***This article was originally published and authored by Desiree Wood President of the REAL Women in Trucking organization in February 2014 as part of a series aimed to re-establish an accurate historical timeline of authentic women in trucking pioneers***
Women are not new to freight transportation, they have worked as truck drivers for over a century, since the start of World War I when trucks to move freight were first beginning to be developed.
Luella Bates was one such woman. She drove a class B truck for the Four-Wheel Drive Auto Company from 1918 -1922 in Clintonville, Wisconsin. She was the first licensed woman truck driver.
Her great-granddaughter is American Actress Ashley Hinshaw who was unaware she was related to Luella, a true trailblazer when the trucking industry was in its infancy.
It was a Wisconsin truck driver named Heather Strong that brought Luella back to trucking history. She was researching women who filled truck driving positions left empty by men leaving for WWI. Heather made the wonderful short video you can see below about Luella that features photographs from the period depicting several women truck drivers.
Luella was a test driver, but she was also proficient in completing all the maintenance on her truck. She was a demonstrator for the vehicle, and she became the spokesperson for the Four-Wheel Drive Auto Company.
In January 1920, she drove a Model B to New York City to attend the New York Auto Show and completed three transcontinental tours throughout the United States. The advertising marketing scheme promoted the vehicle as “… being so easy to drive, even a woman could do it…” (eye roll). (Read More about Luelle Bates Here)
Prior to 2013, before Luella was rediscovered, Lillie Elizabeth McGee Drennan was often credited as the first licensed female truck driver.
Lillie was an extraordinary woman who overcame incredible obstacles and thrived as a truck driver. She was given up for adoption shortly after her 1897 birth in Texas. She had only a fifth-grade education, was married at the age of 15, became a mother and divorced two years later.
Lillie married and divorced twice more in her lifetime. During her second marriage she was introduced to the business of trucking. She eventually became a truck driver and the sole owner of the Drennan Truck Line.
Lillie had a hearing impairment, and this threatened her ability to be granted a license by the regulatory commission of her day. According to the Texas State Historical Association, Lillie perceived “sex bias” as a factor rather than her hearing ability. She argued her case successfully as being a safe driver and was granted her commercial truck-driver’s license in 1929.
Lillie operated her business for nearly 24 years against the odds, battling unfair competition, dishonest shipping clerks and those who thought a woman didn’t have what it takes to run a trucking company. She personally trained her drivers and sometimes drove up to 48 hour stretches without an accident. During WWII she was praised by the United States Army for a recruiting campaign that attracted more women to become truck drivers. During her lifetime she was relatively famous and well known.
Luella and Lillie are true pioneers of the trucking industry. Here is the video from Heather Strong about Luella Bates. Enjoy!