The First Woman To Ever Race Was A Rothschild Who Called Herself 'Snail'

Illustration for article titled The First Woman To Ever Race Was A Rothschild Who Called Herself 'Snail'
Photo: Wikimedia

The woman’s journey into the racing world was, ironically, a slow one. It took a slow trickle of hard-headed ladies eager to see what speed was all about in order to set the stage for women to come, testing out the waters one race at a time. And the first of those women was Hélène van Zuylen.

Hélène was born in 1863 to the iconic Rothschild family, meaning that she was able to enjoy all the privileges that came along with it; namely, her status as a Parisian socialite, the money she would need to kickstart a career of adventures, and access to the culture that would shape her future.

She wasn’t one to be content with settling into the molds set out for her. There isn’t much documentation of her early life, but once she married Dutch Baron Etienne van Zuylen in 1887, all bets were off. The Baron was Roman Catholic, which didn’t sit well with the Jewish Rothschild family; Hélène was disinherited of the family home and looked at as something of an outcast.


But that wasn’t the only romance scandal she was involved in. Hélène met Renée Vivien in 1901, and the two women kicked off an affair that lasted for several years. Hélène was a closeted lesbian despite her marriage to a man, and she became a poetic collaborator with Vivien—until she abruptly left Renée for another woman in 1907. But clearly, Hélène wasn’t one to play by the rules.

Illustration for article titled The First Woman To Ever Race Was A Rothschild Who Called Herself 'Snail'
Photo: Les Sports modernes (Wikimedia)

Hélène and her husband still got along quite well, despite everything. Baron van Zuylen was the president of the Automobile Club de France and served as a main organizer for the 1898 Paris-Amsterdam-Paris race, a 1431 km trail run on July 7-13. That meant that Hélène had all the right connections to sneak in.

It would have been yet another scandal if people knew that a woman was about to enter a race—so she entered under a pseudonym. Firmly tongue-in-cheek, Hélène was known as ‘Snail’ during the race, which earned also earned her the nickname ‘La Brioche’. Her husband raced alongside her, going by ‘Escargot’.


Her first race was successful in that she actually did finish, but not many details about the trek survived her. It’s known that she didn’t finish in the top 15, but that’s all. But although it wasn’t necessarily spectacular, she thus became the first woman to ever compete in a race.

In 1901, Hélène entered the Paris-Berlin race but didn’t even start; she had suffered a technical failure. Camille du Gast was the only woman to thus compete out of 122 entrants.


Her racing career was not quite as prolific as that of du Gast’s, but the sudden prominence of women interested in cars did pay off. Those two, alongside Anne de Rochechouart de Mortemart, were considered the three pioneering female drivers of the Belle Époque. Such prominent social figures made it obvious that women were just as interested in cars. Together, they inspired manufacturers to make motoring that much easier for the traditional woman. For example, Renault began to produce cars that could be started from the dashboard, so that women of the time didn’t need to do much cranking or try to climb quickly into the car with the flowing skirts that were fashionable at the time.

Motorsports just weren’t quite a career yet, for men or for women alike. Van Zuylen was lucky enough to compete long before organized Grand Prix racing took hold, so she could show her mettle without needing to be contracted to a team. But she was there, alongside the affluent men of her class, to show what she could do.


Her contributions may not sound like much, but she broke the barrier. Hélène van Zuylen made racing a possibility for women where it hadn’t been before and helped change the social landscape that enabled women to fall in love with speed. And that is a fact that cannot be forgotten.

Weekends at Jalopnik. Managing editor at A Girl's Guide to Cars. Lead IndyCar writer and assistant editor at Frontstretch. Novelist. Motorsport fanatic.

Share This Story

Get our `newsletter`



@ Elizabeth

If you are looking for strong female role model who also happens to be a driver in a heavily male dominated arena I have a suggestion:

Mariya Oktyabrskaya:

Here’s some highlights:

No pampered Aristocrat Mariya was born into a poor Ukrainian family on the Crimean Peninsula. She was one of ten children. Before the Great Patriotic War, the Soviet name for the eastern front of Second World War, she worked in a cannery, and then as a telephone operator. In 1925, she married a Soviet army officer. While married to her husband, she began to acquire an interest in military matters. She became involved in the ‘Military Wives Council’ and was trained as a nurse in the army. She also learned how to use weapons and drive vehicles.

When the eastern front of World War II opened (called the Great Patriotic War in the former Soviet Union), Mariya was evacuated to Tomsk in Siberia. While living in Tomsk, she learned that her husband was killed fighting the forces of Nazi Germany near Kiev in August 1941. The news took two years to reach her. The news angered her greatly, and she became determined to fight the Germans in vengeance for her husband’s death.

She then wrote the following letter to Stalin:

“My husband was killed in action defending the motherland. I want revenge on the fascist dogs for his death and for the death of Soviet people tortured by the fascist barbarians. For this purpose I’ve deposited all my personal savings – 50,000 rubles – to the National Bank in order to build a tank. I kindly ask to name the tank ‘Fighting Girlfriend’ and to send me to the frontline as a driver of said tank.”

Initially, the army was skeptical of her ability to handle a tank. However, she quickly proved in training that she could drive, shoot, and throw grenades with the best of them — skills she’d picked up from her late husband, with whom she’d presumably had some interesting dates.

On her first outing in the tank, she outmaneuvered the German soldiers, killing around thirty of them and taking out an anti-tank gun. When they shelled her tank, immobilizing Fighting Girlfriend, she got out — in the middle of a firefight — and repaired the damn thing. She then got back in and proceeded to kill more Germans.

During all this, she wrote a letter to her sister describing her time in the war. She told her “I’ve had my baptism by fire. I beat the bastards. Sometimes I’m so angry I can’t even breathe.”

In the end, she was taken out by a mortar round when she got out of her tank in the middle of yet another firefight to fix Fighting Girlfriend. She was awarded the highest honor in the Soviet Military and is buried in one of the nation’s most sacred cemeteries.

TL:DR A woman who drove a tank she bought with her own money, repaired the tank during combat, fought (and killed) actual Nazis and is a national hero to boot.