The city of Brussels is renaming a bicycle and pedestrian connection in the northern district to Hélène Dutrieustraat. Dutrieu was the first cycling world champion and the first female pilot in the world. “Not only did she break the straitjacket she was imposed on as a woman, she worked her way into sectors that are predominantly men even today. For these and many other reasons, she deserves a place in our public realm and collective memory.”
Hélène Dutrieu has been on a list of female names for new streets and squares in Brussels City since 2016. Now the time has come. The small pedestrian crossing for pedestrians and cyclists between Groendreef and Helihavenlaan will in future be called Hélène Dutrieustraat, announces Brussels City Councilor for Urban Planning and Public Space Ans Persoons (One.brussels/Vooruit).
“She was a woman with many faces,” says Gunter Segers, author of Hélène Dutrieu, the woman who flew through Olympia, published last year. it is the first and so far only biography written about her.
Dutrieu was born in Tournai in 1877 as the daughter of an army officer and moved to Lille as a young teenager.
At almost twenty years old, she became the first world champion in cycling for women in Ostend in 1897, a title she won again the following year. She also breaks several world records on her bike. “Her brother Eugène, five years older, was a cyclist and she accompanied him to the velodrome. When her brother put her bike aside, she rode it. ”
The human arrow
Still, Dutrieu owes his nickname the human flesh, the human arrow, not of her qualities as the fastest cyclist. After her cycling career, she moved to Paris to become an actress. Moments later, she uses her experience on the bike for a new career as … a stuntwoman.
Segers: “After the cycling hype had ceased around the turn of the century, she had discovered that there was a lot of money to be made on stunts. She owes her nickname to a stunt she developed in which she flew twenty feet into the air on a bicycle to land on a trampoline. With that stunt, she conquered Europe. She was in the newspapers every day. “
When she attempts a similar stunt with a motorcycle in 1904, a crash nearly kills her, but the accident does not mean the end of her daring adventure. After a year of rehabilitation, she becomes completely fascinated by airplanes. “It was all very experimental back then. People were just trying to fly back then, ”Segers explains.
When Wilbur Wright, one of the brothers, gives a demonstration near Paris, Hélène Dutrieu is present. She talks to aircraft manufacturers and finds a builder who would like to work with her.
“This producer was just looking for a woman to advertise his plane, because if a woman can fly, all men can do it too, and people would sell a lot of planes, they thought. Hélène had started as a pilot at a time when there were only ten pilots worldwide. She was a true aviation pioneer with several records in her name. “
The first or second pilot in the world
In 1910, Dutrieu received her pilot certificate and became the first female pilot in Belgium, officially the second woman with a pilot certificate in the world. The latter is due, according to Segers, to the “chauvinist Frenchman”, for officially that honor is reserved for a French pilot. “It had only hovered a hundred yards in the air, but the French had kept it still. In principle, Dutrieu was also the first woman to receive a pilot certificate, but the French authorities had withheld her certificate so that the French pilot could go with that honor. “
Yet Dutrieu will still play an important role for France when World War I breaks out. All the planes were then confiscated and she would continue to fly, even for the Air Force. “The Germans had behaved so brutally in their raid that the French said, ‘We want to be more honorable and not send women to the front.’ “Every day she came to ask to fly. She offered her services to the French, Belgian and Italian armies, but her requests were rejected.”
“As she kept insisting, she eventually got a scrapped plane to take part in reconnaissance flights around Paris.” She does so until she is attacked a third time by German planes. She then plays a different role in World War I, and travels to the United States to give lectures in hopes of convincing the Americans to take part in the war.
‘End to wild life’
“In the United States, she comes in contact with car manufacturers. They asked her to represent and sell their brands in Europe, a business that did well, ”Segers continues. After the war, she married French left-wing politician and journalist Pierre Mortier. “It meant the end of her wild life, and she became a journalist for writing for several magazines for years.”
During World War II, Dutrieu is the director of a field hospital, and she even goes to pick up wounded soldiers from the front. She joins the resistance with her husband, but eventually has to flee to London. Her husband died shortly after the war. “Thanks to his connections, she was woven into the artistic world of Paris. She has known many artists there and lived a fashionable life,” says Segers. Dutrieu died in Paris in 1961 at the age of 84.
Role model from a hundred years ago
The fact that a woman began cycling, stunts, and flying around the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was remarkable in itself. “Hélène Dutrieu grew up in a patriarchal era with few opportunities for women. Not only did she break with the straitjacket she was imposed on as a woman, she worked her way into sectors that are still predominantly men even today, ”notes ships Persoons. “For these and many other reasons, she deserves to have a place in our public realm and collective memory.”
Cinema Gunter Segers mentions another example of how she broke that straitjacket. Even literally. “At that time, women lived, so to speak, between the kitchen and the church. She had managed to escape. Women at that time wore all corsets and skirts, but it was not possible on a bicycle, so she made her own clothes. She had also attracted attention as a pilot because she flew without the cross. It was not finished and the scandal was in all the newspapers. “
Segers can only confirm that Dutrieu deserves a place in public space. In her hometown of Tournai, a street is named after her, and in Ghent, since 2011 there has also been a Hélène Dutrieustraat in a neighborhood where there used to be an airport. It is no coincidence that it gets a street name next to Helihavenlaan, because there was also a Sabena airport there until 1963.
Segers: “She had disappeared into the mists of history until VRT made a program about female street names a few years ago. There was almost nothing to be found about her life except for a few short biographies on the internet that were filled with errors. I have reconstructed her life from over 10,000 articles and interviews. Her story is actually too crazy to just name a street after her. “Women’s rights are very important today, while there were such role models a hundred years ago.”