Historic Female Leaders in the American Trucking Industry

In 2019, about 6% of jobs in the United States trucking industry were held by women.  The trucking industry has many opportunities for women, from drivers to independent owner-operators, regulatory roles, and corporate jobs. 

But while women have been hesitant to join the trucking industry, there have been several trailblazing females that made their mark, starting from the early 1900s. Which is much earlier than many people think.  And to this day there are incredible female trailblazers that dedicate their lives and talent to operating successful commercial transport businesses.

Early American Female Trucking Pioneers

Prepare to be inspired by some of the incredible personalities, technical and business talents that found their way early on to the American trucking industry.  It wasn’t easy for them. 

What is remarkable about some of these early female pioneers, is how they were ahead of their time. Forging businesses and careers in an industry that (at the time) was very male-dominated. Trucking jobs weren’t thought of as appropriate for women.  A stigma that still exists today to some extent, and one that the present trucking industry is trying to change.

Here are some of the inspirational early female truckers and engineers that helped build the American trucking industry and advance diesel technology.

1. Mary Fields

A woman born into slavery in 1832, Mary Fields may be the earliest recorded example of a female truck driver in the United States.   Her nickname was “Stagecoach Mary”.  She became a freed slave in 1865 and was permitted to get a job.    And the first job she landed was in trucking.  Well, sort of.

Mary Fields was hired by the U.S. Postal Service when she turned sixty years old!  It was her responsibility to drive mail from one town to the other.  She drove a wagon for the postal service that was drawn by six horses, and a grumpy mule she called “Moses”. 

Tough as nails, Mary Fields was not your average woman.  Given the nature of her work as a ‘truck driver’ she was said to be able to drink whiskey and smoke cigars better than her male colleagues.  She was the second woman to be hired (ever) by the U.S. Postal Service.

2. Luella Bates

Did you know that the first recorded woman involved in commercial trucking started in 1918?  Her name was Luella Bates, and she worked for a business called the Four-Wheel Drive Auto Co.   Throughout World War I, Bates was a test driver in Wisconsin, for the Model B truck.  

Bates was the first female licensed commercial truck driver in the United States.  And she wasn’t just a driver, she was also a mechanic and truck inspector.

After the war was over and the ‘men came home’ most women lost their jobs.  But not Luella; she was kept on as a valued demonstrator and driver, because of her technical knowledge about trucks.  In January 1920 Luella Bates went to the New York Auto Show.  And while she was there, she became the first female truck driver to get a NY driver’s license. 

Later that year in 1920, Luella Bates got the opportunity of a lifetime!  Four Wheel Drive sent her on three transcontinental tours in the United States.   The marketing and promotional cause were to prove that new model trucks were ‘so easy to drive, even a woman could steer it’.  She was one of 150 women that were hired by the Four-Wheel Drive co. (FWD) in Wisconsin for the nationwide promotion.

3. Elizabeth Drennan

Elizabeth Drennan was a local hero.  Lillie Elizabeth Drennan and her husband Willie launched a trucking business called the Drennan Truck Line in Texas.  They founded their business near Hempstead in East Texas.   And they specialized in hazmat shipping of TNT and dynamite.  Supplies that were needed by the growing oil and gas industry.

The Drennan’s started their business driving a Chevrolet truck, and quickly grew their fleet adding more drivers.  Lillie was a native of Galveston.   Willie was Elizabeth’s second husband, as she was married to a man named Barney Jackson for about two years.  

The brain behind the operations for Drennan Truck Line was Elizabeth. In fact, as the trucking company grew, Elizabeth divorced Willie, and became the sole owner of the business.  They separated about a year after she founded Drennan Truck Lines.

Not only was Elizabeth Drennan a talented businesswoman, but she also attained her CDL and worked extensively as a truckdriver before founding her business.  She attained her commercial truck driver license in 1928.

Lillie was a colorful character and known to operate her trucking company with an iron fist. She wore a 10-gallon Stetson hat regularly, and made the Los Angeles Times once, as they dubbed her a “dry land Tugboat Annie”.  In another magazine she was described as “a pioneer with all the color of an Annie Oakley, who lives the life of a hard-hitting frontiers woman”.

Elizabeth earned safety awards from the Texas Railroad Commission and the Texas Motor Transportation Association.  She maintained her business for over thirty years until she sold Drennan Truck Line in 1952.

4. Rodica Baranescu

Fast forward in history and you’ll hear about Rodica Baranescu.  She was born in 1940 and attained her Ph.D. in engineering and became the first female President of the Society of Automotive Engineers.   When she worked for the International Truck and Engine Corporation, Baranescu was responsible for developing some of the first environmentally friendly fuels and lubricants for trucks with diesel engines.

Her contribution to advancing the technological science of trucking was no small one.  She held two patients.  One was for the “Internal Combustion Engine with Damping Chamber” and the second was for the “Accumulator Fuel Injection System for Diesel Engine”. 

In 2005, Rodica Baranescu became a Professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, for the University of Illinois (Chicago). She served as both a mentor and research director for engineering undergrads, before retiring in 2016.

Rodica Baranescu frequently traveled the world to talk about engineering and automotive technology research.  And she was one of the editors of the Diesel Engine Reference Book (1999).   Baranescu also became the first female President of SAE International, the biggest and most recognized global automotive society. The SAE created an annual award for students in her name, for women who achieved success and innovation in automotive engineering.

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