Women and Motoring

An exchange of letters to a British ladies' magazine in the early 1970's was prompted by an opening shot from a retired 'Colonel Blimp' character. He suggested that women were poor drivers since if they wore corsets like his wife, then they were quite unable to look over their shoulders to reverse! The final letter of a heated exchange came from a woman who said that if male driving standards were any indication, most men were also wearing their wife's corsets!


The Amazing Mrs. Benz


One of the pleasures of my husband's retirement is that we can travel and spend some time in my home country of Holland. We recently visited the Louwman Museum, one of the greatest collections of vintage cars and memorabilia in the world. My husband's ever-wandering eye caught the rather lovely torso (right) whilst I read an account of the amazing Mrs. Benz.


Bertha Benz

Whilst Herr Benz was dabbling with automobiles in the late 19th century, his fiancée, Bertha, invested some of her private wealth in his company. Once married, she was no longer allowed to invest (under the law of the day), however, this did not stop her from producing five children and learning to drive: one of the first women to do so. Without her husband's permission, one day in 1888, she took one of his prototype cars (The Benz Patent Motorwagen) and drove over 100 km with two of her teenage sons. She telegraphed her husband only after she had completed this leg of her journey. This was the longest drive ever made by anybody at that time and showed the potential for travel by motorcar. The journey was Mrs. Benz's idea to advertise her husband's product (and her investment) which she felt was languishing through lack of exposure. During the journey there and back, she ran out of fuel but used cleaning fluid from a chemist to continue. She had to re-line the brakes, use a hat pin to clean a blocked fuel line and finally, she used one of her garters to insulate the ignition system. This was a woman of considerable ingenuity and skill. She lived to be 95 years old.

This is a posed photograph of Bertha on the Benz Motorwagen. Normally one would wear gloves and at least an overcoat before venturing out. That she wore corsets one can take for granted: women did in those days. In fact, bearing in mind the crude suspension and damping, corsets were almost mandatory for comfortable travel in these vehicles, much in the same way that I wear a very firm brassiere should my husband ever take our car off-road (why does he do that?).


It was the garter episode that reminded me of my husband many years ago performing an 'on the spot' repair to a broken exhaust using a corset bone and two jubilee clips. It worked to my amazement. In the film 'Operation Petticoat', a broken spring in a submarine engine room is fixed using a women's girdle. It is surprising what our complex underpinnings can achieve.


Mercédès Jellinek


A less successful woman was Mercédès Jellinek, daughter of wealthy car enthusiast Emil Jellinek, an Austrian entrepreneur. Emil raced some of Daimler's best cars and one series so impressed him that he named it after his daughter Mercédès. In 1902, Daimler patented the name so successful was Emil at racing their cars. When Daimler and Benz merged in the 1920's, the name Mercedes lived on as the Mercedes-Benz.


Poor Mercédès had none of the success with which her name had become associated. She married twice into the nobility but was always poor and at times near destitute. She died aged 39. How very different from Bertha Benz, however, it has to be said (and of course it was my husband that said it) that he would rather pay money for a Mercedes 350 than a Bertha 350!                                                                                                                    

The ill-fated Mercédès Jellinek


On the whole however, these early female motorists were an adventurous and enterprising breed. One of the first women to race on equal terms with men was Camille Crespin du Gast (1868 - 1942). The photograph below shows her at the wheel of a De Dietrich in 1903. Accomplished at almost everything, she was fabulously wealthy as well as being outspoken and quite a stunning looking woman. This, as you can imagine caused admiration and jealousy in equal proportions. She raced, ballooned and drove speedboats all the while wearing fashionably tight corsets. This is quite obvious from her boating attire that fails to conceal the S-bend of her corsetted torso (1904).



Her life changed when her daughter attempted to kill her to gain the inheritance, however, the redoughtable Camille saw off the gang of thugs. The incident changed her and she spent the rest of her life doing charitable works.

Camille Crespin du Gast

Dorothy Levitt:


Frontispiece to 'The Woman and the Car'


My husband's excursion into the history of female motorists (above) has prompted some comments, especially one reminding us of Dorothy Levitt, horsewoman, champion motorist and powerboat driver. A strong proponent of female emancipation, she didn't just whinge, she went out and beat men at their own game. She even wrote a handbook for female drivers (right - 1907).



Driving in those unprotected cars was a cold experience at the best of times, and advice is given on the choice of clothes, gloves and how to secure one's hat. Dorothy even designed the shapeless sack-like over-garment (far right) as a dust protector. Despite the multiple layers of garments, the picture on the left shows that Dorothy sports a very trim waist, as would all her peers of that period. She recommended the use of a long-handled mirror, partly to check one's make-up but also to see what might be behind you, thus anticipating the commercial rear-view mirror by at least a decade. She also recommended carrying a gun for single women drivers!

I have not heard it mentioned, but I would like to think that she extolled the virtues of a firm corset. Emancipation or not, the bouncing of these primitive vehicles on unmade roads is made infinitely more comfortable if one wears proper foundation garments to stop the - er - hanging parts from bouncing as well. It certainly protects the back and it is advice that I would still give to 21st century female motorists who plan to drive off-road. Jenyns (left) had a corset especially for the female motorist.


We received some very interesting information about Dorothy Levitt on 2nd May 2017:


"I've been researching women in motorsport for a long time, and recently came across a 1910 article by Dorothy Levitt, where she pronounces herself to be against the wearing of corsets. It is noticeable that in nearly all of her publicity shots, she is wearing a duster coat and you cannot see her waistline at all, which is quite unusual for the early Edwardian period. She claims that she never wears one herself, but also claims that she has a natural 16-inch waist, which strikes me as unlikely. Dorothy was a tireless self-promoter, and didn't usually let the truth get in the way of a good story."  Rachel Bichenor

So did she or didn't she?


Rachel's blog is Speedqueens which is an encyclopaedic account of other early female motorists.