Women and Motorcycling

by

Janet D Britland

From the invention of the motorcycle in 1885 to modern times today, women have been involved in the sport of motorcycling and have changed the way society and industry view women who ride. I am sure that the German team of Gottlieb Daimler and Paul Maybach really didn’t have any understanding of how they would change history with their invention of the motorcycle. The first motorcycle manufacturing companyin the United States, The Hendee Company, that made Indian Motorcycles formed in 1901 . They then changed their name in 1923 to officially be, Indian Motorcycle Company. The world famous Harley-Davidson company came along quite early also in 1903. They started out building three motorcycles and by 1907 had produced one hundred and fifty of them.

In the early 1900’s, women were viewed much differently than they are today. You were not to wear pants as a man would and you were required by society and your spouse to remain a lady at all times. Your responsibilities were to keep your home clean and presentable, your children clean, presentable and well mannered, and your husband happy. Should you stray from these appointed responsibilities, you were thought of as loose, very disrespectful, and totally unacceptable by society.

You can be quite positive that, as in today’s circle of women, there were women in the 1900’s that seriously wanted to kick up their heels and shake up society as it was known then, and some did. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but satisfaction brought him back. There are many accounts of women from that era who threw caution to the wind and mounted a motorcycle to accomplish amazing things.

As far as the motorcycle was concerned, women did everything men did. One of the earliest accounts occured on May 2, 1915 when the mother-daughter team of Avis and Effie Hotchkiss left Brooklyn, New York” on a Harley Davidson motorcycle with a sidecar. This team had no idea that they would be part of history or would inspire other women, but they did just that. They just wanted to take a trip to the west coast and back to see the sites of America. The trip took them five months through many trying times, rough terrain, and straight into the record books.

There are many women’s motorcycle clubs now across the country. The oldest club on record is the Motor Maids. This organization was formed in Rhode Island by a young woman in the late 1930’s and still operates today across the country. This woman, Linda Dugeau, gathered some ladies together who rode or might be interested in riding and formed a club with the purpose of promoting interest in the sport.

Just as these women found camaraderie and a way to enjoy the sport of motorcycling, a small band of women in New Jersey in 1989 did the very same thing. On a Saturday morning, five women met in a diner in Rosel Park, New Jersey to discus forming a motorcycle club, I was one of the five. Our club started out as a chapter of a national organization based out of California. This relationship didn’t last very long due to the actions of the governing chapter. The by-laws of the organization stated that chapters were to not involve themselves with political or personaly controversial issues.

The New Jersey chapter broke away and became their own club because the governing chapter violated the by-laws by supporting a charity that was politically supported by Barbara Bush. The New Jersey chapter tweaked the governing by-laws a bit to fit the ways of New Jersey women and became Spokes-Women Motorcycle Club as of 1992. We wanted a way of giving back to our communities, to promote motorcycle safety, and to change the way society viewed the female motorcyclist and motorcyclists in general. We have since grown our membership to numbers of over 60 and are the largest individual women’s motorcycle club in the country.

The Spokes-Women Motorcycle Club has been featured on CNN, Newsweek, local cable programs, and various other publications promoting women in motorcycling and road safety. We became a household name in the local areas of New Jersey, it seemed as if we made the local papers on a weekly basis.

Club members are very involved in giving back to the community throughout the state and uniquely raise money each year for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation and the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation by producing our own Easter chocolates. The Juvenile Diabetes Foundation finds this quite amusing that we would raise funds for them with, of all things, candy. The organization raises over five thousand dollars each year to split between these two charities who are immensely grateful to our efforts. The club also gives back to the community by volunteering at a place which houses infants and children from mothers who are recovering from addictions, called Scott House. We ride up on our bikes for the kids to see and volunteer to sit in rocking chairs with some of the infants. It feels wonderful when you can do something for your community.

