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Fast Women: Test driver and aviator Betty Skelton Erde

Fast Women

by Jessica Campbell

Women have always been fast. When women race, it’s not just about beating the person ahead of them: it’s about proving to the world — over and over again — that women have what it takes to succeed.

Whether sprinting down the backstretch at the Olympics or setting speed records on the salt flats, these women had serious velocity — no matter what obstacles were standing in their way. We’re jumpstarting Women’s History Month with a look at some of the fastest females ever to run, swim, drive, or fly.

I’m so sick of running
As fast as I can
Wondering if I’d get there quicker
If I was a man

—Taylor Swift “The Man”

Jerrie Cobb (1931–2019), pilot and almost-astronaut

Fast Women: Pilot and astronaut trainee Jerrie Cobb
Getty Images / The LIFE Picture Collection / Ralph Crane

A gifted pilot who set world records for speed, altitude, and endurance, Cobb also trained as an astronaut and could have been the first woman in space — if NASA hadn’t abruptly ended its First Lady Astronaut Training program.

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Decades later, Cobb petitioned to be a senior astronaut like John Glenn. NASA denied her request.

“I would give my life to fly in space. It’s hard for me to talk about it but I would. I would then, and I will now.”

View Jerrie Cobb’s obituary

Read more about the Women of NASA

Fast Women: Pilot and astronaut trainee Jerrie Cobb
Getty Images

Jessi Combs (1980–2019), “fastest woman on four wheels”

Fast Women: Race car driver Jessi Combs
Getty Images / Frederick M. Brown

A racing legend known as the “fastest woman on four wheels,” Combs died while attempting to break her own land speed record.

View Jessi Combs’ obituary


Rosemary Mariner (1953–2019), fighter pilot

Fast Women: Fighter pilot Rosemary Mariner
U.S. Navy

Mariner was the United States Navy’s first female jet pilot and the first woman in the military to command an operational air squadron. When she died, the Navy honored her with a history-making tribute: the first all-female flyover. Several of the pilots were women who were personally mentored by Mariner.

View Rosemary Mariner’s obituary


Azellia White (1913–2019), pilot

A groundbreaking pilot who helped pave the way for black women in aviation, White used her skills in a novel way — to go shopping. As an African American woman living in the segregated South, she felt safer traveling through the air than by road.

View Azellia White’s obituary


Dorothy Olsen (1916–2019), WASP daredevil

Fast Women: WASP Dorothy Olsen
U.S. Air Force

Serving as a WASP during World War II, Olsen (second from left) was known for daring stunts like flying her plane upside-down and swooping down close to the airbase for a thrill.

“It was the closest to heaven I have ever been.”

View Dorothy Olsen’s obituary


Fran Bera (1924–2018), pilot

Fast Women: Pilot Fran Bera
Los Angeles Times / Legacy

Like Jerrie Cobb, Bera was part of NASA’s First Lady Astronaut Trainees program in the early 1960s. A record-breaking pilot, she was a certified flight instructor for over half a century, administering more than 3,000 tests to new and advanced rated pilots. She stopped logging her flight hours after 25,000, but continued to fly her pink and white Piper Comanche PA 24–260 single engine — with “Kick Ass” printed under the tail section — until the end.

View Fran Bera’s obituary


Kitty O’Neil (1946–2018), stuntwoman and racer

Fast Women: Stuntwoman and racing driver Kitty O'Neil
Getty Images

A Hollywood stuntwoman, race car driver, and Olympic-level diver, O’Neil performed many death-defying feats during her lifetime. In 1976 she set the land speed record for women, reaching an average speed of 512.71 miles per hour. She also set speed records for water skiing and driving a boat.

View Kitty O’Neil’s obituary


Irena Szewińska (1946–2018), sprinter

Women Who Died in 2018: Irena Szewińska
Getty Images / ullstein bild / Probst

One of the world’s foremost athletes for nearly two decades, Szewińska is the only athlete in history — male or female — to have held world records in the 100m, the 200m, and the 400m.

