A History of Women in the Driver's Seat

Maya Kosoff - Mar 5, 2024
Illustration by Natalie Foss

Cars aren’t just machines, they can be tools of empowerment, independence, and economic opportunity. No surprise, then, that  throughout American history, women have bucked societal norms and driven — around town, across the country, in races, and for gender equality. In honor of International Women’s Day, here’s a look back at famous female drivers who proved women belong behind the wheel. 

Madam CJ Walker

Illustration by Natalie Foss

Cosmetics entrepreneur Madam CJ Walker didn’t need to drive. As the U.S.’s first female self-made millionaire, the trailblazing Black businesswoman had a chauffeur. But at a time when few women even had licenses, let alone women of color, she lived in the driver’s seat — and was a regular sight on the streets of  Indianapolis. Her collection of high-end cars included a seven-passenger Cole touring car and an electric-powered Waverley. An iconic 1912 photograph of Walker driving her niece, her bookkeeper, and her factory forelady in a Model T Ford illustrates her independence and leadership, which continues to inspire businesswomen to this day.

Alice Ramsey

Illustration by Natalie Foss

On June 9, 1909, 22-year-old Alice Huyler Ramsey got in her dark-green, 30-horsepower Maxwell Touring car and set off on a journey few people before her, and zero women, had successfully completed: a cross-country car trip. Ramsey and her passengers — two sisters-in-law and her best friend —   faced broken-down roads, bad weather, and flat tires. But after 59 days and 3,800 miles, the women pulled onto the ferry across Oakland Bay, ending their voyage with a parade in San Francisco. Ramsey would go on to drive across the country 30 more times, and become the first woman inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.

Nell Richardson & Alice Snitzer Burke

Illustration by Natalie Foss

In April 1916, suffragists Nell Richardson and Alice Snitzer Burke got into a two-seat yellow Saxon Roadster they called “The Golden Flier” and set off on a 10,000-mile, five-month, cross-country journey. At each stop (or even sometimes on the sides of roads), they’d meet with supporters, give speeches, and — often — debate skeptics. (Richardson even brought a  sewing machine to demonstrate that suffrage wouldn’t “destroy women’s talents.”). Their exploits were chronicled by newspapers across the country, and while they can’t take full credit, the 19th Amendment was ratified four years after their journey, giving women the right to vote.

Adriesue Gomez

Illustration by Natalie Foss

As a child growing up in 1940s Chicago, Adriesue “Bitsy” Gomez cut class to watch truckers unload. That passion became a career when, as a divorced mom of three in need of work, Gomez found work as an on-call driver. Bitsy was infuriated to find that many companies wouldn’t hire women  — some docking areas even went so far as to hang “MEN ONLY” signs. 

So  in the mid-1970s, Gomez founded the Coalition of Women Truck Drivers, a 150-member organization committed to raising awareness of gender inequality and sexual misconduct within the trucking industry. “A good truck is to a woman what a man ought to be,” Gomez told Time Magazine in April 1976. “Big and strong and takes you where you want to go. When a woman gets into a semi, it makes up for all the crap women take in our society.”

Sara Christian

Illustration by Natalie Foss

Thirty-three drivers showed up for NASCAR’s first series race in June 1949 (then called Strictly Stock). Only one of them was a woman: Sara Christian, a Georgia-born woman who co-ran an Atlanta motel with her husband, Frank. Frank also served as her crew chief. Sarah finished 13th, but it didn’t curb her drive. She continued to compete (even against Frank, making them the first husband-wife rivals). That October, she placed fifth in a race in Pittsburgh — the only Top 5 finish by a woman in NASCAR history.