WITH A BRASH CHICAGO ACCENT, a sailor’s grasp of creative swear words, and a pistol at her side, Adriesue “Bitsy” Gomez, all five feet two inches of her, was an outsized presence on America’s highways.
Gomez rebelled against her Chicago prep-school upbringing—she was raised in Midwestern wealth from her family’s transportation business—and in the 1960s moved to New York City’s Greenwich Village. There, she did stand-up comedy, enjoyed a stint in the Navy, and had three children with a Black Panther. She moved to California and was ultimately disowned by her family for partnering with an African-American.
When her husband left Gomez and her daughters in the late 1960s, she realized that she had to find a way to financially support herself, but also wanted a job she could love. The answer was long-haul truck driving. Despite the burgeoning second-wave women’s movement, this was an outlandish prospect for a woman in 1969. Proof of this was that the state of California seized Gomez’s children and put them in foster care, kicking off a 12-year legal battle that raised questions about Gomez’s right to be a working mother in this unconventional line of employment.
“The last thing she was supposed to do as a woman was anything that wasn’t seen as feminine,” Dolores Gomez, one of Bitsy’s daughters says. “She was told that she was to marry, have kids, and that should be her life goal. That’s what her family wanted, but that isn’t all she wanted for herself. She rebelled. My mother was no joke.”
Despite its reputation as one of the United States’ most dangerous and potentially fatal occupations—and the training drivers do or do not receive has implications for everyone who travels the vast expanse of American highways—trucking remains a critical cog of the economy.
In 2014, truck driving was the most common job in 29 states. Truckers move the parts for our cars, the food that lines the shelves in our grocery aisles, the lumber that builds our homes.
Today, according to industry estimates, the trucking industry is 95 percent male. The industry is not exactly welcoming to women—legal challenges, such as an ongoing class action lawsuit against CRST, one of the largest trucking companies in the country, suggest that being a female truck driver is to participate in a workforce rife with sexual harassment. The future of the industry as a whole is uncertain, with some economists estimating that automation could eliminate some 1.7 million trucking jobs over the next decade.
The low profile of female truckers, plus the potential disappearance of their jobs, means that the history of female truckers is at risk of being lost forever. And what a history it is. Among the many women who spent time behind the wheel of a big rig was Bea Arthur, who reportedly drove in the 1940s, long before she came to fame as the star of Maude and The Golden Girls. Actress Della Reese worked as a trucker as well.
Idella Hansen, 67, says that when she began driving, in addition to battles around equal pay, women truckers faced very particular headwinds. Often there were no bathrooms or showers for female drivers pulling into rest stops and depots.Seats in trucks’ cabs were often too high. Managers and dispatchers routinely ignored complaints about sexual harassment and often engaged in it themselves.
“When I started, I had to be the first, fastest, do the best, and have the least number of problems,” Hansen says. “I had to quadruple-check my truck. If I missed something, I knew that someone would say, ‘If you were a guy, that wouldn’t have happened.’”
The history of moving people and goods is not just a history of men, nor is it specific to the 20th and 21st centuries. In the 1800’s, when stagecoaches rolled throughout the American West, women were to be found sitting in the driver’s seat.
One of trucking’s earliest known characters is Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst, better known as “one-eyed Charlie,” a stagecoach driver born in Sharon, Vermont, in 1812. (Lore has it Parkhurst lost an eye from an altercation with a horse, leading to the nickname.) A female by birth, Parkhurst lived most of his life as a male and the sex of his birth remained largely unknown until his death in 1879.
After fleeing an orphanage in New England and working on the East Coast as a stablehand, Parkhurst headed to California during the Gold Rush in search of better economic opportunities. En route, he was recruited as a stagecoach driver, and, soon after landing in California, gained notoriety for traveling a variety of often treacherous routes.
When Parkhurst succumbed to tongue cancer, his friends made the "literally astounding” discovery of his born femaleness. The revelation became a media sensation across the country. “There is hardly a city or town or hamlet of the Pacific coast...where at least one person cannot be found will remember Charley Parkhurst,” the New York Times reported on January 9, 1880, one of “the most dexterous and celebrated of the famous California drivers.”
There was also Annie Box Neal, a woman of African-American and Native American descent born in 1870 who moved around the American Southwest with her husband, William. (It wasn’t uncommon then for the vehicles to be commanded by husband-and-wife teams, with each person taking a turn as the primary driver, a tradition that’s alive today with team-trucking models.)
Stationed mostly in Arizona, Neal gained a reputation as a sharpshooter: She and William schlepped gold bullion from mines to banks, which meant Neal was often driving with a firearm. Though she succeeded in expanding her successful stagecoach business and opened a resort that welcomed the likes of Buffalo Bill, by the time Neal died in 1950, many of her contributions had already been forgotten.
In the early 20th century, as horse-pulled buggies and stagecoaches began to give way to cars and trucks, and the onset of World War I saw a rise in demand for men in the military, opportunities in traditionally male occupations like trucking began to open up for women.