Read more about Irena Szewińska


Joi “SJ” Harris (1976–2017), motorcycle racer and stuntwoman

Fast Women: Motorcycle stuntwoman Joi SJ Harris
Facebook

A pioneering black motorcycle racer, she called herself “the first licensed African-American woman in U.S. history to actively compete in sanctioned motorcycle road racing events.” Harris died while performing a stunt for the movie “Deadpool 2.”

View Joi Harris’s obituary


Maria Teresa de Filippis, (1926–2016) race car driver

Maria Teresa de Filippis
The Telegraph

The first woman driver to enter a Formula One world championship, she remains one of only two to have qualified for the starting grid. De Filippis entered her first car race at 22 after her brothers bet her that she couldn’t go fast.

She showed them, and then some. As her friend F1 driver Juan Manuel Fangio once told her, “You go too fast; you take too many risks.”

Read more about Maria Teresa de Filippis

Fast Women: Race car driver Maria Teresa de Filippis
Getty Images / PA Images Archive / Barratts

Jerrie Mock (1925–2014), aviator

Fast Women: Pilot Jerrie Mock
AP Photo / Robert W. Klein

In 1964 Mock became the first woman to fly solo around the world. She continued to set world records for speed and distance for years to come.

View Jerrie Mock’s obituary


Esther Williams (1921–2013), swimmer

Fast Women: Swimmer Esther Williams
Getty Images / Bettmann

Don’t let the million-dollar-mermaid smile fool you. Before she was a submarine screen siren, Williams was a champion swimmer, winning three U.S. national championships in breaststroke and freestyle swimming by age 16. And, if not for the cancellation of the Olympics during World War II, Williams likely would have been an Olympic champion as well.

View Esther Williams’ obituary


Maria de Villota (1980–2013), racer and test driver

Fast Women: Race car driver Maria de Villota
Getty Images / Juan Naharro Gimenez

De Villota competed on the track for a decade in various racing series before joining the Marussia team as a Formula One test driver. In July 2012 she was seriously injured in a crash during a test, losing her right eye and sustaining serious head injuries that kept her hospitalized for a month. She died a year later of a heart attack related to her injuries.

View Maria de Villota’s obituary


Sally Ride (1951–2012), astronaut

Fast Women: Astronaut Sally Ride
NASA

When Sally Ride blasted off aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983, she went faster and higher than any American woman before — inspiring generations of women and breaking one of the toughest glass ceilings there was.

Read more about Sally Ride

Fast Women: Astronaut Sally Ride blasts off aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger becoming the first American woman in space
Getty Images / Archive Photos / Robert Alexander

Betty Skelton (1926–2011), test driver

Fast Women: Test driver and aviator Betty Skelton Erde
Getty Images / ISC Archives

The auto racing pioneer was the first female test driver for the auto industry (1954) and the first woman to set a world land speed record (145 mph at Daytona Beach in 1956).

In 1965 she became the world’s fastest woman, hitting 315.72 mph on the salt flats at Bonneville, Utah.

Skelton was also an accomplished and daring pilot, setting records for altitude and speed and winning national aerobatics championships.

View Betty Skelton Erde’s obituary

Fast Women: Test driver and aviator Betty Skelton Erde
Getty Images / The LIFE Picture Collection / Ed Clark

Micky Axton (1919–2010), test pilot

Fast Women: Test pilot Micky Axton
U.S. National Archives

Micky Axton (pictured right) didn’t need her uniform to fit to know that she belonged in the cockpit. After serving with the WASPs, where she was one of only three women trained as a test pilot, Axton joined Boeing as a flight test engineer. In 1944 she became the first woman to fly a B-29 bomber.

Read more about Micky Axton and the WASPs

Fast Women: Test pilot Micky Axton
Wikimedia Commons

Elinor Smith (1911–2010) and Bobbi Trout (1906–2003), pilots

Fast Women: Pilots Elinor Smith and Bobbi Trout
Getty Images / Bettmann

At 16, Smith — aka the “flying flapper” — was flying higher than any woman had before. Endurance records soon followed, with Smith and fellow fliers Viola Gentry (1894–1988) and Bobbi Trout continuously trying to top each other. After Smith smashed Trout’s record for endurance, and set a new speed record, she and Trout teamed up to set the first official women’s record for endurance with mid-air refueling.

