Over the last century, the trucking industry has evolved significantly. In the industry’s infancy, the military utilized trucks to move equipment during World War I. Naturally this meant that the vast majority of drivers were servicemen. As trucks became a vital domestic supply chain resource in the 1930s, men were once again behind the wheel. There were, however, female pioneers, who entered the trucking industry far ahead of their time. Luella Bates was the earliest recorded female truck driver to operate a class B truck. She drove trucks for the Four Wheel Drive Auto Company in Clintonville, Wisconsin between 1918 and 1922. Bates was a trailblazer, and other female drivers like Adriesue “Bitzy” Gomez and Lillie Drennan began following in her footsteps. Despite the fact that women have been behind the wheel for a century, female drivers still account for a small portion of an $800 billion dollar industry.
Today, women make up just 10% of truckers in the United States. During the month of March, we spoke to the women of the road. Their stories shed a light on the incredible strides women are marking in the industry. The female drivers we spoke with have dealt with adversity and sexism in trucking only to persevere and in some cases, encourage other women to join them in the industry. The road that is being paved for women in trucking is not yet a smooth one, but the progress being made is both commendable and noteworthy.
Imagine parking your truck at a rest stop and having a gun pointed at the back of your head, being stopped by police to check your CDL, or being mistaken for what is known in the industry as a “lizard lot”, simply because your gender provokes the notion that you don’t “belong”. That’s what Barbara Hernan dealt with early on in her career. Nearly thirty-five years later, Barbara continues to haul her tanker across the country and keeps a spray of WD-40 in case anyone gets “out of hand”. When asked why she continued to stay in a career that could be dangerous for women, she responded “This is a great industry to be in, but like with any job you have to work your way up. Sacrifices are made like with any job. Being a driver isn’t easy but it’s worth all you put into it.” She continues, “being a strong-willed and determined woman is what it takes to do this job well.”
Fifty-four years in trucking and Shirley Harris has seen it all. With a true affinity for trucks that was sparked while growing up in a family full of drivers, Shirley decided to take to the wheel when she was only 18 years old. When she began driving, Shirley faces abysmal challenges, such as being intentionally given the wrong directions to being told by a male driver they hoped she “fell into a ditch” over the CB radio. She’s since found the best way to deal with these afflictions was to give back to her trucking community. Oftentimes, drivers just entering the field and even those who have decades of experience can be turned away in a time of need. Shirley makes it a point to help those in need out on the road, paying it forward to the next generation of drivers.
One thing that reigns true: being a truck driver is not for the faint of heart and although we’ve spoken to several women on the road, each have experienced their fair share of discrimination, violence, and ridicule. But, more importantly – each of these women are still driving and risking their lives every day along with every other truck driver in the nation to ensure business as usual for all Americans. And because of that, there’s absolutely no place for discrimination in trucking.
With the rise of organizations like S.H.E. Trucking, women are being given a foundation for knowledge and aid that have proven to be useful despite what stage in your career you may be. Its founder, Sharae Moore, originally intended her organization to be an apparel line – designed to be worn on the road to show sisterhood, but it evolved into one of the biggest online communities for women drivers. With interactive modules designed to help novice drivers with their CDL to offering mentorship opportunities from other more experienced drivers, there’s a place for every woman trucker at S.H.E. Trucking. The women that we had the privilege of speaking to all shared the same sentiment: because of S.H.E. Trucking, they finally found a place where they all felt supported and above all, safe.