Last month I saw Gloria Steinem and Octavia Spencer speak on a panel about the film Hidden Figures at the Makers Conference. An audience member posited the question, “How do we find the other hidden figures in history?”
“We have to be tenacious,” Spencer responded. “If you don’t know the story, how can you seek it out? First we have to ask questions and we have to acknowledge every person on a team. Women couldn’t put their name on reports and men took the credit for all their work, I mean come on.”
That got me thinking. What have I been missing? I am a woman who writes about transportation, often looking forward trying to measure disparities that still exist, but not always spending enough time looking back to understand how we arrived here.
In virtually every aspect of industrial innovation, women have played an essential part of forming that history. When the women were left out of the decision making, it was never for a lack of interest, but rather for lack of opportunity. And when women did do something significant, it often took many years for their contributions to be acknowledged, if at all. When commended, their achievements were heralded as something noteworthy because it wasn’t deemed normal for women to participate in the process of progress.
The rise of the automobile coincided with the rise of the struggle for women’s rights. In 1914, French-born Dorothée Pullinger tried to join the Institution of Automobile Engineers, but was denied entry because she was a woman. She persisted and was finally granted access in 1920, the year American women gained the right to vote. She later oversaw production at the Galloway Motor Car Company in Scotland, and moonlighted as a race car driver as well. In 1921, the first African-American pilot Bessie Coleman received her flying license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.
Almost from the beginning women drivers made their mark on society. Bertha Benz, the wife of Mercedes-Benz founder Karl, took the first cross country road trip in Germany in 1888, but only recently has been celebrated for her contributions. In the summer of 1909, Alice Ramsay and three other women traveled from New York City to San Francisco in a Maxwell, a journey she wrote about in the 1961 book Veil, Duster and Tire Iron. She became the first woman inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in the year 2000, 91 years after the fact. That’s a long time to wait for props.
Here and there women show up in the transportation history books. The most notable was Harriet Tubman, who liberated over 300 people by navigating the Underground Railroad. Marta Coston was issued a patent for development of the telegraphic night signals in 1859 for maritime use. Mary Walton was issued patents for her work on railroads reducing noise pollution in the 1880s and Olive Dennis contributed to the development of B&O railroads as an engineer. Some women are mentioned for their work at burgeoning car companies throughout the 20th century. Automobile Magazine reported Betty Thatcher Oros worked as a Hudson designer in the 1930s, and Helene Rother became the first female designer at GM in 1943. Audrey Moore Hodges worked at both Studebaker and Tucker in the 1940s. In 1937, Willa Brown became the first African American commercial pilot.
In the grand scheme of things, these women’s contributions are significant, but are overshadowed by their male colleagues, and the stereotypes, stigma, and barriers that kept them from going far in big numbers. But what about the others, women who made things, pushed boundaries, and innovated who we are still unknown? I am certain they existed, but they have have sailed under the radar, or like the women portrayed in Hidden Figures, been carelessly or deliberately left out of the stories. For every Mary Barra and Amelia Earhart, there are many more Jane Does.
In the post-war car boom, women became a driving force in the marketplace. Some male executives and marketers, eager to sell cars to women, began to experiment with different ways to appeal to female customers. Outside of automotive enthusiast circles, it’s a little known fact that GM hired a group of women designers from the Pratt Institute to work in the GM design studios in the late 1950s. The design chief Harley Earl called them the Damsels of Design, a terrible name, but one that shouldn’t take away from the show cars they developed for the— wait for it— Feminine Auto Show held in 1958. But it’s been reported that the designers had strict limits on what they could touch in the car interior; the instrument panel was off limits. But despite restrictions, some of their innovations were pioneering such as light-up mirrors, glove compartments, and child proof doors.
Faster, first, speed, aggression: When I think about the metaphors of progress, motorsports is among the more profound. Women’s impact on racing is an extraordinary achievement considering women were banned from racing in various organizations and then were relegated to special races for women only. But some women felt that racing wasn’t a gendered pursuit. I met one of these extraordinary women, Denise McCluggage, a journalist who went head to head with motorsports giants and continued to document the industry well into her 80s. Other stand outs include Janet Guthrie, the first woman to compete in the Indy 500 in 1977 and Shirley Muldowney, the first woman to receive a drag racing license and the inspiration for the film Heart Like A Wheel, the L7 song “Shirley," and the Le Tigre Song “Hot Topic.” In the mid 1970s “Nitro Nellie” Goins broke barriers as an African-American woman drag racer, who was inducted into the East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame in 2014.
Once these stories of women who worked in all aspects of the field are unearthed, their capacity to inspire is profound. These stories defy what we’ve been taught. At that Makers talk, Gloria Steinem also said, “We still do not know history. It’s still a political history that we are learning.”
For every high profile trailblazer, there’s the behind-the-scenes woman whose story is waiting to be discovered, in the foreground of a photo, in the fine print, or in a tiny smudged corner of the ledger. What I do know is that I’m grateful to all of them, because in some way each made it a little bit more easy to for me navigate this strange space in the car industry where women are still widely underrepresented.
So in honor of all the women whose stories were silenced in transportation, science, arts and culture, and the technology we cover at The Verge, today I strike in solidarity. Finding my way here was an adventure, but it’s nothing compared to what came before me, when women who spoke out had to watch their backs. Tomorrow is a new day in the massive work ahead of looking, listening, and unearthing the truth that will help us remember how important it is to fight for our place in the future.