Women in Transportation History: Anne Rainsford French Bush, Automotive Pioneer

In 1900, Anne Rainsford French became the first licensed woman driver in Washington, D.C. The epitaph on her tombstone goes even further by stating that she was the “first woman licensed to drive an automobile in America.” This claim has been widely disputed, however; many have claimed, for example that Mrs. John Howell Phillips achieved that distinction several months earlier when she became a licensed driver in Chicago. Nonetheless, French was certainly among the first women in the United States to earn a driver’s license. 

The 21-year-old French, who lived at 506 East Capitol Street in Washington with her parents and siblings, sought to become the one of the city’s first residents to receive the necessary certification to drive a steam automobile. 

The origins of these certification requirements can be traced to the summer of 1899, when Gabriel Edmonston asked the city’s Board of Commissioners if he needed a license to operate such a vehicle locally. After considerable deliberation, the commissioners ended up mandating that anyone seeking to drive a steam automobile within Washington would indeed need to obtain a license to do so. This resulted in licenses first being issued in the city in January 1900 for the operation of vehicles built by the era’s largest producer of steam automobiles, the Locomobile Company of America.

French won fame a couple of months later as the first woman to apply for that type of permit in Washington. After passing an examination, she received “Steam Engineer’s License, Locomobile Class” – an accomplishment that was all the more impressive since only about two-thirds of applicants in the city were approved for those licenses. French, driving around in her Locomobile and pressing a hand down on her head for much of that time to keep her hat from flying off, soon became a familiar sight on the streets of her Capitol Hill neighborhood.

French married Walter M. Bush in 1903. She died in 1962 and is buried at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts.

Photo Credit: Life magazine (8 September 1952)

For more information on Anne Rainsford French Bush and other female transportation pioneers, please check out https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/ohim/wmntrans2.pdf

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