Monday, March 1, 2021

Women Drivers

by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

While living in Vienna, Austria, German born Siegfried Marcus invented the first successful gasoline-powered car in the late 1880s. Not long after, the wife of another automotive inventor took it upon herself to prove that her husband's vehicles were equally worthy. In August of 1888, Bertha Benz, set out on a long drive with her two teenage sons. Stories about her journey include her resourcefulness when it came to making necessary repairs. Hatpins, garters and shoemaker’s leather soles came in handy when dealing with clogged valves, rapidly worn engine parts and wooden brake fatigue. Bertha Benz’s 120-mile journey blazed a trail for other women drivers.

Early 20th century women who were lucky enough to have the means eagerly learned to drive and some even owned their own cars. Automobiles offered a new freedom and promised adventure.

unknown driver, Circa 1909

The first successful transcontinental US drive was made by Dr. Horatio Jackson in 1903 in a Winton touring car. The first successful cross-country drive by a woman followed six years later by Mrs. Alice Huyler Ramsey. She drove a Maxwell DA. At the time, the Maxwell-Briscoe Company of Tarrytown, NY was the nation’s largest automobile company, and would go on to become the Chrysler Corporation in 1925. The company recognized the growing number and interest of women drivers and saw a cross-country drive as a good publicity tool. In 1909, they sponsored Ramsey, a twenty-two year old wife and mother from New Jersey, to drive from coast to coast.

Ramsey was accompanied by three other women, none of whom knew how to drive. It took them 59 days to complete their adventure. Inspired, Ramsey would make a second trip six months later, this time by herself and over the next seven decades made dozens of cross-country drives. The attention that the Maxwell company received prompted them to align with the women’s rights movement and the company pledged to hire equal numbers of men and women in its sales force. At a promotional reception in NYC they featured a woman assembling and disassembling a Maxwell engine, and the event was attended by well-known suffragettes including Elmira’s Crystal Eastman. (See a blog on Eastman here.)

Elmira featured heavily in the second woman’s quest to drive coast to coast. In 1910, twenty-six year old Miss Blanche Stuart Scott from Rochester, NY was sponsored by the Willys-Overland company to drive an Overland automobile nicknamed the Lady Overland. The Willys-Overland company was owned and operated by John Willys, a businessman from Elmira.

John North Willys had moved to Elmira from his hometown of Canandaigua and had been running a bicycle building and repair business. Seeing changes ahead, he opened a dealership called Southern Tier Motor Company, and one of the line of cars he sold was the Overland.

The Southern Tier Motor Company, Elmira. Cars are Willys-Overland,1916-1917

In 1908 supply issues interfered with Overland distribution, and Willys solved this problem by purchasing the struggling Indiana company. Over the next four years, Willys would lead the company to become second only to the Ford Motor Company in annual sales.

For Scott's 1910 drive from New York City to San Francisco, CA. she was accompanied by reporter Miss Gertrude Buffington Phillips who documented the tour, and the drive took sixty-eight days to complete. They arrived in San Francisco to great fanfare.

Clearly there was a viable market for selling cars to women. Willys-Overland advertising from the mid-teens through the mid-twenties targeted women drivers with images of independent women driving with other women or children as passengers. However, as it was for women’s voting rights, equality was hard fought and less than complete.

1919 Willy-Overland advertisement

Scott went on to operate other early machinery. Publicity from her drive across the country caught the eye of Hammondsport’s Glenn Curtiss. A pioneer in American motorcycling and aviation, Curtiss was looking to increase public awareness of the viability of powered flight. He agreed to give Scott flying lessons and there’s some question as to whether he really intended for her to fly.

Curtiss rigged up a plane for her to practice taxiing back and forth, but when the rigging slipped, she took off. On September 6th, 1910 her plane lifted forty feet off the ground briefly before making a gentle landing. Today Scott is known for being the first US woman to fly a plane. To think that driving could lead to such adventures, I’m just glad that I don’t have to repair my own car, especially with hairpins and garters.

The Glenn Curtiss Museum displays a 1915 Willys-Overland owned by Blanche Stuart Scott. 


  1. My grandmother who lived in Elmira according to family lore drove an automobile from Ithaca to Elmira in half an hour. It was between 1911 when she married and 1914 when my mother was born. I never heard of the make of auto but I know my grandfather owned a WillysOverland. I heard that one of his cars had a built in flower vase. Was that a feature of the Willys?

    1. Hi Judy! We did some research but weren't able to find out if built in flower vases were standard on Willys vehicles. We did find an advertisement for an Automobile Show in 1918 that mentioned that vehicles were being equipped with all sorts of new features including motor watches, foot warmers, weekend cases, and flower vases. It seems automakers then, like now, were always experimenting with new features to appeal to a wider array of customers.