Highway Herstory: American Women in Trucking

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Women make up only 5.2 percent of truck drivers today and trucking is still defined by the U.S. Department of Labor as a nontraditional (read, male-dominated,) occupation. However, the autonomy, self-reliance, and adventures of travel that come with the job appeal to a wide range of personalities. “We have a boss, but forget a lot of the time,” said April Halter, a commercial truck driver for Pride Transportation. As you will see in the following stories, some of America’s roughest and toughest women treaded and thrived on the highways of truck-driving history.

In honor of National Women’s History Month, we take a look at some of the pioneers and most popular women in the history of truck driving in America.

Riding Shotgun

Hauling freight began with wagons and stagecoaches. Annie Box Neal is famous for riding shotgun–literally–alongside her husband William “Curly” Neal on his stagecoach delivery run through Tucson, Arizona, in 1892. At the age of 22 she was well-known as a sharpshooter, and invaluable at helping to protect her husband’s freight, which was often gold bullion.

Mary Fields, better known as “Stagecoach Mary,” was the first Black woman and the second woman to work for the U.S. Postal Service. She began her route at the age of 60 and gained her name and reputation for being the fastest and most reliable delivery driver in Cascade, Montana. Fields was known for delivering through inclement weather and protecting herself on dangerous roadways. Actor Gary Cooper, who Fields babysat when he was a young boy, wrote about her in Ebony in Oct. 1977, “She was one of the freest souls to ever draw a breath or a .38.”

Calamity Jane Cannary, claimed in her autobiography to have worked for the Pony Express in 1876, and describes the experience of an early freight-hauler in vivid detail,

“During the month of June, I acted as a pony express rider carrying the U.S. mail between Deadwood and Custer over one of the roughest trails in the Black Hills country. Many riders before me had been held up and robbed of their packages, mail and money that they carried for that was the only means of getting mail and money between these points. It was considered the most dangerous route in the Black Hills but as my reputation as a rider and quick shot was well known I was molested very little, for the toll gatherers looked on me as a good fellow and they knew I never missed my mark.”

Steering a “Man’s Job”

Luella Bates became the spokeswoman for the Four Wheel Drive Corporations cross-country campaign in 1919, one of six women chosen specifically to show how easily the company’s new truck steering could be handled.

In 1929, Lillie Drennan became the first female licensed truck driver and the first woman to own a trucking business, the Drennan Truck Line, Texas. She operated the company for twenty-four years and had an impeccable safety record

At the start of World War II, few women were in uniforms besides nurses’ whites, but by 1945, over a quarter of a million women had served in the US military. Alaskan highway pioneer Rusty Dow was well-known for her service with the Quartermaster Corps as a mail and truck driver during the war.

America’s Last Pioneers

Right after the Alaskan Military Highway was completed in 1944, Dow became the first woman to drive a load of freight across the wilderness and back, in a Studebaker 6×6. Although the annuls of history and war-time needs were driven by women hauling freight through wilderness and danger, Dow’s account of her experience makes it clear that women were often perceived as intruders. Dow had driven trucks all her life and ran a trucking and transfer service near Anchorage, Alaska, yet she wrote, “This was a man’s job on a man’s road, built by men, in its entirety.”

Yet women had been taking over “men’s jobs” driving trucks long before Dow took the wheel. During both World Wars I and II, women took over the jobs left open by men serving in the armed forces, including truck driving. At the start of WWII, farms were producing abundantly to provide for the war effort. Faced with a shortage of laborers, thousands of women were recruited and hastily trained to manage the harvest, including delivering shipments of fruit, grain, and hay all across the country. Women accounted for nearly fifty percent of truck drivers during 1939-1945.

Actress Della Resse worked as a truck driver, and several other odd jobs, to support her family long before she took off on the road to stardom. Bea Arthur served as a truck driver in the Marines from 1943-1945 before she was a “Golden Girl!”

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Members-Only Club

Marlene Marling is famous for trucking on America’s highways for thirty-five accident-free years, starting in 1959. The appeal of travel and the desire to do something different attracted her to what could still be a very sexist environment. Marling liked to say she could do the job as well, if not better than any man. Marling describes the shock and disbelief of other drivers and travelers when she would stop to refuel. Truck stops were changing as oil and trucking companies joined forces to improve them, from military-style barracks to actual places to rest. Marling was one of the original members of the Pure Oil Road King Drivers Club, supported by the Pure Oil Petroleum Company and Road King magazine.

Maggie Peterson, who was the first woman named “Driver of the Month” (twice) by the California Trucking Association, has gone on to become a spokesperson for women in the trucking industry. She advocates not only for women drivers but for the advancement of the trucking profession as a whole.

Today’s Trucking Women

There are many associations today which support and encourage women in the field of trucking. Modern-day women truck drivers take to the road for many of the same reasons as their forebearers, as well as for new reasons and opportunities. Shannon “Sputter” Smith always wanted to be a truck driver growing up. She was featured in a 2012 O Magazine article, which reads, “When you’re in a long-haul truck you are in a different zone, a shared space high above the rhythms of vacation, commuting, visiting.”

Some young couples embrace the opportunity as a way to liven up their youth and young love, working for the same company and traveling together. “We feel like we’re out here doing our own thing, we make our own schedules, and constantly travel to different states,” said Halter of her job with Pride Transportation, team-driving with her husband. Overdrive Magazine also runs of “Most Beautiful” contest for women in trucking.

Television has helped showcase women in trucking with “Shipping Wars,” featuring independent movers bidding on unusual or oversized loads, and “Ice Road Truckers” hauling cargo over some of the most dangerous roads in the world. Jessica of “Shipping Wars,” is known for applying determination and unorthodox ideas to compete with her more experienced costars.

Ice Road Trucker Maya said, “When you get into trucking as a woman, it’s very difficult.” Lisa and Maya see themselves as role models. “I think women, and girls, are going to say, ‘You know what, I can do this’,” said Maya. “The first year is going to be the toughest of your life…it does get easier, every day.”

When Rusty Dow made her trek in 1944, she overheard one man say to another, “If it becomes so tame that women can drive it then it’s time to roll our sleeping bags and move on to the next job.” While it may not be a bottleneck of highwaywomen and female drivers, the roads traveled by women truckers has been far from tame. With ancestors like Annie and Mary and role models like Maya and Lisa, it’s safe to predict that the story of women in trucking is just going to get more interesting.

Happy National Women’s History month!

By Montway Auto Transport.

“Well-behaved women seldom make history.” –Laurel Ulrich, Pulitzer-Prize-winning professor of history at Harvard University

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