7 women who changed the automotive world

Ford Motor Company

The automotive industry has advanced thanks to the input of literally countless engineers, inventors, designers, and drivers. We as the end users rarely get to know who exactly came up with which systems and parts we treasure and love today.

There are hundreds of unsung heroes in the automotive world. In honor of Women’s History Month, we rounded up this list—a handful of the women who helped make today’s cars so practical and so enjoyable.

In the early days of automotive innovation, societal pressures and professional norms prevented most women from getting involved. Thankfully, most of those barriers have fallen, though their effects are still felt: Many of the early contributions of women to the auto industry either went unrecognized or unappreciated for decades.

Here’s to seven of them who changed the automotive world.

Florence Lawrence

Florence Lawrence in Lozier automobile women automotive car advancement invention
Unknown

A silent film star, Florence Lawrence understood the need for unspoken communication. She also knew communication needed to happen between cars in order to not have chaos on the roads.

Not only was transportation via horse and buggy fairly slow, horses’ self-preservation instincts helped keep accidents to a minimum. Once road awareness was left to absent-minded humans, the need for telegraphing an intention to stop or change direction became very apparent.

Lawrence was the pioneer of turn and brake signals. She designed bumper-mounted flags and a sign that read “stop,” which appeared when the brake pedal was pressed. She never patented her idea, but a century later it is still critical to transportation.

June McCarroll

While driving her 1917 Ford Model T, June McCarroll swung wide around a corner and was suddenly grille to grille with a large truck. After taking evasive action and stuffing her Ford into the sandy ditch, a bright idea hit her: A simple stripe down the center of the road, so that drivers knew where to expect each other to be.

She lobbied California legislators via a letter-writing campaign and in 1924 a law was passed that made lane delineation standard. The idea quickly caught on in the rest of the country.

Mary Anderson

Mary Anderson windshield wiper patent drawing
US Patent Office

Inventing something takes vision, but it was a lack of clear sight during a trolley ride in 1903 that prompted Mary Anderson to create the windshield wiper. She observed the driver of the street car repeatedly stop the vehicle, get out, and wipe the windshield in order to see where they were going. It prompted her to invent and patent a hand-operated windshield wiper.

She worked to sell the patent, but there were no takers until after the patent expired. She never saw any money for what became a crucial safety feature on every car produced. She was even inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2011.

Margaret Wilcox

Early automobiles were highly focused on function with little attention to comfort. It was Margaret Wilcox who thought to harness the heat that came as a byproduct of an internal-combustion engine and use it to make the passenger compartment more comfortable. Some version of a heater or climate-control system has been optional or standard on cars for over a century now, and few modern drivers tolerate its absence.

Wilcox also patented a machine that could wash both clothes and dishes at the same time. It didn’t catch on like the car heater.

Bertha Benz

Bertha Benz in 1870
Bertha Benz in 1870 Daimler AG

The automobile is widely accepted as a functional object these days, but there was a time when self-propulsion carriages were simply novelties. Most thought they would never catch on.

Arguably, it was Berth Benz who proved these naysayers wrong.

She borrowed—some could argue stole—her husband Karl’s latest invention and drove the three-wheeled Patent Motorwagen on a roughly 110-mile round trip journey from Mannheim to Pforzheim. Her trip proved the horseless carriage could get the job done, and she thus helped to lay the path for a revolution in transportation.

Mimi Vandermolen

1970-Mimi-Ornes
Ford Motor Company

Fast forward many decades from Bertha Benz, and you will still find women altering the landscape of design and function. Mimi Vandermolen was a part of the Ford design studio in the early 1970s but was laid off during the oil crisis. She returned to the Blue Oval in 1977 and was instrumental in creating the interior of the then-new Ford Taurus.

Her contributions are litany of things we now take for granted: ergonomic seats, rotary dials for climate control within easy reach of the driver, and a digital display that functions as the instrument cluster.

No matter what you drive today, there are aspects of its interior that can be traced to the Taurus, and to Vandermolen.

Stephanie Kwolek

The average car is comprised of 30,000 parts, but none are as important as the tires. In 1964, Kwolek was working in the DuPont textile lab searching for a way to reinforce radial tires. The result of her manipulation of strands of carbon-based molecules to make larger molecules (polymers) was Kevlar, which is now a staple of performance tires to reinforce the bead and circumference. Kevlar has also had a lasting impact outside the automotive world, in the construction of bulletproof vests.

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This is just a selection of the contributions and innovations that women have brought to the automotive world. Our cars would not be the objects we love and enjoy today without these women, and for that we thank them.

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Comments

    Bertha Benz also funded the creation of the car she drove. Karl was hung up on refinement and reflection, she was the driving force that birthed the industry.

    Pun intended.

    Very true! There is a lot more to the Karl Benz story than a lot of folks realize.