Perhaps one of the most visible faces of this era in trucking was Luella Bates, who began her career during World War I as a driver in Wisconsin. Bates, who started driving in 1918, worked as a commercial and test driver for Four Wheel Drive Auto Co. As a mechanic, she also performed her own maintenance on her truck. Though many of her female peers were dismissed from their jobs after the war ended, Bates got her truck-driving license, and, according to Robert F. Karolevitz’s 1966 book, This Was Trucking, became what many consider to be the first American female commercial truck driver.
Bates, of course, was subject to the whims of industry owners and their ideas about women. In 1920, the FWD Corporation, a Wisconsin-based maker of all-wheel drive vehicles, used Bates and five other women as part of demonstrations by truck companies to show that rigs were so easy to operate, even a woman could do it. Bates followed her appearance with a transcontinental drive. It was perhaps a publicity stunt at the time, but repeated real treks she regularly took. And, at a time when women were more likely to be used as models alongside rigs than behind the wheel, it generated heavy press coverage.
“Be careful what you say about truck drivers in general, hereafter,” Popular Science cautioned in May 1920. "They are not all huge persons with large swearing vocabularies. Here is one, for instance, who is both charming and soft-speaking...Not only does she drive her own truck, but she does all of the repairing herself.” The magazine added that she was an exhibit of “feminine efficiency.”
Bates saw things differently, arguing that many women regularly toiled in a variety of physically arduous jobs. Before driving a truck, she explained, she had worked as a store clerk, which had her on her feet for eight or nine hours a day and resulted in fatigue, weight loss, and problems with her circulation.
“People look at me when I drive through the city streets and wonder how I can do it, small as I am,” she told the New York Times in 1920. “Especially through the long, cold winters out our way, when the roads are frequently icy or heavy with snow. But honestly, in my opinion, driving a truck, even in winter, is real sport compared to the average job a woman gets and the work she has to do to earn a living.”
During the Second World War, as in the first, women took to American roads and highways to replace the men sent away to serve abroad.
The messaging in television, radio, and print around female truck drivers was tricky. As happened with other industries that experienced a surge in the number of working women, appreciation for female truckers was primarily framed around how they might benefit male G.I.s. In addition, they struggled to gain recognition as competent peers rather than mere sex objects.
“Soldiers like everything about the Army’s new streamlined truck driver—except the fact that she’s usually married to some other soldier,” The Saturday Evening Post explained in October 1943. The Post reporter described one female wartime driver as “a brunette, a knockout, and she wore a pink ribbon in her hair, dressing up the whole dirty truck and making the war more bearable, or anyway more like a slice of watermelon.”
Like other women of the era who took on jobs performed by men, the end of the war for female truck drivers meant the end of work itself…and an admonishment to return to the kitchen. The 1950s were a golden age for highway expansion and road trips. The Eisenhower Administration pumped millions into building roads and highways and Detroit's auto manufacturing boomed. Men returned home to dominate the trucking industry. Women who did remain in the workforce, including in trucking, were stigmatized and denied equal pay. Yet these frustrations would provide ammunition for the coming feminist revolution for women on big rigs.
Today, the average female trucker is a woman in her fifties, making the job a common second act for women who may have left the workforce to raise children. While a commercial driver’s license is required, a college degree is not. All told, there are an estimated 177,000 female truckers in the United States.
Bitsy Gomez died two years ago after being hit by a car near her daughter Dolores’s home in Southern California. She was 72. Though Bitsy, represented by Gloria Allred, ultimately won her children back from the foster care system, “by then it was too late,” Dolores explains. “Much of the damage had been done. The good foster homes I remember, the bad ones I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to forget.”
Gomez’s life was never the same following her divorce and protracted battle with the social services system. She never remarried. (“A good truck is to a woman what a man ought to be,” Gomez told Time magazine in April 1976. “Big and Strong and takes you where you want to go. When a woman gets into a semi, it makes up for all the crap women take in our society.”) She also struggled with addiction to speed, a drug commonly taken by truckers to stay awake during long, grueling runs. “It was a sign of the times. I think she thought, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans,’” Dolores says. “She did her best, but we were a mess.”
Gomez kept driving until her retirement in 2007. She continued to sue trucking companies for discriminatory practices throughout her career, and became one of the earliest female members of her local Teamsters chapter in California. She won a $6,000 settlement against a California winery arguing that she had been turned down for a job just because she was female. She complained to superiors about MEN ONLY signs at docking stations.
“It’s tough without her,” says her daughter, who recently accepted the “Queen of the Road” award on her late mother’s behalf from Real Women in Trucking, the nonprofit that has echoes of the coalition her mother started 50 years ago. “But I think my mom would have thought it was a good death because she died so quickly and she died on the street. She died on the pavement. She died on the road, which I know she loved so much.”