At the turn of the century, the last century (1900s), cars were a far cry from the safe, clean, and mass-produced cars we drive today. Fueled by kerosene, driving on roads that were still actively traversed by wagons and horses, and with no existing safety measures in place, they were both a status symbol and a dangerous game. Keep this in mind as I tell you about Louise, Alice, Dorothy, Joan, and Odette. These women drove automobiles and competed in races before most of them had the right to vote.
In 1900, in an attempt to show that the automobile was more reliable then horses, the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland put on the 1000 Mile Trial. Drivers would traverse 1000 miles from London up to Edinburg and back, driving approximately one hundred miles a day. Participants had four hill climb competitions and a speed trial. One of the participants was Louis Bazalgette who started driving in competition, after her husband died (bucking the societal role of widow). It’s not completely clear on how she finished, but she participated. She was also very active in protesting the lack of women’s involvement in male-only motor clubs. In giving a speech in one of these such clubs she opinioned that hopefully they would allow women into their club to help the free exchange of ideas.
Alice Huyler Ramsey
Approximately ten years before women in the United States earned the right to vote, Alice Huyler Ramsey became the first woman to complete a trans-continental road trip (an all female road trip too!). In 1908, one year before the trip, Alice had entered the American Automobile Association’s Montauk Point endurance race, one of two women in the field. She finished the race with a perfect score and earned a bronze medal. It was following that race were the groundwork for the cross-country expedition was set.
Sponsored by the Maxwell car company, Ramsey with three companions (none of the three knew how to drive) set off from New York City in 1909. This was before highways and still in the very infancy of the automobile life. Out of the 3,800-mile trip, only 152 miles were paved. There were no maps; only a guidebook that gave landmarks…and that was only for east of the Mississippi. Alice had to change over eleven tires, repair a brake pedal, and cool down her transmission. The roads were typically traveled by wagons, and in many places in the plains, they traveled very slowly because of mud. It took them thirteen days to go 360 miles, at times sleeping by the side of the road waiting creeks to subside.
The trip ended in August of 1909 and took them fifty-nine days to complete the trip, reaching a maximum speed of forty-two miles-per-hour.
This wasn’t Ramsey’s last cross-country trip. She went on to continue at least thirty more trips, and drove five out fo the six passes in the Alps. She’s also the first woman to be inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame (in 2000), was a college graduate during a time when very few women received a college education, and was the founder and president of the Women’s Motoring Club in New Jersey.
As someone who has taken a few long car rides (including Indy to Florida twice within sixty-days and a fun trip from Seattle to San Francisco) I feel just some kinship with Alice Huyler Ramsey, she seems like someone who would be great to sit and have a meal with.
You can’t have a discussion of women in motorsports without mentioning Dorothy Levitt! Her novel “The Woman and the Car” was recently recommended as something to read and I whole-heartedly agree and also recommend because her life and what she did makes this book a great guide.
So Dorothy, she was in the beginning a secretary at Napier & Sons, which was an engine manufacture back in the day. Her bosses all thought it was a good idea to get a woman set as a driver for their cars to show that they were good – and it fell to Dorothy. At this time, drivers entered cars into time trials to show potential buyers how good the car was, and during these trials, the driver had to provide all the mechanical maintenance of the car. Needless to say Dorothy Levitt then learned how to do everything with a car (again – see the book). Oh she was also so good at this she taught Queen Victoria as well as the Princess Louis, Alexandra, and Maud how to drive.
Following her entrance in the time trials, she entered motorsport races in approximately 1903 – and she’s alleged to be the first female driver to do so in England. She had a pretty good record. Won her car class at the Southport Speed Trials, and had a speed of 1 minute and fort-five second per kilometer. She also entered the 400-mile race (that may be kilometer and I just scrawled mile because – Imperial system) from Glasglow to London receiving a nearly perfect score. She also set the Ladies World Speed record of 79.75mph in 1905, and then came back the next year and reset the record to 90.88 mph. At this time, the men’s record was 109 mph.
What may be the most fantastic thing about Dorothy is that all the while she maintained her feminine energy. She could have done the whole trouser, baggy shirt thing – but now she wore dresses and coats that were cut to show off her feminine figure. Needless to say, if we hung out now – she’d be all in on the #CheckeredChallenge in May.
Joan Newton Cuneo
Six years after Dorothy Levitt set the world record for ladies – Joan Newton Cuneo set the record speed of 111.5 mph. I see Joan as Dorothy’s American counterpart really. Her racing started in 1905 when she entered the Glidden Tour, which was a 870 mile race starting and ending in New York City. Her race was cut short because she swerved to avoid another competitor who was serving to avoid someone setting off dynamite for road construction (would bring a new twist to road courses). Following her entrance in the race, she got a lot of publicity and a lot of speeding tickets.
Joan attempted another race in the US, but was banned from the section of the race that traveled up Mt. Washington in New Hampshire because it was “too dangerous”. The following year, 1907, she attempted to enter the race again but they only would allow members of motor clubs, and she wasn’t a part of a motor club. Finally in 1908 she was a part of a motor club, and could complete the full event. Not only did she complete she received a perfect score and drove the whole event by herself, many men competitors had to call on relief drivers, she won the sportsmanship trophy and the gold medal from AAA.
The following year, Joan entered a race in New Orleans, the Mardi Gras Race, and came in second to Ralph De Palma (he was at 51:37 and she was at 52:40). Unfortunately at the end of 1909 the AAA banned all women from its sanctioned events.
The last women I want to bring to your attention from this time period (1900s-1930s) is Odette Siko. Not to bury the lead, but she is the woman to have the highest finish in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. She first attempted the race in 1930 with another female driver (Marguerite Mareuse) and they were the first women to compete in Le Mans. The women finished seventh overall and second in their class – also first amongst the French drivers.
In 1932 she attempted Le Mans again, this time with a male co-driver, and they came in first in their class and forth overall. During Odette’s attempt in the race in 1933 her car slid of the track, Odette was ejected from the car, and the car caught on fire. Being a total bad-ass, Odette thought it would just buff out and thought they would start the race up again.
Odette paired up with Helle Nice, who will be receiving her own entry because I’m reading the book about her right now and am enthralled, for the Paris-St. Raphael rally and for the 1937 Yaco Oil speed trials at Montlhery. The Yaco Oil speed trials was an all female, all French team, and in fact the women set the world records for the International Group C records, and it’s reported some of those records still stand today.
How badass are you that you’re wanting to race things that have just been introduced, in a male-dominated society, and you really have no true rights as a woman? So badass. These turn of the century women were some of my favorite women to research. The women who all came after them owe so much to Louise, Alice, Dorothy, Joan, Odette, and the countess other women that proved themselves in this time.