In 1987, March was declared Women’s History Month. Which sadly, seems much too late to celebrate the contributions of women to better the world we live in. History is inescapable and showcases how we got from there to here. Ignoring the significant accomplishments of women in history creates a mindset in people to live rootless lives, which can be damaging to current and future endeavors. So here we are to honor some of the greatest female contributors, past and present, of the automotive industry.
In the early 1900s, Florence Lawrence was considered to be the first movie star. She starred in hundreds of movies as the leading lady. She made her name in the film industry as the first actress to be publicized, but she also came up with two inventions for the automotive industry that are still used today. Think about that!
- Auto Signaling Arms – Yes, those are exactly what they sound like. I know how frustrated I get when the car ahead of me is bumbling around when suddenly they take a hazardous turn. This caused accidents then and causes accidents today. After being so frustrated with this, she came up with the idea of placing flags on both sides of vehicles that could be activated with a button to let all drivers know your intentions. Every time you turn your car without a signal, just think how disappointed Florence Lawrence would be.
- Stop Sign – Okay, not that stop sign. She felt that turn signals weren’t enough to help us from crashing into one another all day. She felt that some warning that the vehicle ahead was slowing down would be monumentally helpful. In a similarly mechanized fashion, once the driver applied the brakes, a sign would pop up with the word “stop” at the back of the car. Think of the number of accidents her inventions helped drivers avoid. The modern development of self-stopping cars has Florence Lawrence to thank.
Bertha Benz might not be the name you know behind Mercedes-Benz, but it’s one you should know as a serious contributor to its success. Toward the end of the 19th century, Karl Benz had been making quality, revolutionary vehicles; however, he wasn’t the proactive type and wondered if his cars would ever truly make the mark he had intended. Bertha knew her husband’s “motorwagen” would have the success it deserved and when she saw its potential, she took her son and her husband’s vehicle and drove it a long 66 miles to visit her mother. This marketing stunt helped promote the motorwagen and propelled Karl to keep building better vehicles. Not to mention, she had to do minor repairs while taking this arduous trip without true roads. She came up with the idea of brake linings along the way, which have developed into today’s brake pads and shoes. Her route was designated in 2008 as the Bertha Benz Memorial Route to cement the engineering importance of her long-distance journey.
In France, Helene Rother was a fashion designer but she fled in 1942 due to the Nazi occupation. Upon arrival into the United States, Rother joined the interior styling staff at General Motors. As the first female automotive designer, she worked creating inventive, modern, and elegant interior designs. Even though she was more than qualified for her work, GM tried to keep the news of a female designer mum for a while because of the controversy it might stir. And even after her success, when she left GM to start her independent career, she had some difficulties being taken seriously. She did make an impression with the Nash-Kelvinator Corporation where she designed the interiors of many cars from 1948 to 1956. She was also the first woman to address the Society of Automotive Engineers in Detroit where the attendees did not know what to expect. She left the stage to loud applause, convincing the audience she had been the right person for the job.
All the inventive women mentioned above were influential in how our modern world moves. Much like all these women in the auto industry throughout the years, Alicia Boler-Davis has made her mark as the current Executive Vice President of Global Manufacturing at GM. Boler-Davis has held many positions over the years and started at GM in 1994 as a manufacturing engineer, dealing with the mastery of areas of sciences that include research, design, and development of systems, processes, machines, tools, and equipment. She was also GM’s first African-American woman plant manager at only 38 years old. She took her strong background and implemented all her knowledge to get to the high-profile position she is in today, focusing on manufacturing operations worldwide. With all of her significant accomplishments, Alicia Boler-Davis has made her mark on the automotive industry. And she’s got plenty left in the tank!
In 2014, Mary Barra became the first female CEO of an automobile company. At General Motors, she started as a co-op student at the age of 18 and hasn’t looked back. With a degree in electrical engineering, she has held various engineering and administrative positions. She also has a Masters in Business Administration, making her the perfect person to fill her current role. Not to mention that her father was a Pontiac die maker for many years. She has spent her time at GM wearing many different hats including heading up an assembly plant, executive directing engineering operations, and running the human resources department. You could say she’s gone from the factory floor to the top floor.
These are just a few women that have made car history, hopefully propelling many more to continue to change the automotive industry in the future.