Lately, the topic of working women has been making headlines. People on both sides of the political spectrum are debating whether women who have a job out of the home work harder than stay at home mothers. We don't know the answer to that question, but we know that women have worked very hard in the auto repair industry since the earliest days of motoring.
Many women in the car service industry are hugely successful, too. Andra Fordin is the owner of a Great Bear Auto Body Center in Flushing, Queens. Audra runs a class called "Women Auto Know" to teach other women about auto mechanics. The class covers the basics like how to start a car with battery cables, how to check the oil level and how to change a flat tire.
In the interview, Fordin said she feels like "A woman in a man's world," but the truth is that women auto mechanics are really not a rarity and their ranks have actually been increasing. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there were 880,000 automobile service and repair technicians in 1989 and 6,000 of them were women. By 1999, the total number of mechanics had shrunk to 837,000, but the number of women mechanics was up to 12,000.
While the growth in female mechanics may be a recent trend, ladies have been turning wrenches since the dawn of automotive history. During World War I, women — including Gertrude Stein — drove ambulances and other vehicles for the Red Cross in Europe. They had to furnish their own cars and were also expected to maintain them. The maintenance included making minor repairs.
We don't know if Mary Anderson ever turned a wrench, but in 1902, she invented the first windshield wiper, adopting the idea from a device used on New York City street cars. And there's little doubt that Alice H. Ramsey — first woman to drive coast to coast — had tools in her Maxwell as she went across the country
By 1910, five percent of licensed drivers were woman and this number took a big jump after Charles Kettering invented the electric starter two years later. Silent film star Florence Lawrence was another inventor. She came up with the idea of a first turn signal — called an "auto signaling arm" — that attached to a car's rear fender. Florence encouraged women to start driving. In 1916, Alice Burke and Nell Richardson traveled for seven months and 10,700 miles to help win voting rights for women.
A man points out something below the hood of a car to a young girl who seems pretty interested in learning how to service a car.
According to research done by the AACA Museum in Hershey, Pa., in 1915 Wilma Russey became the first woman to work as a taxi driver in New York. Russey was also known as an expert garage mechanic. In 1916, The Girl Scouts of America initiated an "Automobling Badge." To earn it, girls had to demonstrate driving skills, auto mechanics talent and first aid skills.
Mechanic Helen J. Owens knew how to put a sturdy front bumper to good use as a mechanic's stool. The car wears 1918 New York license plates.
A well-dressed woman tinkers under the hood of a car with 1920 New York dealer plates. Dealers today say they'd like to hire more woman service technicians, but can't find enough of them.
In 1922 Henry Ford opened his Phoenix Factory employing women to do assembly and welding work. The workers at the plant were all single or widowed, since Ford's wife did not approve of married women working outside the home. Henry himself said, "I consider women only a temporary factor in the industry." Old Henry was way wrong on that count.