History Stories

Whether on wheels or in the air, these thrill seekers achieved feats few others would attempt.

From the first-ever Hollywood stuntwoman to the first lady of drag racing, these seven intrepid women stunned audiences with their death-defying feats. With their gutsy performances in traditionally male-dominated fields like aviation and extreme sports, they’re known for breaking barriers, setting records—and getting our adrenaline pumping.

READ MORE: 7 Death-Defying Historic American Daredevils

Bessie Coleman: Pioneering Black Aviatrix

Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman, circa 1920.

While working as a beautician in Chicago, Texas-born Bessie Coleman was inspired to become a pilot by the daring exploits of World War I aviators. U.S. flight schools turned her down due to her gender and race, but Coleman headed to France, where in 1921 she received her international pilot’s license. The first black American woman to perform publicly in the United States, “Queen Bess” wowed crowds at air shows around the country with stunts like “loop-the-loops” and figure-eights, as well as parachute jumps. Tragically, she was killed in 1926 when her plane malfunctioned during a test flight before a Florida air show, and she was thrown from an open cockpit to the ground, several hundred feet below.

Helen Gibson: Rodeo Performer & Hollywood’s First Stuntwoman

Helen Gibson

Helen Gibson in the 1916 movie, "To Save the Road."

Born Rose Wenger in Cleveland, Ohio, Gibson joined a Wild West show in 1910, at the age of 18, learning to pick up a handkerchief from the ground while riding a galloping horse. In the show’s off-season, she started working in silent films and rode in Los Angeles rodeos, where she met and married cowboy Hoot Gibson. At the time, men in drag typically performed stunts for female actors, but Gibson became the first-ever professional Hollywood stuntwoman when she doubled (and later replaced) Helen Holmes in the long-running serial Hazards of Helen, performing such feats as leaping from the roof of a building onto the top of a moving train car (a stunt she would call her most dangerous). Her star power had dimmed by the 1920s, but Gibson did bit parts and stunt-double work in Hollywood for three more decades, appearing in her last film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in 1962.

Lillian La France: Motorcycle Stunt Racer

The Wall of Death Motor Drome, similar to where Lillian La France would perform her stunts.

The Wall of Death Motor Drome, similar to where Lillian La France would perform her stunts.

Around 1916, young Agnes Micek fled her conservative Catholic family in Kansas to join a traveling carnival. After reinventing herself as Lillian La France, she started racing motorcycles and four-wheeled vehicles in the so-called Wall of Death motordrome attraction in 1924. As one of the most popular stunt-motorcycle riders—male or female—in the 1920s and ’30s, she wore aviator goggles, jodhpurs and a jersey with a skull-and-crossbones design, and was known as “The Girl Who Flirts with Death.” In 1998, La France was the subject of a documentary film, Advice to Adventurous Girls.

READ MORE: What Are the Most Insanely Daring Stunts Since Evel Knievel?

Rosa Richter, a.k.a. Zazel: Human Cannonball

Rosa "Zazel" Richter

14-year-old acrobat Rosa Maria Richter was the world's first female human cannonball in London, 1877. 

In April 1877, while performing at the Royal Aquarium in London, 14-year-old Rosa Richter climbed into the spring-powered metal device patented by Canadian showman William Leonard Hunt, known as the Great Farini. In front of a large crowd, young “Zazel” was launched somewhere between 30 and 70 feet into the air (estimates vary), becoming the first-ever human cannonball. An accomplished aerial acrobat and tightrope walker—and sometime opera singer—Zazel went on to perform in P.T. Barnum’s circus, and later in Barnum & Bailey, appearing in France and the United States. Her death-defying career ended in 1891, after she fell and broke her back while performing in New Mexico.

Kitty O’Neil: Racer & Stuntwoman

Kitty O'Neil

Kitty O'Neil jumping from a 12 story building as a stunt for the TV show Wonderwoman.

Though an illness robbed Kitty O’Neil of her hearing as a infant, she didn’t let it slow her down; instead, she embraced her love of speed by racing motorcycles, speed boats and rocket-fueled cars. In the 1970s, she started working as a Hollywood stuntwoman, performing daredevil feats in movies as well as on TV shows like The Bionic Woman and Wonder Woman. In late 1976, O’Neil set a new women’s land-speed record, driving the SMI Motivator, a three-wheeled, rocket-powered vehicle, at speeds averaging 512 m.p.h. (and at times topping 600 m.p.h.) in Oregon’s Alvord Desert. She wanted to go for the overall land-speed record as well, but was prevented by the vehicle’s manufacturer, who had contracted with a male stunt driver. At the time O’Neil died in 2018 at the age of 72, she was still the “world’s fastest woman.”

Shirley Muldowney: Drag Racer

Shirley Muldowney

Shirley Muldowney performs a burnout in her Top Fuel dragster during the 1988 NHRA Southern Nationals on April 24, 1988 at Atlanta Dragway, Georgia. 

Shirley Roque embraced the newly popular sport of drag racing in the late 1950s, as a teenager in Schenectady, New York, where she met and married local hot rodder Jack Muldowney. While the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) dragged its heels in letting her compete in its elite events, Shirley racked up amateur victories, finally becoming the first woman to race in the “Top Gas” category in 1968. Muldowney continued advancing through the NHRA ranks despite widespread opposition, surviving several car fires and a serious crash in 1984, when the front tire on her dragster failed at an event in Montreal, causing her to hit a wall at over 250 mph. Undaunted, the “First Lady of Drag Racing” (also known as “Cha Cha”) recovered to race again, winning her 18th NHRA event in 1989. After four decades of competition, Muldowney retired in 2003.

READ MORE: What Drove Evel Knievel to Keep Battering His Body?

Debbie Evans: Motorcycle Racer & Hollywood Stunt Woman

Debbie Evans

Actress Sarah Michelle Gellar (R) presents stuntwoman Debbie Evans with the award for "Best Overall Stunt by a Stuntwoman" at the 4th Annual Taurus World Stunt Awards in 2004.

Born and raised in California, Evans began riding motorcycles at the age of six. As a teenager in the late 1970s, she was the best female motorcycle trials rider in the country. Her fearless skill on her bike earned Evans her first stunt role at 19, jumping a motorcycle over a 30-foot ravine in the movie Deathsport (1978). She would go on to do stunt work in more than 200 movies and TV shows, including The Fast and the Furious franchise, in which Evans (doubling for star Michelle Rodriguez) drove a Honda Civic under a moving semi-truck, among many other thrilling feats. In 1998, after 18 years away from competitive motorcycling, Evans returned to compete at the first Women’s Trials World Championship, finishing eighth. She was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2003. 

READ MORE: Evel Knievel's Last Jump: What Made Him Quit?

Watch iconic cars and breathtaking stunts during Car Week, kicking off with Evel Live 2 on Sunday, July 7 at 8ET/5PT.

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