Story of the Week

Posted: 07.21.2013
The Early Days of Women Automobile Drivers
By: Robert Tate
During the latter part of the 1800s, early women automobile drivers arose. One of the first female drivers that made history was Mrs. John S. Landon of Elkhart, Indiana. In the summer of 1899, Mrs. Landon drove a gasoline powered automobile in KoKomo, Indiana. She drove 1 ˝ miles to the Haynes-Apperson Automobile Factory where she was employed as the only female worker within the company. She was known as the stenographer, who typed all instructions that was needed for each automobile produced. After historic journey, Mrs. Landon received much praise and acclaim for being one of the first females to drive the company automobiles. The Haynes-Apperson President stated, “Now, we can advertise that our car is safe enough for a woman to drive”. Later a certificate was created and issued in her great honor for becoming the first female driver for a car company. Mr. Hayes stated that the certificate was given to Mrs. Landon because the world should always remember this great lady who made automotive history.


During the 1900s, another first female driver, Mrs. Anne French, out of Washington D.C.’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, claimed her early spot in the driver’s seat. She earned the right to drive 20 years before the right to vote was enshrined in the Nineteenth Amendment. This was a time when posted speed limits were 9mph and licenses were just beginning to be required. In November of 1899, the District began requiring driver licenses for horseless carriages. In 1900, Mrs. French earned her first license to drive an automobile. Her father was a physician who did not like to travel by horses, so when the Locomobile Car Agency opened its doors for business, the French Family purchased their new vehicle for $600. After the purchase of a new car, Annie and her father would make some of the doctor's professional calls, with Annie becoming an excellent driver at the wheel.




Perhaps the renown and history making female driver was Mrs. Alice Huyler Ramsey (1886-1984). In March 1908, Mrs. Ramsey purchased her first Maxwell Runabout. She soon received many outstanding awards for the Mechanical Efficiency Run from New York City Long Island to Montauk Point and returned in October 1908. By 1909, history was made when Mrs. Ramsey, and her three companions, was known as the first female driver to cross the United States in a Maxwell touring car. The expenses were covered by the Maxwell Company, however, the women encountered terrible weather conditions along with sloppy roads with mud that were nearly impossible for the motorist to drive. Mrs. Ramsey once said, “We were there to start a trip which was to bring me the distinction of being the first women to drive an automobile form New York City to San Francisco". The car’s rear axle had broken apart twice, and many times, the ladies had to rely on the kindness of strangers to be towed from a ditch or sheltered from a storm. Also, the women came to the aid of men, who were sometimes stranded in their cars at the side of the road. With a total of 2,200 miles of rural roads in the entire country, including 190 miles of pavement, Mrs. Ramsey and her three female companions completed their trip that took 3,800 miles, along with the changing of 11 tires, to arrive in San Francisco.


In 1909, the idea of a cross-country trip sparked the imagination and determination of Alice Ramsey. With her husband's support and a new car, a Maxwell D provided by the Maxwell-Briscoe Company, she became the first woman to drive coast-to-coast. Her monumental trip stretched from New York City to San Francisco. She drove over and endured rugged roadways, overflowing streams and rocky terrain, as well as the flat lands of the plains. For nearly 3 months, with foot to the pedal, she pushed westward at a maximum speed of 40 miles per hour with her three female companions. Regardless of the hardships and difficulties she faced, she carried on and reached her destination.

Alice's pioneering spirit became the inspiration for the collage recently created by Karen Monroe for “Fender Bender”, a project celebrating Henry Ford's 150th birthday. Sponsored by Dearborn Community Arts Council, Motor Cities National Heritage Area and Ford Motor Company, the challenge was proposed to create a sculpture from Ford fenders. Since Anne Gautreau, American Association of University Women (AAUW)- Dearborn Branch President, never misses an opportunity to promote the organization, she urged Karen Monroe to take on the project by telling Alice Ramsey's story. The sculpture took form on a palette in Anne's backyard using three Ford Focus fenders. Alice's story came to life with a variety of vintage "found" items including goggles, a wooden shoe form, a tin with wooden apples, rusty chains, a tiny oil can and other metal components. Images of Alice and her companions along her journey, vintage maps, and a repurposed journal helped further tell her story. Central to the sculpture is a copy of the book, Alice Ramsey's Grand Adventure by Don Brown. The book was a fitting addition given the organization's yearly fundraiser; a book sale that provides scholarships, student programs, and donations to support education and women's issues. The sculpture entitled, "Audacious Alice Unites Wonder and Wander", an acronym for AAUW, is one of twenty pieces that will be displayed in the metro-Detroit area throughout the year.


There were several other woman drivers during the early 1900s. Another who made history was Madam C.J. Walker who was the first African American women to own an automobile that was purchased for the usage of selling her own hair business products throughout the country. She was considered to be the wealthiest African-American woman in America. She was also known to be the first self-made female millionaire. Mrs. Walker drove Ford Model-T’s for her personal business adventure.


By 1910, 5% of licensed drivers were women. In 1916, Mrs Alice Burke along with Mrs. Nell Richardson traveled for seven months and 10,700 miles carrying the women's suffrage and right to vote message and demonstrating women's equality at the drivers steering wheel.The 1912 invention of Mr. Charles Kettering's self-starter did away with the necessity of crank starting a vehicle, this made starting a vehicle a much easier task for men and women throughout the country.



 In 1915, Mrs Wilma Russey became the first women to work as a taxi driver in New York and was an expert garage mechanic as well, she helped steer the course for many other women drivers that are taxi cab drivers today. More American women learned about the possibilities of the automobile from the publicity offered by newspaper coverage of the pioneering transcontinental car journeys that took place between 1899-1908. These early drivers and their passengers of both sexes demonstrated that it was possible for the emerging automobile technology to be useful as well as challenging however road hazards were indeed a problem or an adventure depending on one's perspectives. So motorists of both sexes pressured their local and state authorities to improve the roads. The federal government had been aware of the desirability of developing roads and had discussed funding for highways prior to World War I. Beginning in the 1920's and 1930's many automobile manufactures recognized the growing trend of women driving for fun and necessity. They began to gear their print advertising campaigns to women, hired women in sales positions and recognizing women in many other positive ways. Today women have made much progress within the automotive industry and not only driving automobiles but designing and engineering, racing them as well.








A special thanks to Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher, for donating the story to the MotorCities Story of the Week program. Photographs are courtesy of the National Automotive History Collection (NAHC) of the Detroit Public Library and Bob Tate’s Personal Collection.

For further information on photos please visit http://www.detroitpubliclibrary.org/ or email nahc@detroitpubliclibrary.org. For general comments on the story contact Robert Tate, btate@motorcities.org. Please do not republish the story and/or photographs without permission. If you have a story that you would like to donate to be featured as a MotorCities Story of the Week, email Lisa Ambriez at lambriez@motorcities.org.

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