by Emma Duval
Adventure, career changes, international travel, charitable and philanthropic projects … these are goals shared by many childfree women today which were achieved over a hundred years ago by Marie Marvingt (1875–1963), a multi-talented French athlete, aviator, and journalist who was nicknamed the “fiancée of danger.”
Encouraged in her childhood by her father to pursue physical activities, Marie soon became an accomplished swimmer, bicyclist, and mountain climber. A gifted athlete, she won numerous prizes and was the first woman to reach many milestones: she won first place in a 400 kilometers (249 miles) canoe race at the age of 15 in 1890, was the first woman to climb the Dent du Géant in the Alps in 1903, and the first woman to (unofficially) complete the Tour de France in 1908 by riding just behind the men, which was especially notable since only 36 out of the 114 male participants actually finished the race.
Always ahead of her time, she was also one of the first women worldwide to get her driver’s license and to become involved in aviation. Having mastered all types of aircrafts (balloons, airplanes, helicopters), she once again set records, such as being the first person (man or woman) to cross the North Sea from France to England in a balloon in 1909. Her knowledge and passion for aeronautics led her to invent a type of airplane ambulance to lift injured soldiers out of war zones. She devoted most of her life to promoting aeromedical evacuation, going on lectures around the world, including in the U.S. in 1935, where she met the pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart.
A journalist by trade, she served as a Red Cross nurse and also provided intelligence for the Resistance network during both World War I and World War II.
Although private about her personal life, Marie (who never married) was vocal about her freedom as an independent woman unburdened by a husband or children, saying: “If I had been married, I could certainly never have lived the life I’ve lived, done the things I’ve done. I’ve not been just a sportswoman. I hope to have done some good in my life—I invented the ambulance-airplane, I fought at the front, I’ve tried to be useful in all circumstances. Everything I’ve done has been for humanitarian or scientific reasons. I could never have done that as a married woman.”* To a journalist who asked too many questions about her love life rather than her accomplishments, she even retorted: “Look here, anybody can get married. And anyone can have babies. Even cats!”*
Marie was such a phenomenon at the time that she inspired the serial film The Perils of Pauline (1914), which follows the heroine, Pauline Marvin, through a series of adventures.
Since her fascinating life cannot be properly condensed in such few words, I highly recommend the biography Marie Marvingt, Fiancee of Danger: First Female Bomber Pilot, World-Class Athlete and Inventor of the Air Ambulance (2019), written by Rosalie Maggio, who also created a website with the url of her name.
Marie Marvingt’s daring, adventurous, record-breaking, and pioneering life should serve as an inspiration to women today and also as a reminder of the freedoms and opportunities that a childfree life can provide.
*Marie Marvingt, Fiancee of Danger: First Female Bomber Pilot, World-Class Athlete and Inventor of the Air Ambulance (2019), Rosalie Maggio
Emma Duval (@MillennialEmma) is an aspiring author-illustrator focused on the intersection of childfree history and women’s history, with the goal of highlighting the stories of incredible − and sometimes forgotten – women without children. She is currently working on her first book which explores the history of single women, specifically those who never married and had no children, who were often overlooked or marginalized. Her next project will be centered on the experiences of childfree and childless women.