    Personally, I am impressed by the thought of starting the 1886 Benz in the clothing of the time. Having had the opportunity to learn how to start and run that car over the years it is not a simple or consistent process. Rewarding though.

    Very true. Looking at those efforts through today’s lens those efforts seems patronizing, but at the time it was a sizable cultural shift.

    Very true, Earl’s wife was responsible for quite a bit of design that went into GM cars in those days. He would gather suggestions from her at the breakfast table and take it to his designers. He also had a female crew to design interiors and provide paint colors.

    Gunhild Liljequist, an interior designer who worked at Volkswagen for some 30 years gave us the GTI’s golf ball shifter and plaid seats. ❤️

    Denise McCluggage should be taught in school. The fact that nobody knows who she was other than car guys who read car magazines is terrible.

    Re Margaret Wilcox.
    I grew up in England, and after end of WW2, lived in London. In the late 1940’s or early 1950’s we had a dish washer that also became a cloths washer/spin dryer. You simply removed the inner washing machine drum and replaced it with the dish washer drum and vice versa. The machine was made by THOR industries who were located then in Chicago.

    RE: What, no Danica on this list???

    Obviously, you were being sarcastic.

    Slightly off-topic, since we’ve veered off into racing, but…..

    If I was looking for a pioneering woman in NASCAR, Indy, and sports car racing, the first person that comes to mind is Janet Guthrie. Unlike Danica, Janet never had a proper sponsor or mass-media support and wasn’t born and bred to drive a race car. Janet was an engineer and aviator who raced because she wanted to do it, no matter how difficult it became.

    Janet also had utter contempt for this, “Pretty good, for a girl” nonsense – she wanted to be remembered as simply a driver and a competitor, and indeed she was.

    Same with Shirley, and a few others.

    Danica? Ha!

    Hear, hear. Janet was an inspiration to me and to my wife (an SCCA class champion, decades ago “when she was just a girl”). We have made some rude comments about what of Janet’s Danica could not carry. She still has avid fans, among engineers and the like. The absolute real deal.

    During practice for the Daytona 24 hour race, my car caught fire and stopped in the infield, just behind the paddock area. In that part of the track there was no gate and the fence was 8 or 10 feet high. As I walked over to it, Janet joined me after she coasted to a stop when her NART Ferrari died. Only momentarily. I was contemplating the fence for a moment when she said, “I’m not waiting. I gotta’ go…”. With that, she was up and over and gone in about 5 seconds. It did take me slightly longer. That’s Janet …
    Before you get going on Danica, drive a car at over 200mph and qualify on the pole for the Daytona 500. Danica made many important contributions. Not least of which, she never apologized for being the “Pretty Girl”. She has always known how to market herself. And if you race, money is as important as any other component. There are plenty of talented women racers who will tell you that.
    And, since you brought up women racers Lynn St James should never be left out of the story. She did it all as well. Including a world speed record on a closed course (at Talladega or Darlington. I can’t remember which).
    There is also Michel Montaine Who competed in and was World Rally Champion. She and her co-driver beat the men in what is arguably the toughest motorsport ever.
    I love it when ta woman does well. I like it even better when we don’t pay particular notice when she does.

    Awesome article. For all those that seem to marvel at women firsts in motor sports need to remember that Shirley Muldowney (Cha Cha) won NHRA championships in the 70s and 80s. Still alive at 82 and respected by all.

    Yes, Here-Here! Of all the female racer’s, Miss Shirley is The GOAT hand’s down, just don’t call her “Cha-Cha” to her face, even at 82yrs of age, she will wack you upside the head for it! LOL!

    In 1938 25 year old Ms. Prudence Fawcett drove the first Morgan and the first person ever to drive a Morgan at Le Mans. She finished 13th overall and 2nd in her class.

    Great article, but only seven? I did a quick duckduckgo search and found articles with 10, 11, 20 women who changed the course of automitive history.

    While I am certainly no fan of Ms Patrick’s, I found your comment directed at her to be completely lacking of class & completely out of line! Next time save it for YouTube.

    Danica spent too much time marketing her body instead of perfecting her racing career. She was an o.k. driver but could have been better.

    There isn’t a limitation of only “inventors” here. The title states “…women who changed the automotive world.” And the first sentence of the article states “…countless engineers, inventors, designers, and drivers.
    As well, please note that inappropriate insulting only makes people think that you’re a saphead. I’d say most of are OK with insulting someone back after someone else has launched an uncalled-for insult.
    And I suggest that you ask yourself if what you wrote in regard to Danica, is beneath you. Commenting like that could be beneath you and you’re not realizing it.

    Hahahaha! Good one! I was just thinking of our Transportation Secretary and Army General earlier today, so you really got me. Thanks for that!

    Hedy Lamarr had received a federal award of appreciation. It was received by her son while she was still alive. I don’t recall what year that was, but it may be listed in the Wikipedia page that you mentioned.

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