Women have been blazing trails – or in this case, skid marks – in the automobile and motorsport fields for much longer than you would imagine. When did the first appearance of women in motorsport take place? Write your answer in the comments below and read on to find out –no peeking, take a guess.
Notable female racers have made remarkable appearances both in automobiles and on motorbikes throughout history. The earliest female pioneers in the motorsport world continue to inspire female racers today and it’s amazing to look back at the history and see how much things have changed. From snatching Grand Prix titles to holding impressive records for various runs worldwide, here’s everything you need to know about notable women in motorsport throughout the 1900s.
In the beginning
The great reveal: the first appearance of women in motorsport was way back in 1897! In June of that year, eight brave women competed at the first recorded ladies’ race at theLongchamps Racecourse in Paris, France. The ladies were celebrities, mainly actors and theatrical performers, and were the first to compete on motorised tricycles. The winner, LéaLemoine, was a costume designer and proudly took the crown as first female motorsport racing champion riding a Clément tricycle. She was awarded with a bracelet for her efforts and gained the respect of women throughout France.
By 1898, French women had begun partaking in male-dominated races. Madame Laumaillé was the only female entrant in the Marseille-Nice trial and finished 27th. From France, the trend of female drivers spread to Belgium and Italy and even across oceans to the USA. 1901 saw Camille du Gast of France participate in an international race outside of France: she was the first female to race internationally.
In 1921, Italy’s famous female racer Baroness Maria Antoinetta D’Avanzo demonstrated that women in motorsport were not only notable but quick-thinking as well. When her car caught fire while racing along a beach in Denmark, she spontaneously drove the car into the water to extinguish the blazing vehicle and prevent the fire from causing harm to other racers.
Hot on the heels of rising female racers in motorsport, Hellé Nice set a new world land speed record in 1929. Her notable career included participation in five Grand Prix events as she raced along on behalf of the Bugatti racing team in her Bugatti Type -35c. In 1931, Gwenda Stewart broke ground on other land speed records on both motorcycles and in automobiles.
1935 saw Gwenda Stewart compete with rising Canadian motorsport star Kay Petre. Although Kay Petre won the race at Brooklands for the Women’s Outdoor Circuit Speed record, Stewart made a comeback and defeated her just days later. Sadly, Petre’s career came to an end after an accident in 1937 that left her unable to race again. However, she continued to be a pioneer for motorsports as a navigator for rallies and even as a co-driver to other racers.
World War II brought about a lull in motorsport racing as political and economic demands shifted focus to important matters of war – the stage was quiet for several years.
The post-WWII economic boom was also reflected in motorsports. There was a renewed interest in racing and niche sports like Vespa circuits in Italy saw a boost in popularity. In 1947, Ada Pace was one of the only female competitors to take on the male-dominated Vespa circuits. In her trademark leather jacket and wide smile, Ada raced around joyously on a Vespa similar to the style that is still so popular today.
The 1950s saw a rise in fashion, motorsports, and motorsport fashion: Denise McCluggage donned a polka dot helmet and made it her trademark style while racing at Monte Carlo and the Sebring Rally in 1954. She not only made headlines but created them as well: Denise was a budding motorsport journalist and loudly advocated for the equality of women drivers in the motorsport world.
Female pioneers in motorsports did more than just race. After competing in rallies and winning multiple titles for her achievements worldwide throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Anne Hall from Britain went on to establish an advanced driving school on home soil. She inspired many female drivers and passed on her skills dutifully. Despite her advanced age, she returned to motorsports at age 68 and even won a title. Inspired yet?
The 1960s also saw the rise of Pat Moss, the sister of Grand Prix star Sir Stirling Moss. Her brother gave her a driving lesson at age 11 and the rest was history. By 1965, Pat Moss had won first place at the European Ladies Rally five times. To this day, Pat is still one of the most notable women in motorsports and particularly rally racing.
Great strides for gender equality in motorsport racing were made in 1973. Despite heavy opposition, Shirley ‘ChaCha’ Muldowney received a license to race Top Fuel dragsters and went on to win three titles over the next ten years. Meanwhile, Marie-Claude Beaumont of France became famed for winning the French Ladies Championship.
1979 saw widespread popularity of motorsports as Ford launched the ‘Find a Lady Rally Driver’ competition. British racer Louise Aitken-Walker was chosen from among 2000 participants and went on to the claim the title of first ever Ladies World Champion in 1990. She has since been inducted into the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and today runs her own car company in Scotland.
The rise of the ‘French Tigress’, Michèle Mouton, was an exciting time not only for France but also for females worldwide. Michèle participated in worldwide rally events and even set the course record for the world’s most extreme hillclimb at Pike’s Peak. Her performances inspired other women drivers and showed that there is no mountain too high to triumph – literally!
Throughout the 1990s, more notable female drivers climbed the ranks: Sabine Schmitz totalled more than 20,000 laps of the Nurburgring track during her career, while Giovanna Amati partook in a F1 race – in fact, she is still the most recent female driver to have participated in a F1 race.
Throughout the 2000s, women continued to break new ground inmotorsports. Whether breaking world records, claiming rally titles or participating in prestigious races, notable women in motorsports have always been – and will continue to be – brave pioneers that inspire leagues of females across the world
Lisa is a freelance writer and enjoys writing about subjects such as road safety, women in sport and travel, and when she isn’t writing can be found relaxing with a good book.
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