View Elinor Smith’s obituary


Donna Mae Mims (1927–2009), race car driver

Fast Women: Race car driver Donna Mae Mims
Getty Images / The LIFE Picture Collection / Bill Ray

In 1963 the “pink lady of racing” went so fast she became the first woman to win a Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) national championship.

View Donna Mae Mims’ obituary


Margaret Ringenberg (1921–2008), racing pilot

Fast Women: Racing pilot Margaret Ringenberg with her copilot Lois Laymon
Getty Images / Bettmann

After serving as a WASP during World War II, Ringenberg began racing airplanes in the 1950s. She raced in every Powder Puff Derby from 1957 to 1977, as well as numerous other events, winning more than 150 trophies.

In her 70s Ringenberg completed the Round-the-World Air Race and flew in a race from London to Sydney. She logged more than 40,000 hours in the air during her incredible flying career.

View Margaret Ringenberg’s obituary

Fast Women: Racing pilot Margaret Ringenberg
Getty Images / PA Images / John Stillwell

Pat Moss (1934–2008), rally driver, and Ann Wisdom (1934–2015), navigator

Fast Women: Rally driver Pat Moss and her navigator Ann Wisdom
Getty Images / Central Press / Terry Disney

Moss, alongside her navigator Ann Wisdom, was one of the most successful female auto rally drivers of all time, achieving three outright wins and seven podium finishes in international events. She was crowned European Ladies’ Rally Champion five times between 1958 and 1965.

Read more about Pat Moss


Beryl Swain (1936–2007), motorcycle racer

Fast Women: Motorcycle racer Beryl Swain
Getty Images / Hulton Archive / Keystone

In 1962 Swain became the first woman to compete in the Isle of Man TT, one of the most dangerous racing events in the world. Her participation upset many in the male-dominated sport. To prevent Swain and other women from racing, a new minimum weight limit was introduced. Not able to meet the requirement, Swain had her license revoked.

It was 1978 before another woman (Hilary Musson) was allowed to race.

Read more about Beryl Swain


Louise Smith (1916–2006), “first lady of racing”

Fast Women: NASCAR driver Louise Smith
Getty Images / CQ-Roll Call Group / ISC Archives

Smith went to her first NASCAR race in 1949 as a spectator — and wound up entering her family’s shiny new Ford.

Smith may not have won the race (actually, she wrecked the car), but she emerged — alongside fellow female racers Ethel Mobley (1914–1984) and Sara Christian (1918–1980) — as one of the pioneering women in NASCAR.

Smith would later become the first woman inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.

View Louise Smith’s obituary


Fanny Blankers-Koen (1918–2004), “the flying housewife”

Fast Women: Runner Fanny Blankers-Koen
Getty Images / Bettmann

The runner and mother of two won four gold medals at the 1948 Olympics — while pregnant. In addition to her record-setting four Olympic titles (she was the first woman to win four golds in a single Olympics), she won five European titles and 58 Dutch championships, and set or tied 12 world records in eight different events.

Read more about Fanny Blankers-Koen


Gertrude Ederle (1906–2003), swimmer

Fast Women: Swimmer Gertrude Ederle
Getty Images / The Print Collector

Gertrude Ederle had endurance. That was evident in 1926 when she became the first woman to swim the English Channel.

But the young swimmer also had speed: she held 29 U.S. national and world records from 1921 to 1925 and won multiple medals at 1924 Olympics.

Read more about Gertrude Ederle

Fast Women: Swimmer Gertrude Ederle
Getty Images / NY Daily News Archive

Roberta Leighton (1932–2002), drag racer

Fast Women: Drag racer Roberta Leighton
National Hot Rod Association

Leighton was the first woman licensed by the National Hot Rod Association to race competitively. She was also the first woman to win a national title, winning the U.S. Nationals J/S class in 1962.

