LGBTQ+ history month: Joe Carstairs, ambulance driver and fastest woman on water

Red Cross ambulance driver Joe Carstairs lived life fearlessly, shunning societal norms while always helping others.

Joe Carstairs was born Marion Barbara in London and served as an ambulance driver in France with the American Red Cross in World War I.

And in 1918, aged 18, she joined the Women’s Legion Mechanical Transport Section as a driver to British officers.

Living in Paris, she started to forge her own identity and met Dolly Wilde, niece of Oscar Wilde. They became great friends and, later, lovers. It was at this time that she renamed herself Joe Carstairs. 

Becoming the fastest woman on water

The 1920s had been a period of increased visibility and tolerance of lesbians and women with a more masculine presence.

It was during this time that Joe started to wear her hair short, wore suits from Savile Row; a famous tailor shop that’s still around today. She covered her arms in tattoos and lived openly with a succession of girlfriends. She said:

I was never a little girl. I came out of the womb queer.

Joe had her first speedboat built and named it Gwen after one of her former lovers, Gwen Farrar. This was just the first of many motorboats she owned and raced in the male-dominated sport.  

Between 1925 and 1930, Carstairs spent lots time in powerboats and became a very successful racer winning many notable trophies – the Duke of York's Trophy in 1926, the Royal Motor Yacht Club International Race, the Daily Telegraph Cup, the Bestise Cup, and the Lucina cup. 

But towards the end of the 1920s, societal attitudes had started to change, and Joe and her lifestyle were no longer accepted. 

She became increasingly unhappy in England and, in 1931, went on a round-the-world trip.  Just two years later she bought Whale Cay Island in the Caribbean and left England for good.

No ordinary Joe

Joe enjoyed her life on the island. In the 1940s she spent six weeks captaining a ship round the windward islands, helping the Red Cross administer medical treatment.

Sometime in the 1950s, the Reverend Prince Hepburn from Nassau asked to hold a summer camp for less privileged boys on the island. It was such a success that Joe hosted the camp every year until she left the island.

Joe sold the island in 1975 and moved to Miami, in Florida. She lived there until she died in 1993, aged 93.

Pioneer of her time

Joe chose her own path and adopted a gender-neutral name and a masculine form of dress.

It's possible that if Joe was born in a later time, they may have been transgender, non-binary or have a gender non-conforming identity, but we can’t assume that this would be the case. 

Throughout her life she always referred to herself as a woman, so we’ve used she and her pronouns in this blog post.

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