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Women in Skilled Trades

Carrying on the First Woman Truck Driver’s Legacy 90 Years Later

Photo: Courtesy of Taylor on Unsplash

The first woman in the United States to get her truck driving license faced a lot of opposition, but while the job and the times have changed, gendered misconceptions about truck driving are still here.

Lillie Elizabeth Drennan applied to the Texas Railroad Commission in 1929 to obtain her commercial truck driver’s license. The examiners felt she was a safety risk due to hearing loss she suffered from a spell of scarlet fever, but she told them, “If any man can beat my record I’ll just get out of here.”

Not only did Lillie drive a truck, she also started a trucking company with her husband, and went on to be the sole owner for over two decades after their divorce. Drennan Truck Line hauled everything from soft drinks to explosives and oilfield equipment. Lillie wore a ten-gallon hat and khaki pants and work boots and carried a loaded revolver when she drove.

Many folks felt Lillie shouldn’t be working in the trucking industry. That was over 90 years ago, but some gender bias in the field still remains, and not just from men.

In 1929, women weren’t encouraged to become truck drivers because of its image as a “man’s job.” Despite changes in the job and the skills required, this misconception is still commonly held today. So many of these presumptions are no longer valid.

People often assume that truck drivers need physical strength and stamina. That may have been true years ago when the wildcat drivers were expected to load, secure, and then unload their cargo.  Today, when you see a recruiting ad touting “no-touch” or “drop and hook,” freight, it means that the driver does not have to physically load or unload, and they’ll often just drop a trailer and hook on to another one instead.

Many new technologies make the truck safer. There are lane departure warning signals, tire pressure monitors, motorized dollies, fifth wheel cameras, and even driver fatigue screens. These innovations minimize driver error, which makes the roads safer for all of us.

One of the most common issues women cite when it comes to driving a truck is the need to shift. In the past, trucks often had eleven or thirteen-speed transmissions and drivers were taught how to “double clutch” when shifting.  Automated transmissions are becoming the norm, and today’s trucks are feeling more and more like a very large car.

There’s one more misconception to address, and that’s whether women are wanted and valued as professional drivers. Years ago, carriers claimed they just wanted the best driver and weren’t concerned about age, gender, or ethnicity.  That’s no longer the case.

We’ve learned that women are actually safer drivers than their male colleagues. The American Transportation Research Institute found that male commercial drivers were twenty percent more likely to be involved in a crash than women. For this reason, women are often the focus of recruiters looking to hire more drivers.

The trucking industry has changed dramatically since Lillie Drennan had to prove herself before receiving her professional license. And it’s time misconceptions about the job changed too.

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