Women taking the wheel: Women in motorsport date back much further than you think

Women taking the wheel: Women in motorsport date back much further than you think
8th March 2021 Ed Barton-Hilton
Vintage image of female racing driver for women in motorsport article.

Women taking the wheel: Women in motorsport date back much further than you think

(Pictured is Hellé Nice, the race driver who was nicknamed ‘Bugatti Queen’.)

Despite the ever-increasing numbers of women in motorsport, you might consider this to be a fairly new thing. However, this is not actually true. Women racing drivers date back all the way to the 1800s.

How it all began

When did the first woman enter a motor race, one might wonder. Could it have been when the W Series introduced its all-female racing series in 2019? Or was it when Maria Teresa de Filippis climbed into her Maserati 250F and attempted to qualify for the 1958 Monaco Grand Prix? Or would it have been when Helle Nice first swapped her dancing shoes for driving boots and overalls to wow the crowds in the 1930s?

The truth is, women racing cars date back even further than the 1930s. In fact, female race drivers first appeared in France when Queen Victoria ruled the UK and British automobiles still drove along unmade roads preceded by a man with a red flag.

The year, which is 1897, is quite surprising and the identity of the drivers is even more unexpected.

(Maria De Fillipis in the late 1950s, she was the first woman to race in Formula 1 in 1958.)

The first racers

The “Championnat des Chauffeuses” was organised by the Paris Echo newspaper as a new addition to the annual “Course des Artistes”, a celebrity sports day where actors, dancers and even artists raced each other on bicycles. The “chauffeuses” were all Paris-based theatrical women and they took to the Longchamps racecourse on De Dion motorised tricycles.

Eight women took part in three heats of one lap and a final of two laps. Lea Lemoine, a costume designer, won from De Grandval and “Bossu”.

The race must have been a comical sight. Each driver wore a distinctive coloured outfit, including a long skirt. The tricycles moved at a slow running pace with their engines popping and puffing. Yet the event proved so popular that it was revived in 1898 and then 1899, with Lemoine winning all three editions.

The Championnat produced two novel ideas, that of women as racing drivers, and the idea of female drivers as performers rather than sportswomen.

Lea Lemoine took her Clement-framed tricycle to the Coupe des Motocycles shortly after her first Longchamps triumph. She was fifth overall, riding against men on motorcycles and tricycles like hers. Before long, other women who were not part of the original “chauffeuses” group were trying their hand at the road races springing up across France and Europe. A Madame Laumaille entered the 1898 Marseille-Nice trial on a De Dion-engined tricycle, competing against her husband and a large field of other men. She came 27th. The same year, Helene van Zuylen, using the name of “Snail”, entered the Paris-Amsterdam Trial, although her car broke down very early on. Like Madame Laumaille, she was racing against her husband, who used the nom de course of “Escargot”. Van Zuylen became well known later in life as a writer.

(Pictured are women riding bicycles, many women did compete in races on both bicycles and tricycles.)

Evolving across Europe

Women drivers also began to appear in neighbouring Belgium, when Madame Labrousse scored a class third in the 1899 Paris-Namur-Spa race, driving a Panhard. The same year, Countess Elsa d’Albrizzi drove her Benz light car to ninth in the Padua-Vicenza-Thiene-Bassano-Treviso-Padua Trail.

The culmination of this continental activity was the first woman to enter a Grand Epreuve. Camille Du Gast, the wealthy widow of a Paris shop owner, rolled up to the start line of the 1901 Paris-Berlin Trail in her Panhard and became the first female driver to attempt a major, sanctioned race, finishing 33rd overall. In 1903, she drove a factory De Dietrich in the Paris-Madrid race, running as high as sixth until she stopped to free a team-mate from under a crashed car.

Controversy

The race was stopped at Bordeaux after a series of fatal accidents. One of the upshots of the disastrous event was that the ACF (French motor racing association) banned women from its competitions, citing “feminine nervousness”. Du Gast had not been part of any of the accidents but the ACF was probably mindful of the public outcry that would ensue should a woman die in this way.

The evolution of women in motor racing

Refusing to be deterred from motorsport, female competitors went back to framing themselves as entertainers or performers. Some actually were performers, like former lion tamer and dancer “Madame Bob Walter”. Madame Bob thrilled onlookers by pitting her Vinot & Deguingand car against a motorcycle ridden by Madame Jolivet in 1902 and later used the automobile in hill climbs. As time passed, womens’ races were once more a popular spectacle at the numerous celebrity race days held in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. The “Journee Feminine de l’Automobile” was an all-female event that started off as a media day out, but it sowed the seeds of a golden age of female drivers. Hellé Nice won her first race at the Journee in 1929, a year after Marie Depret, who would later race at Le Mans. By the time Marguerite Mareuse entered the event in 1931, she was already immortalised as one of the first women to race at the Sarthe classic.

Present times

Women racing drivers were seen as eccentric and somewhat of a novelty at first. After over 100 years we have hopefully surpassed much of this and come a long way.

In recent times women are more likely to be seen as competitive sportswomen and respected in the world of motorsport. Although we are still fighting for more inclusivity, these are encouraging times as more women fight to win titles.

By Rachel Harris-Gardiner