Women Who Go First: Alice Ramsey
What springs to mind when you hear the words “girls’ road-trip”? If you’re anything like me you’re now thinking of that iconic 2002 movie Crossroads, starring Britney Spears, Doggett from OITNB and Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy….
But you might not know that just two years before this shining example of female-led cinema hit our screens, Alice Huyler Ramsey became the first female entry to the Automotive Hall of Fame. Why did she receive this illustrious honour? For taking her own girls-only road-trip across the USA, and being the very first woman ever to do so.
Alice’s patriarchy-defying trip took place in 1909, meaning that it would be over 90 years before her induction into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2002. To date, only 5 women are named on the list of almost 280 male inductees.
Born in 1886 in Hackensack, New Jersey, Alice lived in a time when pursuits such as university education and driving cars remained fairly inaccessible for women. And yet, never afraid to go first, she threw herself into both.
Alice attended Vassar college for two years, before becoming a car-owner in 1908. That same year, she had taught herself to service the car and entered the American Automobile Association's (AAA) Montauk Point endurance race.
Maxwell-Briscoe, the American company behind Alice’s own set of wheels, saw the plucky female driver as an exciting opportunity to market motoring towards women. They approached Alice at the endurance race with a pretty radical idea for a publicity stunt; Maxwell-Briscoe wanted to sponsor the first woman to drive from coast to coast across the USA.
The press was horrified by their plan, calling it “dangerous”, “ridiculous” and “beyond the capabilities of women drivers.” But Alice wasn’t the type to be deterred, writing later that the criticism “merely whetted the appetites of those of us who were convinced that we could drive as well as most men.”
This ferocious determination was what made this more than a mere stunt for Alice, who was committed to proving that women were just as capable on the roads as men. “It’s been done by men,” she wrote, “and as long as they have been able to accomplish it, why shouldn’t I?”
Regardless of gender, driving cross-country in the early 1900s was dangerous, due to a lack of accurate road maps and tarmac, not to mention the limitations of cars at the time. Made only of rubber-coated canvas tubes with no tread, car tyres were prone to blowing out. It took Alice 59 days to drive her friend and sisters-in-law from New York to San Francisco, stopping to change no fewer than 11 tyres.
Alice was the only driver, but all four women had to use their initiative to deal with countless obstacles. They used telegraph wires to navigate and adapted anything they could get their hands on to fix the car; from hair pins to toiletry holders. Endless breakdowns drew unwanted attention to the all-female travelling party, and one passer-by even yelled “get a horse!”
Heckling was the least of their worries, as the women reported a number of wild encounters, including finding themselves surrounded by a Native American hunting party with bows drawn in Nevada, and amidst an armed sheriff’s posse on the hunt for a murderer in Nebraska. Alice would record their dangerous adventure in her memoir, ‘Veil, Duster and Tire Iron’.
The intrepid four reached their finish line in San Francisco on 7th August 1909, greeted by cheering crowds and a mob of photographers and reporters. The San Francisco Chronicle reported on their arrival with timeless casual sexism in their headline:
“PRETTY WOMEN MOTORISTS ARRIVE AFTER TRIP ACROSS THE CONTINENT”
For Alice, the iconic drive was “a prelude to the thousands of women drivers who would later make this same trip.”
Regardless of whether so many women drivers have followed in Alice’s exact tyre tracks, the story of her unbending determination is an inspiration to anyone who has been told by society that they cannot achieve something. When women like Alice are brave enough to go first, they trace a route for more to follow.
Images sourced via The Automotive Hall of Fame
Story content sourced via: The Automotive Hall of Fame, Encompass Magazine, Women Who Dare Exhibit at Owls Head Transportation Museum, The Heroine Collective & “A Reliable Car and a Woman Who Knows It": The First Coast-to-Coast Auto Trips by Women, 1899-1916, by Curt McConnell (2000)