By Elizabeth West
The motorcycle didn’t spring full-blown into this world. Rather, it evolved from the earlier bicycle. Women loved bicycles for the mobility and freedom they allowed. In fact, Susan B. Anthony said, “The bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world.”
In the 1880s, bicycles were a huge fad. Then, in 1885, Gottlieb Daimler made one that had an engine. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t a bicycle, because it had four wheels instead of two. Two were safety wheels. This bike went a magnificent and stately 12 miles per hour.
An idea was born, and soon other motorized bicycles were invented. Perhaps the first true motorcycle was a charcoal fired two -wheeler made in 1869 by Sylvester Roper of Massachusetts.
Within two decades, motorcycles were being mass-produced. The first such bike was the Orient-Aster, which was made by the Metz Company of Waltham, Massachusetts. This state clearly loved its bikes. Another early cycle was the beloved Indian, made by the Hendee Manufacturing Company in Springfield, Massachusetts. (Later, the company changed its name to Indian Motorcycles.)
In 1902, Harley Davidson sold its first three motorcycles, and soon there were dozens of manufacturers. They had names like Marvel, Exelsior, and Henderson. The Depression killed off all but Indian and Harley, and soon only Harley remained.
Women enjoyed the motorcycles as much as they had enjoyed bikes. After all, they were economical and fun. They also didn’t have the stigma that they acquired later. Early riders were seen as adventuresome, not as outlaws.
In 1915, Indian motorcycles offered front and rear shocks. Since these cushioned the ride, people began to consider long-distance travel as a real option. That year, a mother-daughter team, Avis and Effie Hotchkiss, rode from New York to San Franciso. They didn’t take the direct route. Instead, they meandered about, covering 5,000 miles.
The next year, two society women in their 20s, sisters Adeline and Augusta Van Buren bought a pair of Indian Powerplus Bikes. They were the first people ever to climb up and down Pike’s Peak. They, too, completed a transcontinental ride. Their 3,300-mile trip took almost two months, and they had to contend not only with many unpaved roads, but also with social mores. Once they were arrested for publicly wearing trousers.
In the 1920s, Harley published a magazine called The Enthusiast. It sponsored Vivian Wales on a 5000 mile trip to a Harley factory. Another early motorcycle heroine was Bessie Stringfield, a.k.a. the Motorcycle Queen of Miami . She made 8 solo-cross country trips and was a motorcycle dispatch rider.
Bessie had started out with two strikes against her: she was a woman and she was African-American. At first, she couldn’t even get a motorcycle license in Miami, Florida. However, a police officer interceded in her behalf.
Motorcycles were also used in wartime, which gave them a lot of public exposure. About 20,000 Harleys were used during the WWI. They were ridden by couriers, soldiers, and others.
As motorcycle popularity grew, it was only natural that some people became highly skilled in its use. They showed off these skills in motordromes, which had been around since the turn of the century but grew in popularity during the 1930s. A motordrome often advertised itself as “A Wall of Death.”
Essentially, it was a giant barrel with a platform on top for viewers. They could look down on motorcyclists, who sped around the inside of the walls, held in place by centrifugal force. One of these early daredevils was Margaret Gast, who billed herself as “The Mile a Minute Gal.” She was not the only woman daredevil. May Williams and Jean Perry also performed on the walls.
By 1940, the United States had its first women’s motorcyle club, The Motormaids. Today, there are scores of such clubs. Anyone who wants more information about the history of women and motorcycles may want to check out the book Hear Me Roar: Women, Motorcycles, and the Rapture of the Road. I haven’t read it, but I’ve read several descriptions of it and seen the table of contents. It looks like fun.
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