On Women’s Equality Day, we celebrate the achievements of Alice Huyler Ramsey, a New Jersey housewife who made history as the first woman to drive across the U.S.
Every year on August 26, the United States celebrates the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution – an amendment which finally granted women the right to vote for the first time in 1920.
In the decades since a lot has changed. Women are innovators of industry, politicians, sportspeople; but long before the right to vote was won, women were working to change perceptions in various other unique ways, including Alice Huyler Ramsey, who made history as the first woman to drive from coast to coast across the U.S.
Born in New Jersey in 1886, Ramsey grew up in a heavily traditional society and was married to her husband, Congressman John R. Ramsey, by age of 20. She was with-child soon after.
In an autobiography recapping her adventures, Ramsey boasts she mastered the art of driving within two lessons at the age of 21, describing herself as mechanically inclined. She adored the feeling of being behind the wheel, but her husband did not, so the young mother drove constantly.
During a time where women were encouraged to stay off the road, Ramsey took part in a 200-mile endurance race that caught the eye of motor company Maxwell-Briscoe. Despite the stigma, the company was keen to market its line of motors towards women.
They approached Ramsey and asked if she would be interested in driving one of their touring cars from Manhattan to San Francisco along a route first charted by Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson six years’ prior.
Ramsey jumped at the chance and set out on June 9, 1909, with her two older sisters-in-law and friend Hermine Jahns (all of whom could not drive) in a dark-green, 30-horsepower 1909 Maxwell DA.
The group hurtled through the U.S. countryside at speeds of up to 42 miles an hour, along bumpy and unpaved roads with no signposts or maps, following telegraph poles with the greatest number of wires in the hopes it would lead them to the next town.
People thought Ramsey was crazy for doing what she was doing, especially as the trip proved to be one of stamina and endurance.
“There were few garages and one had to be able to do many things oneself to keep going,” Ramsey wrote in her 1961 novel, “Veil, Duster and Tire Iron”.
“No self-starters, no electric lights, no mechanics within reach. And don’t run out of gas or you walk many miles.”
Over the course of the 59 days, Ramsey changed 11 tires, cleaned spark plugs on the side of the road, and repaired a broken brake pedal.
At one point, when the transmission needed water, two of her companions used their toothbrush holders, made of cut glass and sterling silver, to gather water from roadside ditches.
The trip garnered quite a lot of attention, with locals riding for miles to see Ramsey and her entourage in action.
Crowds gathered to welcome the group of four as they eventually pulled into the driveway of the St. James Hotel in San Francisco on August 7, but Ramsey didn’t stay long in the city and left soon after to be with her young son and husband.
Ramsey’s love of driving continued throughout her life. She got behind the wheel in Europe and Australia and did countless cross-country trips in the U.S. until the age of 90.
The motor enthusiast was involved in the Women’s Motor Corps during WWI and was named Woman Motorist of the Century by the American Automobile Association in 1960.
When accepting the award, Ramsey included herself among “the great women drivers who were convinced we could drive as well as most men.”
On October 17, 2000, Ramsey, who passed away more than a decade earlier at the age of 97, became the first woman inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.
Alice Ramsey helped pave the way for women to enjoy the freedom of the road and is one of the countless women who have contributed to women’s equality in the United States over the decades.