To truly appreciate the history of women in trucking, one must go farther back than the CDL training and truck driving jobs we understand today. The word “truck” has been used to refer to wheel housings since the early 17th century; many things were called trucks long before the motorized vehicle originally invented by Gottlieb Daimler in 1896. Women truck drivers date back to medieval times, when women hauled goods to local markets driving ox carts. Women might not have been called female truck drivers and their ox carts weren’t referred to as “trucks,” but the concept was the same: transport the goods from a point of origin to a point of destination. The female truck driver was tasked with accomplishing this, even as far back as the middle ages.
American women first took the hauling wheel for different purposes. During the migration across the plains to populate the Western states, women often took the reins of the horse carriages from their husbands, driving herself and her family to find land to claim and establish her homestead. This, too, might not fit the image of women truck drivers that we hold today, but the role of the woman in driving her family through the prairies held just as much importance as the female truck driver who hauls goods across those same prairies in modern-day truck driving. One particular woman stood out, however, during this period of women in trucking history, and that woman was Mary Fields.
Mary Fields not only paved the road for female truck drivers, she also paved the road for African-Americans. Dubbed “Stagecoach Mary,” Fields was born into slavery in 1832 and freed in 1865 when the 13th Amendment to U.S. Constitution was ratified. Fields joined the U.S. Postal Service at 60 years old- the second woman to be hired – and drove her team of six horses and a mule named “Moses” every day. Fields was more than an icon in the history of (women in trucking); she was also quite a character, reportedly able to drink whiskey with the best of men and smoke cigars, as well.
What Mary Fields began, women continued into the early 20th century with the women’s suffrage movement and World War I. Luella Bates is believed to be the first female truck driver in commercial driving as understood today, receiving her official truck driving license in New York after she attended the 1920 New York Auto Show. Bates, along with several other women enlisted to help while their husbands were away fighting World War I, worked for the Four Wheel Drive Auto Company from 1918 to 1922. Bates test drove Model B trucks, operated dump trucks and drove three transcontinental tours during her truck driving career – her first tour to promote driver safety procedures adopted and fine-tuned by transportation agencies and (truck insurance) companies to this day. Bates didn’t just drive truck; she was also an expert mechanic.
Women’s involvement in World War I carried over into World War II, where perhaps the most surprising female truck driver was Queen Elizabeth II, the United Kingdom’s current reigning monarch. Her Majesty still held the title of Princess during World War II, but that did not stop her from serving her country. Queen Elizabeth joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service – the women’s branch of the British army – and learned how to fix truck engines and drive truck for the British forces. It is fondly rumored that many years later the Queen’s car broke down one day and rather than await a tow, she got out and fixed the engine herself. It is unclear whether this actually happened, but Her Majesty the Queen certainly did her part to advance women truckers during WWII.
Despite the continued women’s liberation movement in the 1970s, women truck drivers remain oddly scarce in the early 21st century trucking industry. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that in 2009, women made up 6 percent of the total dredge, excavating and loading machine operators; 6.9 percent of the industrial truck and tractor operators; 5.2 percent of truck drivers; 5.9 percent of all other motor vehicle drivers. The women owned trucking company percentage is quite small, as well. This is not to suggest that trucking is a “man’s world,” as many in the trucking forum have argued. Rather, whether a truck driver or running a women owned trucking company, there is still a tremendous amount of history to be made when it comes to women in trucking.