Historical writing

Remember the Ladies! Getting Women on the Road

Black-and-white retro style depiction of a woman in typical style of the 1920s or 1930s. She's fashionably adorned in black lace, pearls, evening gloves and a pearl-accented wrap-around headpiece. A hand flutters to her chest, as she offers an alluring, sideways glance.
1920s: increasing numbers of women began driving.

When cars began dotting the dirt roads of America, the drivers were almost all men – and the roads . . . well, they stunk. Although “modern” roads certainly existed before the 20th century in the United States – after all, horse-drawn wagons and bicyclists needed a path to follow – the existence of roadways was erratic and nothing to be counted upon. In 1904, for example, only one-sixth of public roads in rural locales had any kind of surfacing whatsoever. Everything else was just plain mud.

This makes the feat of Alice Ramsey all the more amazing. On June 9, 1909, she drove off from rainy New York City in a Maxwell DA with a removable roof. Wearing a rubber helmet and visor, she started her engine to become the first woman to complete a cross-country trip in the new-fangled invention we now call a car, taking other hardy female souls with her.

Here’s more context: besides the issue of crummy roads, Alice couldn’t just stop at a local gas station to fill up, nor could she visit an auto parts store when a repair was needed. She couldn’t follow a map with highway exits clearly marked and rivers didn’t necessarily have conveniently placed bridges. Alice nevertheless reached the “terrific speech of 42 miles per hour” and wasn’t discouraged when a heckler would yell, “Get a horse!”

And, although Alice sometimes needed horses to help tow her vehicle, she only needed 13 days to travel the first 360 miles. To cover the entire 3,800 miles, it required 59 days. Afterwards, Alice continued to make cross-country excursions, losing count after she’d completed her first thirty.

Fast forward to 1916, when Congress passed the Federal Aid Road Act, necessary because the popularity of Henry Ford’s Model T created a much more urgent need for a quality road system. Well. Before the funds could be made available to states to improve their roads, the country entered World War I, making military efforts a more pressing concern. The interruption caused by the war, though, eventually speeded up women’s participation in driving. Here’s why!

During the war, women needed to work jobs traditionally performed by men. Then, when the war ended, a percentage of these women didn’t want to go back to their previous lifestyles, helping to create the perfect storm of events that got more women into cars – and even behind the driver’s seat.

Elements of the perfect storm included:

  • More women had independent incomes.
  • This led to some women wanting more independence in other ways (especially the “modern woman” often referred to as a flapper).
  • The Model T was readily available at a price suitable for the working man (or woman).
  • The Bureau of Public Roads was authorized by the Federal Highway Act of 1921 to help state agencies create two-lane interstate highways.

Ultimately, here’s what happened: “Cars were fast and risky – perfect for the flapper attitude. Flappers not only insisted on riding in them; they drove them.” So, ladies, when you get behind the wheel today, remember Alice Ramsey and the flappers who helped to pave your way!

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