The History of Women Motorcycle Riders in the U.S.
Where are all the lady riders in the building?! Make some noise!
Women have made major contributions to motorcycling and its culture. They’ve broken many barriers and changed many societal norms along the way.
Continue reading below to learn more about the history of women motorcycle riders in America!
In the late 19th century, bicycles were all the rage. It represented a new form of freedom for Americans everywhere. Sound familiar? This movement would heavily influence motorcycle culture in the near future.
The bicycle allowed the American people to travel via their own route, on their own time. Prior to its invention, Americans relied heavily on trains, buses and horses.
When the bicycle was invented, it almost immediately gained popularity. Many people even participated in bicycle touring and racing groups.
Unfortunately, most women did not participate due to the cultural perceptions and societal norms of the time.
The thought of women riding bicycles would cause the American people to reevaluate issues such as women’s “place” outside of the home, whether women should travel alone, if motorcycling was “too dangerous” for women and if it was appropriate for women to wear “more revealing” clothing for riding purposes.
Now, you may be wondering why we are discussing bicycles. Well, the bicycle (as we know it today) wasn’t invented until 1885. And, soon later, the first American motorized bicycle was invented in 1899.
Hence, these two inventions were both created in the late 1800s, fewer than 20 years apart. This closeness in invention is one reason why bicycle culture, motorized bicycle culture and societal perceptions regarding the two, are very much so intertwined.
These norms impacted the perspective of the average American. Unfortunately, the American societal norms of the late 1800s often limited women’s advancement in society. Keep in mind, women didn’t even have the right to vote until 1920. They couldn’t open a bank account until the 1960s.
However, little did they know, women would make major achievements in motorcycling despite their challenges and, quite frankly, become some of the most badass riders ever known.
During the late 1800s, it was customary for women to wear corsets, long skirts and dresses.
According to Smithsonian, the “rational clothing” movement encouraged women to wear outfits that allowed them to cycle. Shorter skirts and “sports corsets” became more popular.
Some women even pushed societal norms even further by wearing bloomers (bottoms that resembled men’s pants).
This movement aided an important transition. It helped gradually shift culture during America’s bicycle fad. Several years later, when the motorcycle was invented, society’s perspective on what was appropriate for women to wear would’ve already begun to evolve.
In the 1880s, bicycles did not have gears. Therefore, a large front wheel was used to gain momentum. These bikes were called high wheelers.
Also, most roads weren’t paved during this time. This meant it was fairly easy for a bicyclist to hit a bump and fall forward over the handlebars. It wasn’t uncommon for riders to suffer serious injuries as a result.
Many Americans questioned if women should be involved in a sport so “dangerous.” Consequently, bicycle riding groups remained “boys clubs.” This is why the founding of all-female motorcycle clubs, such as the Motor Maids in 1940, are such important parts of history.
After the high wheeler, the safety cycle was invented. It was the most similar to the bicycle as we know it today. Unlike the high wheeler, the safety cycle had two wheels of equal size.
This version of the bicycle became increasingly popular in the 1890s. And, it was deemed more “appropriate” and “safe” for women. As a result, more women began to ride after its creation.
During this time, traditionally, women stayed at home to take care of the household. This included a list of responsibilities, including but not limited to preparing the meals, maintaining the cleanliness of the house, sewing, tending to the children and doing the laundry.
But, the start of change was near. A movement in history had begun.
Many women grew tired of being confined to their homes. They wanted to be out in the city or, perhaps, even travel the world. So, they rebelled against societal norms and continued to move towards equality in their communities.
During this time, women frequented more outside of the home. As a result, women became more visible in society.
It wasn’t long before the first successful American gasoline-powered automobile was invented in 1893. After its creation, people started going gaga over gasoline.
Soon after, in 1899, the motorized bicycle (motorcycle) was born. And, to say the least, women were very interested in this new machine.
Ladies of Harley
Harley-Davidson debuted its first motorcycle in 1901. And, much like bicycles, many people questioned the thought of women traveling via motorcycle.
H-D states that they began to feature illustrations of women in their catalogs in 1912. However, they acknowledge that women only appeared as passengers and not as solo riders.
In 1914 and 1915, Harley-Davidson wrote articles on the adventures of three female riders, Della Crewe, Avis and Effie Hotchkiss.
