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The History of Women in the Automotive Industry

The automobile celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1997, and although that was 25 years before women won the right to vote, it didn't deter them from the right to drive. Almost from the beginning women were behind the wheel. In fact, in the early days, motorized vehicles mobilized house-bound women to help them accomplish more for their husbands and children. It wasn't long before emerging car companies began targeting the women's market in their ad campaigns. And it wasn't long before women began making their statements in the fast lane.

One of these adventure-seeking women was Mrs. Alice Huyler Ramsey, who founded and became president of the first "Women's Motoring Club" in the United States. On Jan. 12, 1909, one of the Club's first orders of business was to produce and accomplish the first all-women auto race. With two women to a car, the participants traveled from New York, drove to Pennsylvania, and returned two days later. The rules allowed the cars to be powered by gasoline, steam, or electricity. Twelve competitors entered the race. The first-, second-, and third-place winners drove a Maxwell Runabout, a Lampo, and a new, customized Cadillac, respectively.

Six months later, on June 6, 1909, Ramsey boarded a 30-horsepower automobile and began a 3800-mile cross-country trip form New York to San Francisco, making her the first woman in history to cross the United States in a car by herself. The Vassar College graduate's trip was not uneventful. She was bogged down for 12 rainy days in Iowa, the front wheels of her Maxwell-Briscoe-sponsored open car collapsed when she hit a prairie dog hole in Utah, and 11 sets of fabric tires were worn out. But she made it.

Cadillac, Chevrolet, and Ford were among the first automakers to recognize this growing trend of women driving for fun as much as necessity, thus beginning the making of print ad campaigns in the '20s and '30s depicting women as drivers, not passengers, even though men made all the purchases at that time.

During the '50s, Denise McCluggage surfaced as one of the most celebrated racers of her time, with wins in automobiles ranging from Ferrari's, Porsches, OSCAs, and Ford Falcons, on surfaces as diverse as flat and bumpy runways, the Nürburgring's many twists and turns, and the rally circuit's snowy mountain passes.

Truly a pioneer, McCluggage recharged waning inertia of such pre-war women drivers as Elizabeth Junek and Brenda Stewart, heralding the worldwide acceptance of soon-to-be heroines such as Janet Guthrie, Shirley Muldowney, and Lyn St. James. McCluggage played an important and significant role in elevating women race car drivers from mere novelty to serious competitors.

Muldowney became the first woman drag racer to exceed 250 mph. In 1977, she became the first woman to win the Winston World Championship and, that same year, became the first woman to be named to the 10-member all-American auto racing team. In 1980 and '82, Muldowney won the Winston World Championship again, becoming not only the first woman, but the first person ever to win it three times. So outstanding and successful a race car driver was she, a movie was made to depict her rise to fame, entitled "Heart Like A Wheel."

In more contemporary times, St. James, a former piano teacher from Ohio, became the first woman in history to finish at the Indy 500, placing 11th. She became the first and only woman ever to be named "Rookie of the Year." That was in 1992. Today, St. James, still an avid race also has become a national spokesperson for.

In 1989, Courtney Caldwell started the first automotive publication aimed at women. The goal of American Woman Road & Travel was to provide resources and information from which women car buyers could make informed decisions about buying, leasing, negotiating with salesmen and tips for staying safe on the road. Unfortunately, it would take years of pounding Detroit's pavement for automakers to get it, many laughing at Caldwell and throwing the print publication across their desk, asking her if it was a joke. Undaunted, Caldwell was determined to prove to automakers that the women's market was not only huge but a very viable car buying market. Finally, Ford Motor Company was the first to open their doors to Caldwell and lead the way to marketing cars for women. Today, (now) Road & Travel Magazine, a 5000-page and growing online magazine, is the largest and oldest publication to target the women's automotive market.

These are just a few of the inspiring success stories of women in automotive industry history. Their pioneering efforts and indomitable spirit have paved the way for others to achieve success in numerous automotive-related fields. More than ever, women engineers and designers are influencing the outcome of today's vehicles to help make them more female-friendly. Women are found among automotive journalists, owners, and industry executives, careers once strictly relegated to the ol' boys club, no exceptions. Today, women make up more than 50 percent of the automotive market, spending an estimated $80 billion a year on new-car sales, a number industry analysts expect to see rise to 60 percent in just a few short years.

No longer a niche, women have become a significant part of today's automotive purchases, influencing 80 percent of the buying decisions. So much so that manufacturers have shifted into gear with marketing and ad campaigns specifically targeting working women, active women, and busy mothers. They also have developed women's marketing committees for a clear reading on women's buying needs and habits.

Automotive history is clearly one more place where women have left their mark, but it's the race toward the future in which most companies are competing. And like all good things worth the wait, marketers now understand that the power of the purse makes today's American woman a driving force with which to be reckoned. It seems no one is laughing now!

Denise McCluggage | Courtney Caldwell | Stars & Cars: 20th Century