Women’s History Month: The Long-Haul Pioneers

As part of our Women’s History Month celebration, we invited Katrina Liddell from XPO’s transportation sales team to share how she’s been professionally inspired by those who preceded her. After all, in an industry as historically male-dominated as trucking, the women who stepped up and shouldered aside preconceptions were the true pioneers.

I’ve spent my career in two traditionally male-dominated industries: construction and transportation. Gender imbalance is usually most visible in the field – the boots on the ground. In construction, of course, the trade workers wear those boots, while here in transportation our truckers are the lifeblood of the industry.

Trucking is historically male-dominated, but behind every stereotype is someone challenging it. One such pioneer from the annals of transportation history: Bertha Benz, the first person to drive long distance in an automobile.

It was 1888 and Bertha was 39 years old. She was the wife and partner of Karl Benz, who invented the world’s first automobile and was one of the namesakes behind Mercedes-Benz. Karl had already built his Model I and Model II cars and had started selling the Model III. But he wasn’t doing a good job marketing the vehicle. No one was buying it.

Knowing they needed to prove how important automobiles could be, Bertha hatched a plan. Early in the morning on August 5, 1888, before her husband woke up, she and two of her teenagers climbed into the family’s Model III and took off from the German city of Mannheim for Pforzheim, a town 66 miles away where Bertha’s mother lived.

It was technically an illegal trip, made on rutted roads designed for horses and carriages, atop a newfangled device that still had a lot of problems. Bertha may have been denied an education, but she used her ingenuity to fix all sorts of issues that came up during the day-long journey. She replaced a failed wooden brake with leather from a cobbler, essentially inventing padded brakes. She refilled the car’s petroleum from an apothecary when they needed to gas up. She even worked with her kids to push the car up a hill, because the Model III didn’t have a transmission gear that could handle inclines.

Sixty-six miles seems short by today’s trucking standards, but just as she’d hoped, Bertha’s trip went down in history as the first long-haul drive. It paved the way for those who would follow, including other pioneering women in the field – women like Lillie Drennan.

Born in Texas in 1897, Lillie Drennan had a tenacious spirit. She was given up for adoption shortly after birth, was married and divorced three times beginning at age 15, and suffered a bout of scarlet fever that took much of her hearing and caused her to need hearing aids the rest of her life.

Ever the entrepreneur, Lillie began a small trucking empire with her second husband, a man named Willard Drennan. In March 1928, Lillie and Willard bought a used Model T Ford truck that Willard would drive. Soon after, they bought a Chevy for Lillie to operate. They kept adding trucks and drivers until their divorce in 1929, when Lillie took over the business, becoming the sole owner of Drennan Truck Line.

When the Railroad Commission began licensing truckers in Texas, Lillie fought to become the first licensed female truck driver, matching her perfect safety record against the sexist attitudes of the time. That perfect safety record would keep throughout an almost 24-year career.

I’m often inspired by the achievements of the women that came before us, and Bertha Benz and Lillie Drennan were truly trailblazers. From Bertha’s intellect and attitude to Lillie’s unremitting tenacity, both ladies are wonderful reminders that values like safety, innovation, perseverance and entrepreneurship were the pioneering traits of the women of transportation.

Top photos, left to right: Bertha Benz, the first person to drive an automobile long-distance; Katrina Liddell, SVP Sales, XPO North American Transportation; Lillie Drennan, the first licensed female truck driver.