International Women’s Day is celebrated every year on 8th March, and dates right back to 1917 when women got the right to vote in Soviet Russia. It was formalised by the UN in 1977, as an official day of celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. Here we take the opportunity to honour just some of the legendary ladies who have had the biggest impact on the automotive world.
Find out more about International Women’s Day by following these hashtags: #IWD2021 and #InternationalWomensDay
Bertha Benz was not just a pioneer for women, but she is in fact the first person to go touring in an automobile. The wife of Karl Benz, she helped test and develop her husband's 'horseless carriage' in 1885. A few years later, on 5th August 1888, frustrated at Karl's lack of marketing moxie and belief in the future potential of his creation, she decided to take a little trip, to visit her mother, 106km away, in a Model III Benz, without telling Karl!
Famously becoming the first person to do a long-distance in a car, taking along her two young teenage sons, she not only successfully completely the trip and generated huge publicity for the automobile, but accomplished a number of firsts along the way.
These included the concept of long-distance testing, brake lining (she got a cobbler to install leather on the wooden brakes when they started to fail) and inadvertently the first 'petrol station'. That was an apothecary (a chemist) in Wiesloch, from where she obtained Ligroin, a petroleum solvent. She even did some DIY repairs clearing a blocked fuel line with her hat pin and using her garter as insulation material.
Michele Mouton is quite simply one of the all-time greatest rally drivers. Driving for the Audi factory team in Quattro during the early 1980s, she finished second in the driver's world championship in 1982 and remains the only woman to have competed in top-flight rallying.
She missed out on the crown due to a crash towards the end of the penultimate championship round, the Rallye Côte d'Ivoire. The title was taken by Walter Röhrl who had said that he could not countenance losing to Mouton 'not because I doubt her capabilities as a driver, but because she is a woman.'
Mouton retired after winning the German Rally title, the first female to win a major championship, but went on to co-found the annual Race of Champions event, become the first president of the motor sport authority, FIA's, Woman & Motor Sport Commission in 2010 and FIA's manager in World Rally Championship in 2011.
Londoner Dorothy Lewitt was not only one of the very first female racing drivers (successfully racing in Britain and Europe), but was also a women's world land speed record holder achieving 92mph, taught Queen Alexandra and female Royalty how to drive, held the first water speed record and allegedly learned how to fly aeroplanes. She even authored a book about women and motoring, in which she advised carrying a pocket mirror to see behind while driving, thereby also coming up with the idea of a rear-view mirror well before it was widely introduced.
In 1905 she undertook a marathon drive over 411 miles in two days from London to Liverpool and back and in doing so established the longest distance driven by a woman to that point. She had with her an official observer, her pet Pomeranian dog and a Colt automatic pistol. One of the tips from her book 'The Woman and the Car: A Chatty Little Handbook for all Women who Motor or Who Want to Motor' was to carry a gun!
Mary Barra became the first CEO of a major car manufacturer, taking the position at General Motors in 2014. She started at the company in 1980 and worked her way up in numerous roles.
She was named by both Forbes and Fortune as one of the world's most powerful women and featured on the cover of Time's '100 Most Influential People in the World'. Additionally she has been hailed for her role in taking GM to the top spot in the 2018 Global Report on Gender Equality.
Florence Lawrence is often referred to as the 'first movie star' appearing in over 300 films over a period of 30 years until her tragic suicide in 1938. Lesser known is that she, and her mother, were responsible for three automotive inventions that we take for granted today.
Lawrence designed the first 'auto signaling arm' basically the turn indicator, as well as the first mechanical brake signal. This consisted of a sign with the word 'Stop' flipping up at the back when slowing down - of course this evolved into brake lights on modern cars. As for her mother, Charlotte Bridgwood, who was also an actress, she invented the electric windscreen wiper!