Dorothy Levitt was a British race car driver who became a powerful symbol of female empowerment in the early years of the 20th century.
Born in England 1882 to a Sephardic Jewish family, Dorothy grew up riding horses and was a talented equestrienne. When she was 20, her parents tried to arrange a marriage for her. She refused, and instead left home and began working as a temp secretary in London. One company she worked for was Napier & Son, makers of luxury motor vehicles. Smart, spunky and hard-working, Dorothy soon received an offer of a permanent position at Napier.
Through her job, Dorothy met Selwyn Edge, a prominent British businessman and racecar driver who was looking for a way to promote British cars. He met Dorothy, a “beautiful secretary with long legs and eyes like pools” and hired her as his personal assistant. Dorothy became the public face of the British luxury car industry.
Dorothy was more than a pretty face. Edge became her mentor, training her for a career in the booming automobile business. He sent her to Paris to apprentice with a French auto maker, where she received an intensive education in all aspects of building, repairing, and driving cars.
After she returned to London, Dorothy began teaching women how to drive. She taught Queen Alexandra and the royal princesses, in addition to other prominent females in British society.
Dorothy competed in her first race in April 1903. She did not win or place, but with practice and determination she soon began to win races. British society was fascinated by Dorothy. At a time when women were expected to remain at home, Dorothy was a secretary succeeding in the male world of car racing. She became known as “The Fastest Girl on Earth” and “The Goddess in the Car.”
Unlike the few other female racers, who dressed like men, Dorothy dressed in the height of feminine fashion. She was known as a scorcher – a thrill-seeking driver with a lead foot. The British press enthusiastically covered everything Dorothy did. “The public, in its mind’s eye, no doubt figures this motor champion as a big, strapping Amazon. Dorothy Levitt is exactly, or almost so, the direct opposite of such a picture. She is the most girlish of womanly women.”
In 1904, Dorothy competed alone in a 1000 mile race. She wrote in her diary that she “did everything myself, non-stop for five days.” Mechanical problems on the last day cost her the gold medal, but she won two major races a month later.
Always looking for a new challenge, Dorothy began competing in boat races. She set the first Water Speed Record at the Royal Cork Yacht Club in Ireland. She drove a motor-boat 19.3 miles an hour, to the excitement of thousands of people watching from the Yacht Club promenade.
Dorothy was invited by King Edward VII to the Royal Yacht. In her meeting with the King, he complimented her on her bravery and skill, and they discussed boat performance issues.
Dorothy spoke to audiences about women’s “right to motor” and published a book for women drivers. In her book, she recommended drivers carry a ladies’ hand mirror, to “occasionally hold up to see what is behind you.” She thus created the first rear view mirror, seven years before car manufacturers introduced them. Having mastered car and boat racing, Dorothy took the logical next step and learned to fly a plane in 1909.
At every step of her illustrious racing career, Dorothy challenged stereotypes about helpless females. She said in an interview, “I am constantly asked by some astonished people ‘Do you really understand all the horrid machinery of a motor, and could you mend it if it broke down? The details of an engine may sound complicated and look ‘horrid,’ but an engine is easily mastered.”
Dorothy vanished from public life in 1910, for reasons that are unclear. She died in 1922.
For excelling in a male-dominated sport and being a role model for independent women, we honor Dorothy Levitt as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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