better suited to horse-drawn carriages. She faced many difficulties on her journey, including low fuel, clogged valves and wiring problems. She found practical solutions for all of them, including fashioning her own version of brake pads.
She’s now known as a major player in the commercialization of the automobile in the 20th century.
Many know Florence Lawrence as one of the first real “movie stars” in the silent era, but her contributions didn’t end there. Lawrence is also considered the first person to develop a version of the turn signal. An early automobile enthusiast, she developed an “auto signaling arm,” placed on the back of the car’s fender, that could be activated to rise or lower with the push of buttons located by the driver’s seat to indicate the driver’s intention to turn left or right.
Lawrence also created a full stop indicator, which was raised or lowered at the car’s rear by pressing on the brake. She never patented her inventions, and she died by suicide in 1938.
Clearly, the aforementioned Lawrence came by her inventive spirit honestly; her mother, Charlotte Bridgwood, is credited with inventing the first automatic windshield wiper, in 1917. It was 14 years after another woman, Mary Anderson, invented a manual wiper system that was controlled by a lever inside the vehicle. That invention never took off. When Bridgwood tried to improve on it, she called her invention the “Storm Windshield Cleaner,” the first to be powered by electricity and without hand cranking.
By 1923, her invention was standard on vehicles, but Bridgwood received little money from it.
A French jewelry designer, Helene Rother was the first female automotive designer when she was hired by General Motors in 1943. She spent four years creating elegant interior designs with GM before moving on to join Nash-Kevinator (part of present-day Chrysler), working on most of the automaker’s cars from 1948 to 1956.
In 1951, she became the first woman to address the Society of Automotive Engineers and was awarded the Jackson Medal for excellence of design.
An aerospace engineer by trade, Janet Guthrie began racing in 1963. Her first race car was a Jaguar XK140. By 1972, she was racing on a full-time basis, netting two class wins in the famed 12 Hours of Sebring endurance race. Her achievements include several firsts: she’s the first woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500, first woman to compete in the Daytona 500 and the first woman to lead a lap in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.
Asked what fueled her sense of speed and adventure, Guthrie said: “I think it's just in some people's nature to want to find out what it's like out there at the edge of human capabilities, and fortunately I was born in the machine age when broad shoulders and big muscles didn't make that much difference – didn't make any difference, in fact.”
In the 1960s, Stephanie Kwolek, a chemist at DuPont, was asked to develop a fuel-efficient alternative for steel reinforcements in car tires. This research introduced Kevlar, a lightweight polymer fibre that is stronger than steel, to the automotive industry. The material is now used to make tires and reinforced brake pads.
In 1995, Kwolek became the fourth woman to enter the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
A Michigan native, Mary Barra started working for General Motors at age 18, as a co-op student, in 1981. Thirty-two years later, in 2013, Barra succeeded Dan Akerson as chief executive officer, making her the first female CEO of a major automaker.
In April 2014, she was featured on the cover of Time's "100 Most Influential People in the World." She also appeared in the No. 1 spot in Fortune's Most Powerful Women of 2017 and No. 5 on Forbes World's 100 Most Powerful Women List in the same year.