Read more about Roberta Leighton


Jacqueline Auriol (1917–2000), pilot

Fast Women: Military test pilot Jacqueline Auriol
Getty Images / AFP

After earning a military pilot’s license in 1950, the French aviatrix became a test pilot. She set five world speed records in the 1950s and 1960s and was among the first women to break the sound barrier.

Read more about Jacqueline Auriol


Florence Griffith Joyner (1959–1998), “fastest woman on Earth”

Fast Women: Sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner
Getty Images / Allsport

Decades after her death, the Olympic gold medal winning sprinter known as Flo-Jo still holds the world record in the women’s 100m — and the mantle of “fastest woman on Earth.”

Read more about Florence Griffith Joyner


Cheryl Linn Glass (1961–1997), race car driver

The first black woman to be a professional race car driver in U.S., Glass dreamed of racing in the Indianapolis 500 and eventually becoming a Formula One driver.

But her career came to a sudden stop in the early ‘90s, perhaps due to lack of funds or because of injuries; her last race in April 1991 ended in a crash.

That same year Glass was raped by in her home by intruders who also defaced her wall with a swastika. Authorities dismissed her rape report and no charges were brought. Six years later Glass took her own life.

Read more about Cheryl Linn Glass


Wilma Rudolph (1940–1994), runner

Fast Women: Runner Wilma Rudolph
Getty Images / Bettmann

In 1960, Wilma Rudolph captivated the world at the Summer Olympics in Rome. Known as La Gazzella Negra, the “Black Gazelle,” she was the fastest woman on Earth. Rudolph won three gold medals — in the 100m, 200m, and 4x100m relay — becoming the first American woman to win three gold medals at a single Olympics.

Read more about Wilma Rudolph


Willa Brown (1906–1992), pilot

Willa Brown achieved many firsts during her illustrious aviation career. She was the first African American woman to earn her pilot’s license in the United States (1937), the first black woman to run for U.S. Congress (in 1946), the first black officer in the U.S. Civil Air Patrol (1941), and the first woman in the United States to earn both a pilot’s license and a mechanic’s license (1943).

Read more about Willa Brown


Neta Snook (1896–1991), pilot

Fast Women: Pilot Neta Snook
Wikimedia Commons

Snook has the distinction of being the pilot who taught Amelia Earhart how to fly. She was also the first woman pilot to run her own aviation business and the first woman to run a commercial airfield.

In 1921 Snook was the only woman to compete in an air race at the Los Angeles Speedway.

“I have to fly for the whole sex, as it were, and I’m going to show the world that a woman can fly as cleverly, as audaciously, as thrillingly as any man aviator in the world.”

She finished a respectable fifth in a field of 40 men.

Read more about Neta Snook


Mrs. Victor Bruce (1895–1990), racing driver, aviator, speedboat racer

Fast Women: Racing driver, aviator, speedboat racer Mrs. Victor Bruce
Getty Images / Hulton Archive / Fox Photos

The very fast Mildred Mary Petre Bruce (known even after divorcing her husband as Mrs. Victor Bruce) was victorious on land, in the air, and on the water. But one marine accomplishment stands out:

In 1929 she drove her speedboat Mosquito from Dover to Calais, then back again. The record-breaking roundtrip, a nonstop double-crossing of the English Channel, took just one hour and 47 minutes and nearly destroyed her boat. (Not to worry, though — the manufacturer gave her a new one.)

Read more about Mrs. Victor Bruce


Hellé Nice (1900–1984), Grand Prix driver

Fast Women: Grand Prix driver Helle Nice
Getty Images / Hulton Archive / Apic

Nice was a successful model and dancer, until a skiing accident in 1929 put an end to her dancing career. Unable to dance or ski, Nice turned to auto racing. That year she won an all-female Grand Prix race and set a new world land speed record for women. Over the next several years, as the only female on the Grand Prix circuit, Nice raced Bugattis and Alfa Romeos against the greatest drivers of the day.

In 1949 a fellow driver accused Nice of collaborating with the Nazis. Despite a lack of evidence, Nice was ostracized. She spent her final years in poverty, living under an assumed name. Estranged from her family, she died, according to Wikipedia, “penniless, friendless, and completely forgotten by the rich and glamorous crowd” she had once been part of.

