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Motorcycles – Icons of Empowerment

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Beards and Beer Bellies

Ten years ago, if you asked someone to define a biker, an irrepressibly masculine description would have followed. Most people’s idea of a biker involved a grizzly beard, a beer belly, and a testosterone-fuelled attitude. An unfair impression, perhaps, but an enduring one. However, things are changing. Findings from the 2008 Motorcycle Industry Council survey revealed that 23% of American motorcyclists that year were female – a rise of almost 38% since 1998.  As One Bad Bitch customers are well aware, ladies are increasingly resisting the male stereotype to experience for themselves the freedom and thrills which motorcycles can offer. They’re saddling up, donning leathers, and hitting the road – with the help and encouragement of a growing number of women blazing a female trail in the motorcycle industry.

Vintage Biker Chicks

Initially, women had a very tough time breaking into the motorcycle industry. In 1916, Augusta and Adeline Van Buren made an impressive effort to persuade the military to deploy women as dispatch riders during WW1. To demonstrate that women could ride just as well as men, they hopped onto a pair of 1,000 cc Indian motorcycles, and rode 5,500 miles across the continental United States. With their controversial leather riding breeches and khaki pants, they pioneered a ‘biker chick’ look in an era when wearing male clothing could (and, as they discovered on several occasions, did) get women arrested. However, despite proving their point beyond doubt, the military did not see the value of their proposal. No lady dispatch riders went to the Front.

Recreational riding for women also struggled to gain a foothold during much of the twentieth century. While manufacturers like Harley-Davidson had made some early efforts to encourage ladies to ride – enthusiastically supporting motorcycle pioneers Della Crewe and Effie Hotchkiss during their epic rides across the States – this promising start was quickly quashed when motorcycles began to feature in the movies.  It did not take long for male stars of the silver screen to utilize motorcycles as symbols of their masculinity. A testosterone-saturated biker culture developed around these tough images, to which women had no access.

Breaking the Trope

However, it was this very masculinity which led some women to see motorcycles as icons of female empowerment. After all, what better way to prove your worth to the world than by playing men at their own game? Initially, perhaps, to prove a point, many women braved an often hostile biking community to become bikers themselves. Unsurprisingly, they discovered that they enjoyed it. They wanted to pursue motorcycling for the love of it.

To do so, they were going to need clothing cut to their shapes, advice tailored to their needs, and people willing to fix their bikes without patronizing them. They were going to need women in the industry.

Working Twice as Hard, Being Twice as Smart

Women who made forays into the male-dominated motorcycle industry often had a tough time of it. Generally expected to fail, they had to learn their jobs with a precision unknown to their male colleagues. And they had to learn alone – accepting help or advice would be seen as a sign of weakness. Every mistake they made, however minor, could be taken as evidence that they were simply not up to doing a ‘man’s job’ in a ‘man’s world’. As Charlotte Whitton said, “For a woman to get half as much credit as a man, she has to work twice as hard, and be twice as smart.” Fortunately, as Charlotte wryly added, this is not difficult.

That drive to ‘work twice as hard and be twice as smart’ resulted in a breed of biking women who really knew what they were about. It did not take long before their value to the industry became clear. The disapproval of their male colleagues turned to amazement as they proved their worth. This swiftly turned into hard-won and well-deserved respect.

Reaping the Benefits

Take female motorcycle mechanics, for example. A good mechanic is essential. Your mechanic has your life in their hands, so you want one who knows their job inside out and back to front. What better choice could one make than a mechanic who has had to learn their craft intimately in order to prove their worth? A mechanic who has demonstrated time and again in a traditionally hostile environment that they are up to the task? A mechanic who is dedicated enough to the job to battle ignorance, prejudice and gender assumptions to come out on top? A mechanic who takes a pride in her work, knowing that she is a pioneer in her field? What better choice, in short, than a female mechanic?

Consumers are becoming aware of this. While some may still mutter disparagingly about ladies doing ‘men’s jobs’, their voices are being drowned out by the wave of consumer support for women in the industry. As well as engendering the respect of male bikers, the inroads made by women in the industry have encouraged a flood of females to join the biking community. Ladies who would previously have hesitated to buy a motorcycle, feeling that the very idea would be laughed out of town when they asked for advice, can now get the low-down from the growing number of women with the knowledge and skills that they need. Some women may once have hesitated to wheel their rides into a repair shop for fear of being patronized or ripped off by the men working there. These days, they do not need to look far to find a good lady mechanic in whom they can place their trust. Women in the industry are encouraging, inspirational, and have the skills consumers demand. And where consumers lead, the industry is following.

A Growth Industry

Many women are waking up to the potential in the motorcycle industry. From customized cycles to female run biking tours, women-owned motorcycle companies are cropping up everywhere. And they are working a wonderful PR job on the industry. Previously associated with the kind of undesirables you wouldn’t want to meet on a dark night, the involvement of women in the motorcycle industry has transformed the image of the motorbike. While they still maintain the aura of freedom and individualism which so embodies many aspects of America, the integration of women into the biking community has removed the motorcycle’s more misogynistic associations. This has also mitigated the violence of the biker image. People can now indulge their passion for the thrills of biking without worrying about being seen as woman-hating thugs. Indeed, so popular, and even iconic, are motorcycles becoming due to the involvement of women, that companies are becoming eager to improve their image by offering corporate branded incentives to their employees which utilize biker culture and icons, and this industry in itself is becoming an excellent venue for leading women to take the helm in branding and design, from small grass roots companies to bigger corporations. In this, they follow a growing trend fired by the internet for customizable produce, in which the image of the motorcycle is popularly utilized.

Working for the Love of It

Women working in the motorcycle industry today are working not to prove a point, or to break down gender barriers – but because they love and have a true aptitude for the work. They are judged on the quality of the job they do, and on the validity of their knowledge, rather than on their sex. These women are a valued and important component of the biking community – and their numbers are growing.

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