Simanaitis Says

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LE SEX FAIBLE

A CENTURY BEFORE Danica Patrick and long before international rally driver Michèle Mouton and NASCAR/Indy driver Janet Guthrie, women were excelling in motorsports. In July 1975, R&T published a summary “Women in Racing: The Feeble Sex?” by British journalist Cyril Posthumus. Here are tidbits about two of the women described, together with my usual Internet sleuthing.

Camille du Gast. Wikipedia writes that Du Gast was “one of the richest and most accomplished widows in France.” Indeed, she was a race car driver, balloonist, parachutist, fencer, tobogganist, skier, rifle and pistol shot, horsewoman—as well as a concert pianist and singer.

Marie Marthe Camille Designe du Gast, 1868–1942, French motoring celebrity in the Belle Epoque, feminist, and animal welfare advocate. Publicity photograph for a piano recital, c. 1900.

Du Gast’s Life-saving Exploit. “She was big and imposing,” Cyril Posthumus wrote in R&T, “and seemed to shine at everything she tried…. In 1903 she tackled the Paris-Madrid race with a 30-hp De Dietrich. At the start the crowd covered the car with roses and lilacs in tribute to the Valkyrie de l’automobile, L’intrepide Amazone and L’Atalante de la course. She started 29th, was 8th by Chartres, and between Vendôme and Tours was briefly in 6th place….”

Camille du Gast in her 30-hp De Dietrich at the 1903 Paris-Madrid race. Wikipedia notes “Her upright seating position has been ascribed to the corsetry that the fashion of the time demanded.” 

“Then at Montguyon, a mere 20 miles from Bordeaux,” Posthumus continued, “ she came upon her teammate Stead’s De Dietrich, wrecked on the road verge with him lying seriously injured beneath it, petrol steadily dripping on him. She lost three hours helping him and getting medical aid but undoubtedly saved his life. She then went on to place 78th instead of 7th as she might have. The race was stopped at Bordeaux anyway, because of the many serious accidents.”

“Mme du Gast,” Posthumus wrote, “applied for an entry in the 1904 Gordon Bennett race, but the organizers wouldn’t accept a representative of le sex faible, as they put it.” 

A feeble sex indeed?!?

Dorothy Levitt.  “Miss Dorothy Levitt,” Posthumus described, “was tall, elegant, and lucky enough to be hired as what we now call a temp (emergency typist) by the famous S.F. Edge of Napier…. Miss Levitt wanted to drive, and he wanted her to, knowing well the publicity value of a woman driver in those straight-laced times.”

Dorothy Elizabeth Levitt, née Elizabeth Levi, 1882–1922, English pioneer feminist and race driver breaking records on land and water. Image of her in a 26-hp Napier at Brooklands, 1908.

“She drove well too,” Posthumus described, “racking up an impressive list of wins in trials, hillclmbs, and sprints.… But she never got the drive on the new [opened in 1907] Brooklands track that she hankered after; initially the authorities would not permit mere women to race there.” 

Image from the frontispiece of Levitt’s 1909 book The Woman and the Car: A Chatty Little Handbook for all Women Who Motor or Who Want to Motor.

Wikipedia offers details of Levitt’s adventurous life. Among other excellent tips in The Woman and the Car: A Chatty Little Handbook for all Women Who Motor or Who Want to Motor, Levitt advised carrying a woman’s pocket mirror: “You will find it useful to have handy, not only for personal use, but to occasionally hold up to see what is behind you.” 

The rearview mirror didn’t come to motor racing until the 1911 Indianapolis 500. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021 

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