The Woman at the Wheel

Christina Ung
Christina Ung / Christina Ung

In 1909, driving was a man’s work. As one doctor wrote, “A speed of 15 or 20 miles an hour in a motor causes [women] acute mental suffering, nervous excitement, and circulatory disturbances.” Some worried that riding in open-air cars would lead to “automobile face,” an unfortunate—and hypothetical—condition in which the wind would blow women’s mouths into permanent gapes.

These notions were terrible for women. They were also terrible for the auto business. Sexism was cutting the potential market in half! The car company Maxwell realized that getting women in the driver’s seat would boost sales, so it put PR man Carl Kelsey on the case. But Kelsey knew he needed more than a few newspaper ads to change public opinion; he needed a spectacle. He began looking for a woman he could challenge to drive from coast to coast.

Kelsey found the perfect adventurer in 22-year-old Alice Huyler Ramsey. The Vassar grad had been out for a horseback ride the previous year when a car’s horn had spooked her mount. After the incident, her husband reasoned that cars were probably safer than horses and persuaded his wife to buck social norms by driving a Maxwell. She even competed in motoring competitions, where she jockeyed around hay bales and other obstacles.

When Kelsey pitched his idea to Ramsey over dinner, she jumped at the opportunity. Ramsey would later say, “I did it because it was a challenge and because I knew it would be fun.” She roped two sisters-in-law and a friend into joining her—strictly for company, of course; only Ramsey knew how to drive. Maxwell would provide them with a set of wheels, any supplies they needed, and a PR man to travel ahead of them to drum up coverage. On June 9, 1909, the quartet set out from a Maxwell showroom in Manhattan.

The trip may have been a publicity stunt, but Ramsey and her crew were self-sufficient. They changed 11 tires over the course of their journey and did their own mechanical repairs to the Maxwell. And there was plenty of tinkering to be done. Although it was brand-new, their green 1909 Maxwell Model DA was hardly an ideal vehicle for a long drive. Its four-cylinder engine kicked out just 30 horsepower. The car was also open-air, and, although it could be covered with a canvas top, it lacked a windshield. Making matters worse, the Maxwell’s tires had no tread, rendering the drive on sandy and muddy paths tricky. To traverse the makeshift roads, Ramsey and her pals packed a large canvas tarp that they unrolled on particularly slippery stretches to help the car putter along. When things got really rough, the group paid horsemen to tow them from the mud.

Tougher still, Ramsey didn’t have the benefit of a network of interstate highways or even an atlas outlining the full route! She and her navigators relied on a series of local maps, which meant a lot of getting lost and backtracking. All told, Ramsey drove 3,800 miles, of which just 152 were paved.

The trip took 59 days, and when the Maxwell finally pulled into San Francisco, the Chronicle trumpeted: PRETTY WOMEN MOTORISTS ARRIVE AFTER TRIP ACROSS THE CONTINENT. The headline wasn’t exactly a feminist masterpiece, but Ramsey and her pals had proved that women could drive as well as any man. Or, as Ramsey told an interviewer, “Good driving has nothing to do with sex. It’s all above the collar.”

Take the trip!

1. First night: Toast here! The world’s longest bar (just under 406 feet) is conveniently located at the Beer Barrel Saloon on the Lake Erie island of Put-in-Bay. 324 DELAWARE AVE., PUT-IN-BAY, OH; BEERBARRELPIB.COM

2. Pay your respects to the only member of Lewis & Clark’s team who didn’t make it, at the Sergeant Floyd Monument, which sports a historically correct 15-stripe, 15-star American flag. U.S. HIGHWAY 75, SIOUX CITY, IA

3. Haven’t seen enough cars by the time you reach Reno? Take in 200 of them at the National Automobile Museum. And for heaven’s sake, don’t miss the Alice Ramsey exhibit! 10 LAKE ST., RENO, NV; AUTOMUSEUM.ORG

4. The Empire Hotel, made famous in Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock’s homage to bizarre behavior, no longer exists. In its place: the whimsical (and affordable) Hotel Vertigo. 940 SUTTER ST., SAN FRANCISCO; HOTELVERTIGOSF.COM

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. You can get a free issue here or check out our iPad edition.