May “Toupie” Lowther (1874-1944) was a woman of many parts. Born into a very wealthy family, she was educated in France and returned to England as a fluent French speaker, an excellent singer, skilled composer and all-around athlete who quickly made names for herself in both competitive tennis and foil fencing.
If Miss Toupee (sic) Lowther had not devoted most of her leisure to sport — sport of a strenuous, masculine type — one could almost picture her leading a public movement in favour of “Woman’s Rights.” For she is essentially a lady of strong personality, destined to command, and her knowledge of men and women is so wide, her disregard of petty restrictions so pronounced, that apparently nothing would stop her if she once made up her mind publicly to support a policy of emancipation.
In the latter connection, her father, Captain William Francis Lowther, once challenged Captain Alfred Hutton, who was perhaps the most prominent and influential fencing master in England, to bout with his daughter. Although nothing came of the challenge, which may well have been issued partly in fun, a commentator noted that:
As all the world knows, (Toupie) is one of the most brilliant lady fencers in Europe. Coming from a stock of vigorous patriots who have fought their country’s battles at the point of the sword, she was early trained in the use of the rapier and the sword-stick, and, possessed of a lithe and hardy frame, it is small wonder that, at the age of eight she could engage in a fencing-bout with her elders with all the confidence of an expert. Fencing is not an art for namby-pamby girls or, indeed, for any girl who does not command more than the average amount of spirit and pluck, and Miss Lowther is, above all, a woman of indomitable nerve.
Her other sporting enthusiasms included driving, motorcycling, weightlifting and jiujitsu, which she pursued with sufficient enthusiasm that one writer worried that it might interfere with her fencing.
With the outbreak of the First World War Toupie became one of the organisers of an all-women team of ambulance drivers who undertook many dangerous missions to transport wounded soldiers near the front lines of battle in Compiègne, France. For this service she was awarded the Croix de Guerre in 1918.
Toupie was a friend of writer Radclyffe Hall and her partner, sculptor Una Troubridge, until after the publication of Hall’s controversial novel The Well of Loneliness in 1928. The novel’s female protagonist, Stephen Gordon, was probably based to a large extent on Toupie Lowther, and this seems to have caused a rift in the friendship. It has been speculated that Toupie may have objected to having been publicly “outed” as a lesbian and transvestite via the Gordon character, although her sexual orientation seems to have been no secret among her family and friends.
For much more detail on Toupie’s life and adventures, please see the excellent biographical website Toupie Lowther – Her Life – A New Assessment.
Toupie Lowther is also a supporting character in the Suffrajitsu graphic novel trilogy, in which she serves as Suffragette leader Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst’s chauffeur/getaway driver and as a member of her personal bodyguard of women.