Each year, Women’s History Month is celebrated in March to honor women who have made waves in their various spaces. It’s a time to reflect on women’s contributions to culture, history, and society as a whole. Influential and impactful women are prevalent, though sometimes overlooked. In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8th and Women’s History Month, we’re shining a spotlight on three women whose contribution to supply chain and transportation should be remembered.
Lillie Elizabeth McGee Drennan
The First Licensed Female Truck Driver & Trucking Firm Owner
Lillie Elizabeth McGee Drennan was born in Galveston, Texas in 1897. As a young woman, she lost most of her hearing as a result of scarlet fever and would be forced to wear hearing aids for much of her adult life. Despite this adversity, Drennan started the Drennan Truck Line with her husband in 1928.
To grow the business, Drennan began driving her own truck. Her hard work was rewarded with success and the Drennan Truck Lines continued to grow into a thriving business with multiple drivers and trucks. However, in 1929, Drennan and her husband divorced, leaving her as the sole owner of the trucking company.
The industry that she had worked so hard to be a part of suddenly became a much less accommodating place without her husband. She struggled to obtain a driver’s license from the Railroad Commission in charge of regulating motor-freight at the time, allegedly because of her hearing loss, though Drennan believed it to be related to her gender. After challenging the commission to find a man with a cleaner safety record than hers, the Railroad Commission relented and Drennan was awarded a license. For the following 24 years, Drennan was an accident-free driver and owner of an expanding trucking company.
Despite discrimination because of her gender and disability, Lillie Drennan is remembered as a pioneer for women who want to work in industries traditionally dominated by men.
More About Lillie Drennan
During World War II, the army praised Drennan for her help in recruiting women drivers to the war effort. She was known to wear khaki pants, work boots, and a ten-gallon hat. Her constant companion was her loaded revolver and she was well known for cursing. When criticized for her language, she was known to reply, “Me and God have an understanding.”
The First Black Woman Train Engineer Working for the Union Pacific Railroad
Edwina Justus was a trailblazer for women, especially women of color, who want to enter traditionally male-dominated fields. In the 1970s, Justus didn’t let the fact that she was a black woman stop her from pursuing her dreams. After meeting up with a friend who worked for the railway, Justus decided there was no reason she couldn’t work there too and asked, “Why don’t you see if you can get me on?”
In 1973, Justus became a traction motor clerk with the job of monitoring when traction motors were pulled out of trains. She didn’t know exactly what this was and decided to see for herself. Despite being dressed fashionably in a skirt and heels, Justus continued to learn about how the yard worked and her unerring curiosity and desire for knowledge led her to apply for a position there.
Justus gained the position of yard hostler. For three years she moved cars in the yard to be repaired, cleaned and picked back up when ready to go. Quickly gaining experience, she was appointed as a full railroad engineer by Union Pacific working out of North Platte, Nebraska. North Platte, at the time, was Union Pacific’s largest railroad operation in the U.S.A.
Though rapidly gaining experience in her new profession, Justus faced the discrimination many black women did when working in predominantly white, male-dominated industries in the 1970s. When asked whether her co-workers had positive attitudes about her appointment, she recalls, “Oh, hell no! Guys didn’t want to work with me… One old guy tried to kiss me. Don’t forget my age; I was 33.”
Now, 22 years since her retirement in 1998, Justus is a symbol of perseverance for many who desire to break into professions they wouldn’t commonly “fit the mold” for. Her story is part of the exhibit, Move Over, Sir!: Women Working on the Railroad, which is on exhibition at the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
CEO and Co-Founder of Fetch Robotics
Melonee Wise is one of few women to found and manage their own robotics company. Growing up, Wise demonstrated her interest in robotics by building her very own plotter out of Lego blocks. Plotters are printers that use automated pens to make line drawings by making continuous lines. Her passion for robotics brought her to the University of Illinois where she studied mechanical engineering and developed a well-earned reputation for research in different fields.
After college, Wise held a number of internship positions before becoming a Manager for Robot Development at Willow Garage, a research lab specializing in both hardware and software creation for robots. Following her tenure at Willow Garage, Wise co-founded the company Unbounded Robotics and then went on to co-found Fetch Robotics, the company she currently oversees. Now with over 19 years’ experience designing, building, and programming robotic hardware, Wise is the CEO of her company.
As the CEO of Fetch Robotics, Wise is now taking the autonomous warehousing industry by storm. On Monday, March 9th at the Modex 2020 trade show, she is expected to debut her new Freight 500 robot, a replacement for a manual forklift which can transport up to 1,000 pounds of product. It’s anticipated that her team’s fully autonomous version of the Freight 1,500, which is in development, will launch later in 2020.
Automated warehouses are anticipated to completely revolutionize the supply chain in the next decade. It’s unsurprising, therefore, that Wise has already been the recipient of a number of prestigious recognitions. These include the 2015 MIT Technology Review’s TR35 award for technology innovators under the age of 35, Silicon Valley Business Journal’s Women of Influence and 40 Under 40 lists, and Business Insider named Wise as one of eight CEOs changing the way we work.
For the first time Gartner, in partnership with AWESOME, reports that “there have been increases in women represented across the pipeline for the first time, with an 8% jump at the VP level.” This gain in representation in leadership positions is due in part to the legacy of other female supply chain and transportation influencers like Lillie Drennan, Edwina Justus and Melonee Wise.