Women in Motorsport: Dorothy Levitt
For our next historical post, we are delving even further into the past. This post will look at the life of Dorothy Levitt and her contributions to women in motorsport, through her achievements in hill climb and world records set.
Dorothy Elizabeth Levitt was born in London on 5th January 1882 and was absolutely a clear pioneer in motorsport – competing during a time where inequality in Britain and Europe was considered the norm.
Levitt set a long list of achievements not only in motorsport but in her other interests. She was the holder of the first water speed record and holder of the women’s world land speed record, as well as being an author. There is also some evidence to suggest that Levitt taught Queen Alexandra and the Royal Princesses how to drive. Certainly, she had a large list of achievements.
Dorothy’s racing career between 1903 and 1908 was largely successful. She often took part in long-distance races across the UK, including the Hereford 1,000 mile Light Car in 1904. In 1905, Levitt set the record for longest drive achieved by a female driver at the time. She drove a De Dion-Bouton from London to Liverpool and back over two days. In response, the British press labelled her the ‘Fastest Girl on Earth’.
“One can hardly describe one’s sensations. There is a feeling of flying through space. I never think of the danger. That sort of thing won’t do. But I know it is omnipresent. The slightest touch of the hand and the car swerves, and swerves are usually fatal. But I am a good gambler, and always willing to take the chance. In going that pace, the hardest thing is to keep in the car. Half the time the wheels don’t touch the ground at all, and when they do touch you must be prepared to take the shock and lurch, else out you will go. It is far harder work to sit in the car than to ride a galloping horse over the jumps in a steeplechase. When I made the records I was in the car alone. I prefer it.” Dorothy Levitt
Levitt did, however, face discrimination. Quite simply, she was a woman and that was considered an issue to some. In 1905 she was stopped from driving in the inaugural RAC Tourist Trophy Race on the Isle of Man. Subsequently, she was prohibited from taking part in any races on the newly opened Brookland Circuit in 1907. Brooklands would change this policy to allow women to race in 1908.
Throughout her time behind the wheel, Levitt was an ace at hill climbs. She achieved great results in Germany, France and back on home soil. At the Herkomer Trophy Race – spanning over 1,000km – she finished fourth out of 172 competitors. In 1908, Napier was second fastest of over 50 competitors at the Aston Clinton Hill Climb.
Despite her large amount of success in motorsport, from 1909 she turned her focus to aviation.
Levitt was also a strong advocate for a women’s right to drive on the road. As a result, in 1909 she published a book entitled The Women and the Car: A Chatty Little Hand Book For Women Who Motor or Want to Motor. Levitt’s work stated that there might “be pleasure in being whisked around the country by your friends and relatives, or… chauffeur, but the real pleasure only comes when you drive your own car”.
The book included many tips for ways women could begin their motoring adventure, perhaps the most influential tips she penned was that idea the women should carry a hand mirror so that they could occasionally see the traffic behind them. Many people believe that Levitt pioneered the idea for the rearview mirror, which was adopted by manufacturers in 1914.
After 1910, Dorothy Levitt’s life was largely undocumented until her death in 1922. Levitt died on the 17th May 1922 in London. Her death, at just aged 40, was recorded a verdict of misadventure. Had Levitt not died this young, there is no doubt she would have gone on to achieve many more great things.
What is most remarkable about Dorothy Levitt’s achievements is the time at which she achieved them. In the early 1900s, women in Britain did not have the vote and while some women gained suffrage in 1918, this right would not be extended to all women until 1928 (six years after the death of Levitt).
At this time, women would largely remain at the home after marrying and for those who did work most worked in domestic service – therefore, Levitt truly was a remarkable pioneer.
For a woman to compete in motorsport at this time was extraordinary and definitely someone we should remember.
Here’s to Dorothy Levitt.