Motorcyclists were not always viewed by society as upstanding citizens, thanks to Hollywood. Remember James Dean back in the 1950’s, that’s right, motorcycle gangs who raped and pillaged quiet suburban areas while law abiding citizens stood by helpless. For many years, those of us who are riders have been working to change the way society views the motorcyclist. For the longest time, we women have been viewed by men as pretty ornaments they would put on the back of their motorcycles. There are still some men who are threatened by a woman who rides her own bike. However, most men are honored to ride alongside and proud to do so. There are millions of women across the globe who now ride their own motorcycle.

Women not only have to wage a war against stereotypes caused by Hollywood but biased opinions on how a woman should conduct herself. Imagine throwing in racial bias as a bonus. This is what Bessie Stringfield had to work against in the early 1930’s. Bessie was an African-American woman who believed a woman should lead an active life. “She owned twenty two motorcycles and rode motorcycles for over fifty years” This woman was amazing, she did stunt riding to earn an extra dollar, rode as a dispatch rider in world war two, and founded her own club in Miami Florida in the 1950’s. She was only one of many amazing pioneering women involved in the sport of motorcycling that have made a mark in our history of which many women today carry on the tradition with pride.

Motorcyclists are from all walks of life and every profession imaginable. Today’s female riders are reinventing motorcycle culture. I personally know two lawyers, two nurses, and a medical technician who are female motorcycle enthusiasts. Women motorcyclists come in all ranges of age too, from young adults to Great Grandmothers. Most are very involved with community and highway safety and also belong to motorcycle social clubs who have rallies to raise funds for various charities both local and national. Society has slowly, over time, been made aware of the real motorcyclist, not the Hollywood version.

More women own and ride their own motorcycles today than in the past twenty years. Motorcycle manufacturers have realized that there is a growing market in today’s modern woman. They are well educated, have a higher income, and undertaking a more active lifestyle. Manufacturers who produce motorcycle apparel have produced many lines geared toward the female motorcyclist. Producers of the bikes themselves have changed their motorcycles to be lighter, lower, and vary in power, making it more appealing to their female patrons.

The issue most women riders have with a motorcycle is seat height and weight of the vehicle. Most of the major manufacturers have worked to resolve this issue for us gals. Harley has a model, “Harley Sportster”, which weighs in at four hundred and ninety one pounds and has a seat height of only 23 inches. Honda produces the “Honda Shadow VT600C VLX”, which weighs a mere four hundred and forty five pounds with a seat height of 25.6 inches. A woman needs to know her limitations on what type of motorcycle she can physically handle before she makes a purchase.

A major benefit to a woman who wants to ride her own bike is to enroll herself in a Motorcycle Safety Course and learn the basics on how to become a safe driver. Anyone can find information on these courses in New Jersey by going to www.njsaferoads.com. There are courses offered in each state across the country. I can not emphasize enough how important it is to be properly trained. It will possibly save your life or the life of someone you love.

In this historical journey of women and motorcycling, I include myself. I am a third generation motorcyclist and have seen the history of the motorcycle change right here in my own family. My grandfather immigrated from Budapest Hungry in the early 1900’s and he brought his own motorcycle with him. My father, brother, and sister all owned and operated their own motorcycles with me always along for the ride. My sister never got past getting her permit though. her first daughter interrupted that and she never pursued it after that, but her daughter did grow up and obtain her motorcycle license. Life for me has always included motorcycles.

I’ve ridden my own motorcycle for the past twenty three years and have found, like so many other women, that because of our physical differences from men, I have had to on occasion, modify my ride to ergonomically fit me. The handlebars needed to be changed, or the foot pegs moved, or some other modification. I’ve never had a problem with seat heights since manufacturers have seen fit to lower them on the newer motorcycles. As far as weight: I had started out light at about five hundred pounds and have now graduated to something weighing in at around nine hundred.

It still amazes me how far the role of women in motorcycling has come. I am honored to pass the legacy on to the next generation of women. My daughter is going to be the pilot of her own motorcycle this year. She is the fourth generation in my family to ride her own bike. Let me tell you, a mother has never been as proud of a daughter as I will be this year when my daughter sees her own bike for the very first time and rides off. As women, we still have to deal with stereotypical behavior in the world of motorcycles, but we have really come a long way from the early 1900’s. I thank all those who have gone before me and paved the way.

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