Read more about Hellé Nice


Jean Batten (1909–1982), aviator

Fast Women: Aviator Jean Batten
Getty Images / Corbis / George Rinhart

In 1936, the record-setting Kiwi pilot made the first ever solo flight from England to New Zealand.

Read more about Jean Batten


Jackie Cochran (1906–1980), broke the sound barrier

Fast Women: Test pilot Jackie Cochran broke the sound barrier
Getty Images / Corbis / Schenectady Museum

One of the most prominent racing pilots of her generation, she broke records, the sound barrier, and led the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) during World War II. She held more speed, distance, and altitude records during her career than any other flier.

Read more about Jackie Cochran


Helen Gibson (1892–1977), stuntwoman

A trick rider and rodeo performer, Gibson is considered to be the first professional stuntwoman in American film history.

Read more about Helen Gibson


Pancho Barnes (1901–1975), movie stunt pilot

Fast Women: Movie stunt pilot Pancho Barnes
Getty Images / Corbis / George Rinhart

Pioneering aviator Florence Lowe Barnes, aka Pancho, broke Amelia Earhart’s speed record and founded the first movie stunt pilots’ union.

Read more about Pancho Barnes


Ruth Law (1897–1970), aviator

Fast Women: Aviator Ruth Law
Getty Images / Bettmann

She wanted Orville Wright to give her lessons, but he declined. No matter.

“The surest way to make me do a thing is to tell me I can’t do it.”

Law became one of the leading aviators of her day. In 1916 she broke the existing cross-America flight air speed record. Later in 1919 she smashed the women’s altitude record set by pioneering French pilot Raymonde de Laroche, flying to nearly 15,000 feet. (De Laroche returned the favor two days later, soaring 1,000 feet higher.)

One morning in 1922, Law read an article in the newspaper announcing her retirement. Apparently, her husband had decided her job was too dangerous. She acquiesced.

She settled down in Los Angeles and spent her days gardening. A decade later she suffered a nervous breakdown that she attributed to lack of flying.

Read more about Ruth Law Oliver


Ruth Nichols (1901–1960), pilot

Fast Women: Aviator Ruth Nichols
Getty Images / PhotoQuest

More than half a century after her death, Nichols remains the only female pilot to hold simultaneous world records for speed, altitude, and distance.

Read more about Ruth Rowland Nichols


Fanny Durack (1889–1956), swimmer

Fast Women: Swimmer Fanny Durack
Getty Images / Bettmann

The 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm was to be the first Olympics to include women’s swimming, and young Australian swimmer Durack was determined to go. Initially her governing body denied permission for Durack and her teammate Mina Wylie (1891–1984) to compete; then the organization said they could go, so long as they paid their own way. Durack and Wylie proceeded to raise money to cover their own expenses (as well as those of their required chaperones).

At the Games, Durack set a new world record in the heats of the 100m freestyle and went on to win the final, becoming the first Australian woman to win an Olympic gold medal in a swimming event.

In the decade that followed, Durack was the world’s top female swimmer, competitive and record-setting in all distances from freestyle sprints to the mile marathon.

Read more about Fanny Durack and Mina Wylie


Hazel Ying Lee (1912–1944), WASP

Fast Women: WASP Hazel Ying Lee
Wikimedia Commons

In 1932 the Portland, Oregon native took her first plane ride. She was hooked.

Later that year became one of the first Chinese-American women to earn a pilot’s license. Soon after, Lee traveled to China in the hope of joining the Chinese Air Force in the fight against Japanese invaders. Rather than be confined to a military desk job, she began flying for a private airline. As the war worsened, Lee tried again to join the Air Force and was denied. In 1938 she fled to Hong Kong and back to the U.S.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, American pilots were in high demand. Lee eagerly joined the Women Airforce Service Pilots after its creation in 1943, becoming the first Chinese-American woman to fly for the U.S. military.

In November 1944, she and fellow WASPs received orders to deliver aircraft from Niagara Falls, New York to Great Falls, Montana. On approach, confusion in the control tower led to a collision between Lee’s plane and another. Lee was pulled from the burning wreckage of her plane, her flight jacket still smoldering. Two days later she died from her injuries.

