If this series is going to highlight the women who boldly paved the way then we have to look way back… way way back. The heart of racing is speed, and the first instance of speed is the chariot races back in ancient Greece (yes we’re going that far back!).
Now the ancient Grecian Empire, for the most part, had the viewpoint that women should not be raised like boys but raised demurely to keep a house, raise children, and that was it. If we all think back to high school English where we read the Odyssey by Homer, the wife Penelope is the consummate Greek wife. Dutifully waiting for her husband even though he may have died. Our modern female racers aren’t the ancestors of Penelope and Athenian women – they are Spartans!
You see in Sparta, unlike Athens, girls were raised and trained as their male counterparts (which was pretty darn intense!). They trained hard in sports, and a few of them were even chariot racers. Chariot racing is the ancient equivalent of race car driving. It was dangerous, flashy, and just pure raw speed. It wasn’t for the faint of heart, and for some time it was not a place women were allowed to be– even as spectators.
Chariot races were famously held during the ancient Olympic games, which bear little resemblance to the modern Olympics, and women were not allowed even to be spectators. In 440 BC, Cynisca is believed to be the very first woman to win an Olympic medal. As the daughter of a Spartan King, she won her medal due to the horses she owned winning, she herself was not a driver.
The first female chariot driver to win an Olympic medal is thought to be Eurylenois, who in 336 BC won two Olympic chariot games. She is referred to in texts as a “charioteer” and not an owner so the prevailing thought is that she actually drove the chariot. Following Eurylenois there was Billstiche, who was a Macedonian woman who won an Olympic medal as a charioteer in 264 BC, and Encrateia and Hermione (not kidding) a mother/daughter charioteer team who also won Olympic medals.
As long as speed has been around, women have found a way to buck the “males only” stereotype and win. Even as far back as 336 BC, and continuing on to last year when Brittany Force won the NHRA championship.
This is part of a series on female race car drivers throughout history: