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May 21, 2023

Camille du Gast, the First Woman to Race Consistently at International Level

“The danger of an accident is always present in my mind, though I am never afraid.” – Camille du Gast, Motor Monthly, Dec. 1903.

Camille du Gast (1868–1942) became the first woman to race consistently at international level in 1904. After witnessing the start of the Paris-Lyon road race, the following year she was sat behind the wheel competing in the Paris-Berlin race. She finished around 30th overall in a 20 horsepower Panhard.

Daredevil sportswoman, animal rights activist and feminist Camille du Gast grew up a tomboy in bourgeois Belle Epoque Paris society. Self-described as an “exploratrice,” du Gast’s liberal upbringing and financial freedom allowed her to transgress gendered social norms of her class and pursue sporting and adventure with relative freedom for a woman of her time.

Married at 22 to Jules Crespin, a wealthy department store heir, she was widowed just a few years later with a young daughter and an enormous fortune. Though her husband had been supportive of her adventures, even joining her on multiple hot air balloon expeditions, du Gast’s professional career as a motorist gained momentum after his death. Developing an interest in car racing, du Gast began collecting cars and became one of the first women to obtain a driver's license. By 1904 she had become the first and only woman official for the Automobile Club de France (ACF). Du Gast was one of a few elite women who participated in car races across Europe for sport, alongside the Duchesse d’Uzes Anne de Rouchechouart de Mortemart and Baroness Helene van Zuylen. She would go on to competitively motor-boat, fence, ski, toboggan and fence in various competitions around the world, drawing attention for her sportsmanship as well as her adherence to women's standards of dressing, even wearing a corset to some of the most dangerous races of the time.

At the same time, du Gast became involved in diplomacy and political activism. The sensational quality of du Gast’s life was well adapted to the women’s magazines and journals of the time. She used this publicity to bring awareness to causes about which she was passionate. Because of this popularity and her covetable fortune, however, du Gast became a target for her estranged daughter, who attempted to murder her mother in 1910 in an effort to access her fortune. Following this event, du Gast devoted herself to her social and political causes. Helping to provide access to medicine in Morocco, defending animal rights as the president of the French Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and advocating for women’s emancipation as vice-president of the Ligue Francaise du Droit des Femmes. Her outspoken and fearless nature set her apart from her contemporaries and she continued to be active in these circles until her death in 1942.


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