circa 1975: A female motorcyclist in traffic.

Early motorcycles were basically bicycles with adapted combustion engines, and they appeared around the same time as automobiles, in the late 1800s. At the time, any motorized vehicle was a substantial upgrade in transportation mobility for a family, and motorcycles were originally the more economical choice for many middle-income families. At the time, the average annual income was just under $1000, and while it was rising, an $850 automobile represented almost a year’s pay.

That $850 price tag was the cost of the Model T when it debuted, and when compared to a $325 Harley, many families opted for the motorcycle simply because it took less of their annual resources to do so. As Ford tuned its manufacturing process and built in the concept of the assembly line, the price of cars came down, settling around $380 and making the small price increase worth the extra passenger space for many buyers. Until that happened, motorcycles were used by both men and women for primary transportation. While some people rode for enjoyment, the motorcycle of the day was not usually a recreational vehicle until the assembly line changed the relationship between bikes and cars.

Motorcycles as Recreational Vehicles

Today, the price difference between a motorcycle and a car depends on what models you are comparing. High end motorcycles can cost as much as mid-tier cars or even more if they are custom builds. Economy model motorcycles, on the other hand, continue to carry recommended prices well below economy model cars in many cases. This has made them attractive as commuter vehicles again, but with the used auto market providing cars at prices that undercut motorcycles, they continue to be mostly viewed as recreational vehicles, and they continue to be viewed as mostly a male preoccupation.

The current percentage of female riders is on the rise, with a 2003 motorcycle ownership breakdown by the Motorcycle Industry Council determining 9.6 percent of all registered motorcycles were owned by women. By 2015, that same process determined the percentage of women rising to 14. Current numbers are hard to get because it takes time to process the data after it’s collected, but there are no reasons to think the trend hasn’t continued. Despite the image of motorsports as male-driven, there have always been notable female riders who made names for themselves. Let’s explore a few of the role models for women riders over the years.

The Van Buren Sisters

This famous duo was among the first of the women famous for cross country riding. Their exploits were publicized as they rode coast-to-coast in 1916 on an Indian Power Plus. They were also the first women known to ride to the summit of Pike’s Peak, a feat they accomplished that same year. While there were plenty of women who rode for transportation before this, they were among the first women to gain fame for their feats of skill while riding.

Famous Women Riders of the 1930s and 1940s

The Great Depression and the subsequent war led to a resurgence of famous female motorcycle riders internationally. Famous women made names for themselves as cross-country riders and racers, providing a visible face of competition for other women when interest in riding began to rise again after World War II. Bessie Stringfield made eight famous cross-country voyages that were documented in the media of the time. As an early African American rider and a woman, she rode solo through the Deep South during a time when it was quite dangerous for her to do so. Her bravery and notoriety helped contribute to the idea of motorcycles as culturally rebellious simply because she chose to travel freely where and when she did.

Another famous American rider of the time was Dot Robinson. She is credited with opening the door to women in American racing in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Theresa Wallach of England was also becoming famous for her racing wins during that time period, and there were other competitive riders who were women who didn’t receive the same public attention but did contribute to the presence of women in motorcycle racing. While conventional wisdom credits Ms. Robinson as the first female motorcycle racer in a lot of divisions, there are some who contest that wisdom. One thing is for sure, she inspired a lot of women and girls to try the sport.

Twenty-one year old motorcycle triallist June Adams on her bike, March 1951.

Women in Modern Motorcycling

Today, women are present in every aspect of motorsports, including Hollywood stunt riders. Debbie Evans is considered to be an icon for her stunt work on motorcycles in the 1970s, and since then many others have worked hard to redefine what stunt riding can look like both as its own performance and as a part of a movie. Motocross champions like Ashley Fiolek provide modern role models in active competition, and there are numerous women who have been inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame, including many women not discussed in detail here:

Linda Dugeau
Becky Brown
Linda Giovanni
Hazel Kolb
Mary Shephard Cutright
Dianne Traynor
Margaret Wilson

Recreation vs. Transportation in Modern Riding

The statistics about the number of women with motorcycles are not quite accurate, since they only track women who own their own bikes. There are also women who ride motorcycles that are registered to their husbands and young riders whose parents carry the registration for financial reasons. Likewise, there are some women who own motorcycles who are ridden by multiple riders or who own bikes that are actually primarily ridden by male relatives for whatever reason. What the numbers do tell us accurately is that the number of women investing in motorcycle culture is going up for street legal bikes, both as recreational vehicles and commuter options.

Getting Equipped for Your Ride

With the way women have been moving into motor sports at both the competitive and recreational levels, more and more gear manufacturers have been making sure to specialize their products for the build and proportions of female riders. Check out this motorcycle gear guide for women for some of the top brands making equipment just for women. There’s something for everyone, whether you’re new or just looking to refresh your gear lineup.