Women Pioneers

Katie Wood

A good number of Australia’s early, groundbreaking motorists were women. Among them were Kathleen Howell and Jean Robertson who in 1928 set a new record for the Perth to Adelaide trip of two days and ten hours. The two intrepid adventurers made many outback trips, from Melbourne to Perth, Melbourne to Darwin and through the Barkly Tableland to Brisbane in their Italian Lancia Lambda. In the process, they created some of Australia’s earliest outback road maps for Shell in exchange for fuel. Kathleen Howell, later Gardiner, recalled of the Lambda many years later, ‘She was really a lovely car but really the last car in the world for that trip because she had a low clearance.’

The precedent for skilled women drivers was established quickly after the introduction of the motor car into Australia. Indeed, Jean Robertson was a student of Alice Anderson, another remarkable motoring pioneer. Anderson grew up in Melbourne, the daughter of an engineer.Working part-time as a clerical worker, she developed an after-hours business driving picnic parties to the Dandenong Ranges. By 1919 she had built a motor garage and begun the Alice Anderson Motor Service, which included chauffeuring, petrol sales, vehicle repairs and a driving school. In her garage, Anderson ran motor mechanic programs for women.

Robertson and Howell followed in the footsteps of other female outback motoring pairs such as Marion Bell and her daughter, and Gladys Sandford and Stella Christie. In fact, Howell and Robertson carried a gearbox to Sandford and Christie on one of their outback trips after the latter two had broken down and saved themselves by walking to a nearby station to telegraph for repairs.

Clearly, early motoring was not the exclusive domain of men. The promise of freedom and adventure that the unmapped tracks held for the early motoring adventurers of both sexes laid the foundations for the development of the road trip as the popular pastime we know today.


  1. Georgine Clarsen, ‘Anderson, Alice Elizabeth Foley (1897–1926)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, supp. vol., Melbourne: MUP, 2005, pp. 8–9.
  2. Georgine Clarsen, Eat my Dust: Early women motorists, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2008.
  3. Anneli Knight, ‘Women at the seat of power’, Sydney Morning Herald, 13 February, 2009.
  4. Robert Murray, Go Well: One hundred years of Shell in Australia, Melbourne: Hargreen Publishing Company, 2001.