And, 15 years later, even more history was made. In 1930, Harley enthusiast Bessie Stringfield became one of the most accomplished female motorcyclists in America.
Continue reading below to learn about their journeys!
Crewe was a traveler. She had previously traveled throughout North America.
Harley-Davidson states that one day Crewe’s nephew suggested that she try traveling by motorcycle. One thing led to another, and Crewe became the owner of a two-speed twin Harley-Davidson motorcycle with a sidecar.
Her upcoming trip would start in Texas and end in New York. On this adventure, Crewe would face unpaved roads, difficult terrain, harsh and unpredictable weather.
According to H-D, most men wouldn’t even have dared to take on this cross-country adventure.
On July 24, 1914, Crewe set off on her trip from Waco, Texas. Her trip was a lengthy 5,378 miles long.
Crewe also took her dog Trouble with her. He was a gift from the townspeople of Waco. Before she began her journey, she lightheartedly said, “Trouble is the only trouble I will have with me on this trip.”
On her journey, she encountered below zero temperatures and snow drifts during the winter months. Eventually, she arrived in New York City in December 1914.
It was reported that she was wearing four coats, four pairs of pantyhose and sheepskin shoes when she arrived. Her dog Trouble was seen sporting a “special, made-to-order” sweater.
When she arrived in New York, she was quoted saying, “I had a glorious trip, I am in perfect health and my desire is stronger than ever to keep going.”
Afterward, she had planned to take a boat to Europe and travel overseas. However, she could no longer do so due to the ongoing war. Instead, she made plans to travel through the southern portion of the United States, Cuba and South America just days after her arrival in New York City.
Effie and Avis Hotchkiss
Effie worked as a Wall Street banking clerk. According to Harley-Davidson, she was experiencing a lot of stress during this time of her life.
She was told to “… give up all work and take a complete rest.” H-D states that this was not an uncommon prescription during this time.
Unfortunately, Effie’s father passed away. That’s when she decided to use the money left to her after his passing to purchase a motorcycle.
Instead of “taking complete rest,” Effie and her mother, Avis, embarked on a therapeutic journey of their own. Effie purchased a Harley, mastered the controls, learned how to do repairs and added a sidecar. After Effie was thoroughly prepared, they set off on their journey.
Their adventure began in Brooklyn, New York on May 2, 1915. They planned to travel to San Francisco, California.
When they passed California’s state line, the pair endured grueling 120-degree heat. They also came face-to-face with a rattlesnake. Which, luckily, Effie was able to dispatch with her handgun. To make matters worse, they also came face-to-face with a coyote, which Harley states met a similar fate.
In August, Effie and Avis arrived in San Francisco, making them the first women to travel across the United States on a motorcycle. Their journey was a whopping 9,000 miles roundtrip.
In 1911, Stringfield was born in Kingston, Jamaica. Unfortunately, both of her parents died of smallpox when she was five years old.
In 1930, Stringfield started her solo journey. She had only been riding for three years before she toured 48 states.
Stringfield also traveled throughout Europe, Brazil and Haiti. She liked to toss a coin on to a map and travel anywhere it landed.
To finance her travel she often performed motorcycle tricks at carnivals. Timeline states that these performances helped secure her fame.
She even traveled during World War II. At this time, Stringfield served as a dispatch rider for the U.S. military.
After the war, she moved to Miami, Florida and founded the Iron Horse Motorcycle Club. She was dubbed “The Motorcycle Queen of Miami” after making frequent appearances on the local motorcycle show.
Stringfield was the first African-American woman to ride solo across the United States. And, she did so when she was just 19 years old, during a time in which racial tensions were high in America.
She lived until she was 82 years old. A doctor had advised her to stop riding due to an “enlarged heart.” She was quoted saying, “I told him if I don’t ride, I won’t live long. And, so I never did quit.”
Stringfield passed away in 1993 as a result of complications from her heart condition. She loved Harleys and owned 27 in her lifetime.
Stringfield was inducted into the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2002.
These stories are inspirational, to say the least. All people, young, old, men and women can learn a great deal from the history and accomplishments made by the ladies above.
What fun facts do you know about women riders? Drop some knowledge below!