Australian Dot, a sidecar designer. American Linda, founder of the first association to promote motorcycling for women. Jamaican Bessie, a stuntwoman on two wheels. German Anke Eve, rider, reporter and biker fashion designer. In this article (published in Chairmag.it and Motocicliste.net), Silva Fedrigo takes a look at four women who rode to victory
“How often have you watched old movies showing splendid emancipated women like Grace Kelly riding classy sports cars down bucolic country lanes? There came a point when Hollywood put women behind the wheel: it was impossible to ignore the fact that growing numbers of women were driving, out of necessity, a desire for freedom or as an exercise in equal opportunities. But motorbikes? Where are the motorbikes? Why are there no women on motorcycles in the movies, on television, in advertising, in magazines? And when they do appear, why are they usually pin-ups draped decoratively over the motorcycles, and never real bikers? Why do people say women find it difficult to ride a motorbike? Nowadays, women handle jobs that are far more complex and tiring, once the preserve of men… Perhaps an explanation exists.
Today, the automobile is a commodity, the majority of models no longer present engines as power, sport and freedom, but as useful daily tools to take the children to school or go for a Sunday drive. Cars like this can be driven by mothers, women can legitimately take the wheel. The motorcycle, on the other hand, continues to be regarded as a status symbol: not just as a means of transport, but as an object associated with pleasure and a way of life. Freedom, exploration, independence, freedom from ties, clocks and roles… Perhaps this is not yet considered suitable territory for women.
Yet female bikers exist, and have always existed. When you start looking for them, browsing the internet, books and association archives, a host of fascinating characters emerge. Characters like Australia’s Dot Robinson, the daughter of a sidecar designer and engineer who emigrated to the USA to expand his motor business. Dot grew up with motorcycles and was a female two-wheeler pioneer. In the 1930s and 40s, with her husband, also a motorcyclist, she competed in many races, in a number of categories, and despite the difficulties and hostility she encountered, she won a number of important events.
With Linda Dugeau, a biker she met at a race, in 1941 she formed Motor Maids, the first American association to promote motorcycling for women. Dot carried on riding, completing many long-distance journeys, until she was 85, clocking up 1.5 million miles. Bessie Stringfield was an equally impressive figure. Born in Jamaica but raised in the USA, she rode her first bike, an Indiana Scout, at sixteen. Little more than a girl, she travelled across the States, making her living as a spectacular stunt rider at fairs. The racial discrimination she encountered on her travels often forced her to sleep on her motorcycle. During the Second World War, she worked as a civil outrider, carrying army documents from one military base to another. She was the first Afro-American woman to make a solo trip across the USA, and on her missions for the army she crossed the country eight times in four years. She entered the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2002: a sort of two-wheeler Nobel Laureate!
Cross-referencing photos and fragments of information on the net, you build up a picture of another tireless biker, a figure of great charm and charisma. The legendary Anke Eve Goldmann, a tall German beauty, famous in the 1950s and 1960s for her expertise on bikes no one at the time would have thought a women could ride and control: the powerful and heavy BMW R67/3 and R69. Ms Goldmann also raced on the most demanding circuits like Nurburgring, leaving everyone open-mouthed; as a sideline, she wrote reports and articles for the trade press. Since she was a woman, however, she was not allowed to take part in the top competitions like the Grand Prix.
But her passion extended beyond racing: she was on her bike all year round, in all weathers, which is why she began designing technical leather riding clothes, which would not only look good (and are still an unparalleled model of style today), but would also be warm, comfortable and practical. It was Goldmann who invented the famous diagonal zip on motorbike jackets, which are particularly comfortable for female riders. Cold, rain, snow, nothing stopped her. Every year, she took part in the famous Elephant Rally, a sort of extreme adventure for any biker with the courage to race on snow and mud.
Like these four women, there are many others… Every so often attics and old boxes reveal yellowed photos of dignified young ladies on shiny motorbikes or intrepid amazons like Anke Eve, and someone puts them on the internet. So my advice is this: if you don’t know everything, really everything, about your grandmother, take a look at her old photo albums and ask her about the days when she was a girl. You never know, you might find her proudly posing on a Guzzi or a Gilera, ready to open the throttle and speed off into the horizon.”
THE VAN BUREN SISTERS
AND THERESA WALLACH
No account of the pioneering women who helped make the history of female motorcycling would be complete without mention of the American Van Buren sisters and Britain’s Theresa Wallach, who challenged the conventions of the age and entered world motorcycling’s Hall of Fame.
In 1916, as the USA prepared to enter the First World War, it needed dispatch riders to carry messages from military headquarters to the active units. Sisters Augusta and Adeline Van Buren believed this was a service women could provide, while the men were engaged on other activities.
Augusta and Adeline Van Buren 1916
To prove their riding skills, they rode 5,500 miles across the United States in 60 days. They were the first women to reach the summit of Pike’s Peak, and among the first motorcyclists to cross the USA coast to coast. Despite their success, their applications to work as dispatch riders were rejected. Even so, they had demonstrated that women could ride motorbikes, and created a precedent for female motorcycling.
Theresa Wallach was a leading British motorcyclist during the 1930s and 40s. She grew up near a motorcycle factory, and her friends taught her to ride. She applied for membership of a local motorcycling club, but was refused because she was a woman.
The book "The Rugged Road"
Theresa began competing in – and winning – local motorcycling races, although her parents made her hide her trophies, because it was not considered proper for women to ride motorbikes. Wallach was later accepted by the British racing world, after she and a female friend rode more than 6,000 miles from London to Cape Town in South Africa in 1934 (on a motorcycle with a sidecar and a tent trailer), defying the deserts, wild animals and difficulties of every kind. Wallach wrote a book about their adventurous journey, entitled “The Rugged Road”, which was translated into several languages. During the Second World War, she became the British Army’s first female dispatch rider. After the war, she moved to North America. She rode 32,000 miles in two and a half years across the USA, until she settled in Chicago. She became a motorbike mechanic and opened her own motorcycle dealership. In 1973, she sold the shop and opened the Easy Motorcycle Riding Academy in Phoenix, Arizona. Her name is included in the world Motorcycle Hall of Fame.