Aug 30, 2021
On this episode we are going to talk about some influential women in motorcycle history. Since I have started reading about the history of Indian Motorcycle, I got curious. Motorcycling is a male dominated activity, but more and more women are joining the riding community each year. So, when did women start riding motorcycles?
Today I took a ride. Big surprise there huh?! My son finally got his big brother’s bike fixed and road worth again so of course we had to ride to brunch. Then we parted ways because he’s a teenage boy and had to go show his friends his motorcycle, so I went and did a few things. As I was getting close to home, like literally around the corner, I remembered taking my first big step in riding. I guess you could say it was a beginner’s milestone. My block is actually 2 smaller blocks chunked off from a bigger block. Then there are a bunch of those bigger blocks that make up this section of the neighborhood. It’s about 2 and a half miles to go all the way around this chunk. I was thinking about when I was finally brave enough to ride around this chunk of blocks. The speed limit is a whopping 30 miles and hour. I felt joy and exhilaration overcoming that next obstacle and getting more comfortable on the road. So today as I was coming home, I remembered all those feelings and decided to ride that ride again. I thought about how nervous I was coming to a stop at all 6 of the stop signs. I remember waiting for traffic because I was unsure of my ability to get going and up to speed. I laughed at myself thinking how far I have come. It was fun to think about the past and see all I have accomplished. And once again I thought about other women motorcyclists. Seriously, when did women start riding?
Recently I talked about the beginnings of the Indian Motorcycle Company. FYI there is so much more to that history, but that’s for future episode. Anyway, as I was reading, I was wondering where all the ladies were. Yeah! Where are the women that made motorcycle history? Well, they are out there, just harder to find. But I have been doing some digging.
You know what I found out? Women started riding immediately. Motorized bicycles came out and women started riding. Motorcycles were never a men’s only thing. The practicality of them made them an ideal choice for everyone. And because motorcycles were half as expensive as the new Model-T Ford, they were preferred methods of transportation. Well, at least for a little while.
Ok let me take you back and tell you a smidge of Indian Motorcycle history to get this to really make sense. Between 1901 and 1916 Indian Motorcycle increased its success 10-fold. They were on top of the motorcycle game in every capacity, and not just in the United States but around the world. It was around 1916 that Indian modified its engine and thus the Powerplus was born. Basically, they added metal to the combustion chamber creating turbulence that increased power. That’s the cliff notes version.
The VanBuren Sisters
Anyway, this Powerplus motorcycle is what a set of sisters used to ride across the country to prove that women could help in the war efforts. Adeline and Augusta VanBuren figured that if they could prove that women could ride through the hardships of crossing the treacherous country from New York to California then they could help the war efforts as dispatch riders. This would allow more men to fight in positions women could not. These women were the first to ride a motorized vehicle up Pike’s Peak and encountered countless hardships along their journey. Unfortunately, media only reported on the amazingness of the motorcycle and glossed over what these two ladies had done in 1916! However, because women didn’t have the right to vote, this did push more women to break stereotypes and show the world that women can do anything a man can. These two women made history. They did something that not may people did, and their story is inspirational.
The next woman that I think was an inspiration to motorcycle history was Theresa Wallach. She was originally from Europe but eventually moved to the United States.
Over her lifetime she was a true motorcycle adventurer. She grew up surrounded motorcycles and learned to ride from some of the best of the time.
As she grew, she learned wrench on bikes in addition to honing her riding skills which led her to win numerous local competitions. But this was the 1930’s so her behavior was very unbecoming of a lady.
Theresa did what the VanBuren’s couldn’t. She was able to become a military dispatch rider, but this was only one small accomplishment for her. She took what is considered one of the most radial rides ever from London, England to Cape Town, South Africa!
This rocketed Theresa to celebrity status and helped her get accepted into the British racing establishment.
When she came to America, Theresa became known for her mechanical abilities and worked in a shop until she opened her own motorcycle dealership.
She wrote 2 very successful books about her motorcycle journeys and began teaching new riders in 1959.
She opened the Easy Riding Academy and still had time to serve as the first Vice President of the Women’s International Motorcycle Association. Theresa never owned a car and rode up until she could no longer see well enough to ride in her 80’s. Theresa was a pioneer for women riders around the world.
These last few ladies were inspirational and truly pushed for women, but this next lady was such a pioneer in her own rights.
I’m talking about the Motorcycle Queen from Miami, Bessie Stringfield.
Not only was she breaking barriers for women, but the black community as well. This woman has an award in her name.
The Bessie Stringfield award is granted to a person who introduces motorcycling to emerging markets. That explanation in itself should give you an idea of this woman’s influence during her lifetime.
Bessie’s first motorcycle was a 1928 Indian Scout, which she taught herself to ride. Then she switched over to Harely, and even though it makes me sad that was a Harley woman, I have to forgive her because of the leaps and bounds she made with her riding.
She began by riding all over the country, and as a black woman in the 30’s and 40’s that was unheard of and unimaginably dangerous for her.
She would be denied basic needs like a place to stay because she was black, and reports say she would on occasion sleep on her motorcycle if she couldn’t find black folks to take her in.
This hardship didn’t seem to bother her much and she went on to ride across the country several times before completing serious training with difficult maneuvers to become a civilian Army motorcycle dispatch rider.
Bessie eventually settled in Miami, hence the name Motorcycle Queen of Miami. She got the name from riding while standing on her motorcycle. She started a motorcycle club and even won a motorcycle race. However, she denied her the prize because she’s a woman.
Gloria Tramontin-Struck started riding at 16 years old. She loved traveling and was determined to do it on a motorcycle. Because she was riding in the 40’s, like Bessie it was improper for a woman. This is still mind blowing to me. When motor bikes first came out, women used them so when did it become improper? Whatever, it was! And Gloria experienced similar situations to Bessie. Both ladies were refused rooms and basic necessities for their travels. Gloria continued riding and estimates that she rode at least 700,000 miles. She is a regular at motorcycle rallies such as Sturgis and Daytona and has helped to change the way people view motorcyclists.
Dot Robinson used her tenacity to get herself into motorcycle racing. She is credited with being the first female racer in many events, but we know that’s not true. Remember Bessie raced but wasn’t credited for it. Some stories tell of Dot winning races then cleaning up and presenting herself as the lady she was. This was ultimately what got her noticed and really helped to start to change perceptions of women in motorcycling, in particular women in racing.
Mary McGee liked car racing and thought, “what the heck? Let’s learn to race motorcycles because it may help me get better at racing cars.” She was forced to take a test to prove her ability and became the first woman to hold a FIM license in the United States. So, yay legal Female racer!!! Making waves for women in the sport!!! Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that she began racing in the late 50’s early 60’s so we are still working on the perception of motorcyclist as normal people, especially women motorcyclists.
All of these women played a part in motorcycle history. The Van Buren sisters, Theresa, Bessie, Gloria, Dot, and Mary. I did not do their stories justice, and there are so many more women out there that had pivotal roles. I am in awe at what these women did for the motorcycle community. I am truly amazed at their willpower to continue through every challenge thrown at them. I am inspired by their perseverance in the face of adversity. I am also a little more enlightened on the history of motorcycling. I’m so glad I followed up on women’s motorcycle history.