Jan 2, 2019 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
As we prepare our hearts and minds for a new year, let’s first take a look back at some amazing vintage trailblazers. We’ve discussed several icons in past articles: Hedy Lamarr, Suzy Parker, Stephen Frykholm, Duncan Hines, and Beatrice Hicks (to name just a few)! Today I’d like to introduce you to two more trailblazers who are certain to inspire your upcoming adventures: Janet Guthrie and Raye Montague. Born during the 1930s, both women were gifted with curiosity and – with a combo of education and determination – they broke the mold in careers where women weren’t always welcome: the Navy and NASCAR.
First up – Janet Guthrie. After earning her bachelor degree in physics, she began working as a research and development engineer. Her initial assignments helped inform the Apollo mission – pretty cool. While Janet’s brain was wired for science, her heart was built for speed. Soon her weekend hobby of racing a Jaguar XK 120 coupe transitioned from passion to purpose. By the early 1970s, Janet was racing full-time (even garnering a couple victories) and within a few years she broke a huge barrier: in 1976 Janet became the first woman to race in NASCAR. That following year, she debuted at the Indianapolis 500 and was the top rookie for the Daytona 500. She came home with ninth place during her second race at Indy.
Janet’s career ultimately earned her one of the first spots in the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. While all of her accomplishments are impressive, perhaps what’s most inspirational is how she handled challenging situations. One of her biggest tests came during that fateful Indianapolis 500 in 1977. Drivers practice heavily leading up to the race, but Janet’s car was experiencing some serious troubles – leaving her at a distinct disadvantage. And to add to the strain, this kind of issue wasn’t unknown to her – it also happened during her Indy debut, taking away her chance to qualify. The critics were quick to attribute the mishaps to her gender, raising the stakes of this second attempt even higher. I can’t imagine the pressure she was feeling at the time. Janet captured the moment in her own words during an interview with All Things Considered: “The general idea was women don’t have the strength, the endurance, the emotional stability, women are going to endanger our lives. And you could read that on the newspapers most every day.”
With burdens mounting, Janet could have packed it in – but instead, in true trailblazing fashion, she dug deep. That first day on the track, she had the fastest practice speed of all the drivers. To be specific – her speed was a dizzying 188 miles per hour! (And remember – she managed all of this while navigating technical difficulties.) Janet’s commitment to her passion paved the way for the modern day icons like Danica Patrick, but as a renaissance woman she touched lives beyond the racing track. Janet’s other careers included: pilot, flight instructor, public relations exec, and editor. (And don’t forget about that physics degree!) As I think ahead to my ambitions for the new year, I’ll take a bit of Janet’s strength with me.
From one multi-talented trailblazer to the next: Raye Montague. Like Janet, Raye audaciously followed her dreams. Inspired by a submarine exhibit she visited as a child, Raye dreamt of becoming an engineer. Academic pursuits are never easy, but Raye faced a couple extra obstacles. As an African-American woman, colleges rejected her application for engineering school. Undaunted, she attended the University of Arkansas for business. Upon graduating she took a job as a naval clerk typist. The year was 1956 and computing technology was in its early stages. Who had a front-row seat to these scientific advancements? Raye – who positioned her desk next to the the department’s computer (and engineering staff). When the engineers were out, Raye would help run the machine. In time she rose to become a program director (the first woman ever promoted to the role) and by the 1970s a special mixture of events occurred.
Wanting to capitalize on the advancements in computing science, the Navy commissioned Raye’s team to design a ship. Raye exceeded all expectations – designing a frigate in a mere 19 hours! The computer program she developed became the building block for modern ship design. As a guidepost, the traditional pen & paper approach took about two years. Talk about a return on investment! Even though she wasn’t a household name, her name was infamous in one house in particular: the White House. During the 1970s Raye was regularly briefing the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Impressive achievement for anyone, but when you consider the racism and sexism she faced everyday, her contributions take on a new grandeur.
If there’s one thing that’s for certain – challenges will be there to greet us in the new year. But if our vintage trailblazers have shown us anything, it’s that the joy lies in how we rise to meet these trying moments. So let’s kick off 2019, not by strolling in – but by blazing a trail! And if that trail gets a bit bumpy, just consider: what would Raye & Janet do?