Truck Driving Trailblazers: Women in Shipping

March 8, 2019 at 7:30 PMJen Deming
Women In TruckingMany of us are familiar with the impact truck shipping has on our day-to-day lives, but few of us are familiar with the women truck drivers who contribute so significantly to the transportation industry. March is Women's History Month and PartnerShip would like to take the opportunity to look at how women have played a part in trucking's past and are currently shaping the future. From the first women who sat behind the wheel, to the movers and shakers changing the shipping industry today, we take a look at the women who help get our stuff where it needs to go.

Riding West with Annie Neal

Stagecoach and horse-drawn freight wagons, often hauling bullion and other high-value supplies heading west from the east, were a very early predecessor to the modern trucking industry. A notable husband-wife team, Annie Neal and her husband William often ran routes together, taking turns driving the teams of horses or acting as load security. Annie is often credited with being one of the earliest female "freight haulers" and helped pave the way for women drivers of the future.

A Shift in Responsibility

Horse-drawn modes of transportation were being retired through the beginning of the 20th century, and engine-powered trucks evolved as a reliable, efficient mode preferred by most freight carriers. As World War I broke, the first utility trucks were being used to haul medical equipment as well as injured soldiers to and from the battlefront, oftentimes being driven and loaded by women medical attendants and nurses. The onset of the first World War set the tone for a female-dominated industry while men were otherwise occupied and away fighting.

Luella Bates - Mechanic, Operator, Spokesperson

The early 1900's also saw the need for women to fill long-haul freight positions left by men who reported for duty. Luella Bates was one of about 150 women hired as test drivers for new truck prototypes by Four Wheel Drive Auto Company. These women tested safety, security, and overall mechanical soundness of these vehicles, logging many hours under various weather conditions and road types. When the men returned, Luella stayed on, acting as a demonstrator, mechanic, and driver, often touring across the United States for truck model launches and safety demos. She was often used in advertisements and as a consultant for dealerships throughout the remainder of her career, and used her public platform to generate excitement and interest among fellow female truck drivers.

Lillie Drennan - the First Licensed Truck Driver

Lillie Elizabeth McGee Drennan was another huge force in the history of women truck drivers. After starting a trucking company with her husband William Drennan in 1917, Lillie played a huge part in the training and recruiting of additional drivers. After divorcing in 1929, Lillie took control as sole owner of the trucking company, and also began driving trucks in order to expand and grow the business herself. After an initial denial to receive her own commercial driver's license (CDL), presumably due to a hearing impairment she'd had since she was a child, she successfully won a lawsuit and received the license in 1929. Following that, she continued expanding her successful truck business as a well-known regional owner-operator in East Texas. Lillie became a strong advocate for women's rights and a hero to those living with disabilities. She continued to push for equal opportunities for women in the workplace and helped successfully recruit female drivers during World War II.

Driving the War Effort

During World War II, Rusty Dow was a truck driver for the U.S. Army Engineers/Alaska Defense Command. In 1944, she became the first woman to drive a fully loaded truck the entire length of the Alaska Highway, completing the 1,560-mile trip in 11 days. During the same period, Mazie Lanham became the first woman driver for UPS in 1943 due to a workforce shortage during the war. Many other women came to follow in her footsteps, earning the nickname "Brown Betties."

Starting a Revolution

In the 1970's, Adriesue "Bitzy" Gomez was a truck driver and a champion of women in the trucking industry. During this formative period in the Women's Movement, she founded the Coalition of Women Truckers, an organization that worked to level the playing field in such a male-dominated industry. Through her efforts, and those of the other 150 members she recruited, Bitzy pushed forward a campaign to hire more female drivers and machinists, fighting for equal opportunity and safety from harassment within the workplace. 

Where are we now?

The truck shipping industry has changed a lot over time, and women are entering the field of transportation more readily than before. But, there's still a lot of catch up to do to even out female representation within this male-dominated industry. The Women in Trucking Association is an organization created with the intention to increase the number of women working in trucking transportation. The WIT has partnered with the National Transportation Institute in order to accurately report the number of women in trucking. While women represent the minority group within the industry, and women only comprise 7% of the available pool of drivers, women are working in over 24% of the management and training roles. 

Where are we headed?

Women drivers are more in demand than ever, especially with the ongoing driver shortage that continues to affect the available pool of carriers. To recruit and entice qualified truckers, male or female, carriers are optimizing current work conditions by upgrading tech, creating new dedicated rest areas, updating equipment to include more comfortable living accommodations for long hauls, and an increase in base pay. Drivers earn pay based on experience and miles, offering a more level compensation playing field than in many other industries and available career opportunities. While women continue to encounter many of the challenges presented since first breaking into the trucking industry, carriers are making it clear that they're wanted - and needed, not only as drivers, but as trainers, recruiters, brand advocates, mechanics, and business owners.

Women have been involved in the transportation industry since wheels first hit the road. As time has passed, the role of these women has evolved, and that role continues to change as needs of the industry adjust to meet the needs of consumers. Throughout the transformation, one thing is for certain - women in trucking continue to play an indispensable and revolutionary part in the future of transportation. If you're a driver, we want you to play that part with us - join our network of partner carriers!


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