Read more about Hazel Ying Lee


Amelia Earhart (1897–disappeared 1937), aviator

Fast Women: Aviator Amelia Earhart
Getty Images / SSPL

One of the most famous aviators in history, Earhart thrilled the world with her daring, record-breaking flights. Her disappearance while attempting an historic around-the-world flight still leaves many to wonder about her fate.

Read more about Amelia Earhart


Rossa Matilda Richter (1863–1937), human cannonball

Fast Women: Human cannonball Rossa Matilda Richter aka Zazel
Wikimedia Commons

An acrobat who went by the name Zazel, she was just 14 when she became the first person to be fired out of a cannon.

Read more about Zazel


Gladys Roy (1896–1927), wing walker

Fast Women: Wing walker Gladys Roy
Getty Images / Bettmann

Gladys Roy began her career as an aerial performer jumping out of airplanes. As a parachutist, she completed a jump from 17,000 feet and claimed to hold the world record for low parachute jump. Later Roy became a wing walker and was famous for the wild stunts she performed on the wing of a flying airplane: walking blindfolded, playing tennis, dancing the Charleston.

For all her daring stunts in the air, it was a land accident that killed her: she died after accidentally walking into the spinning propeller of a parked aircraft.

Read more about Gladys Roy


Bessie Coleman (1892–1926), stunt pilot

Fast Women: Stunt pilot Bessie Coleman
Getty Images / Corbis / George Rinhart

Coleman was one of the most daring pilots of her day, a barnstormer who performed dangerous tricks for paying audiences.

She died at 34 in a plane crash while testing a new aircraft. But she left behind an incredible legacy as the first black woman to earn a pilot’s license and the first black person to earn an international pilot’s license.

Read more about Bessie Coleman

View Coleman’s New York Times obituary


Dorothy Levitt (1882–1922), racing driver

Fast Women: Racing driver Dorothy Levitt
Public Domain

Levitt goes down in history as one of the first women racing drivers. During her career, the racing and test driver known as the “Fastest Girl on Earth,” set speed and endurance records on land and even set the first water speed world record.

“There is a feeling of flying through space. I never think of the danger. That sort of thing won’t do.”

A leading proponent of a woman’s “right to motor,” Levitt taught many other women to drive — including Queen Alexandra and the royal princesses Louise, Victoria, and Maud.

Read more about Dorothy Levitt


Raymonde de Laroche (1882–1919), pilot

Fast Women: Pilot Raymonde de Laroche
Wikimedia Commons

The first woman to be licensed as a pilot, de Laroche is believed also to be the first woman to pilot a powered aircraft.

The daring aviator and driver survived many brushes with death. At an air show in 1910, she crashed her plane and suffered life-threatening injuries that grounded her for two years. In 1912, she and Charles Voisin, the airplane builder who taught her to fly, were involved in a car crash; she was severely injured and her friend Voisin killed. During World War I, de Laroche chauffeured officers to the front under fire (flying was considered too dangerous for women).

De Laroche’s lucky streak came to an end in 1919. As part of her plan to become the first female test pilot, de Laroche was co-piloting an experimental aircraft. The plane went into a dive and crashed, killing both de Laroche and the other pilot.

Women of Aviation Week, held annually in March, commemorates the anniversary of de Laroche becoming the first licensed woman pilot. A statue of de Laroche can be found at Paris–Le Bourget Airport.

Read more about Raymonde de Laroche


Harriet Quimby (1875–1912), aviator

Fast Women: Aviator Harriet Quimby
Getty Images / Hulton Archive / Apic

In 1911 Quimby became the first woman pilot to be licensed in the United States. A year later, she was the first woman to fly across the English Channel. Two months later she perished in an airplane accident.

A memorial plaque in California reads: “She pointed the direction for future women pilots…”

Read more about Harriet Quimby

They’d say I hustled
Put in the work
They wouldn’t shake their heads
And question how much of this I deserve
‘Cause if I was a man
Then I’d be the man

—Taylor Swift “The Man”

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