Being Female, on a Motorcycle

“You belong to that?” An old man in a Jeep asked me when he saw me hanging out by my motorcycle. “You pilot that?” At my confirmation he said, “Oh good, you’re not a seat cover. Nice bike.”4397_a

Being a female who frequently participates in “male” activities and gets all sorts of reactions because of it, I very much appreciated the way this man called out the gender biases in society, and comfortably and approvingly flipped the notions; it was as if in that shared moment, we were participating together in challenging society’s attitudes towards females and what they are, instead of are not, allowed to participate in. It was a very different experience than the time I called a local motorcycle tow truck driver to see if he could come and troubleshoot something with my bike, but I had to leave a voicemail. When he called back he asked, “What kind of scooter is it?” I just said: “BMW 650GS.” “Oh a BIKE bike.” Assumptions placed upon me because I am female.

Human relations, or what I often refer to as people dynamics, is the primary lens through which I view the world, as shaped by my sociology and organizational behavior training. One of the key variables that my mentors in the organizational behavior field have emphasized is the role and identity of one’s self and how it mediates a situation, in terms of one’s own thoughts and reactions, as well as in what it triggers in others. All of that is data. As such, I am frequently analyzing interactions I am involved in or observe, and consider the different variables at play. For example, physically it is obvious that I am a lightweight female. When I am seen in context of motorcycling, which in terms of numbers is a primarily male activity, a variety of responses are possible in the person observing me, which is dependent upon their own group memberships and individual history. Is their group membership and identity male or female? Do they have a history of themselves or close family or friends who ride? And so on. On my end, I have to remember that my comfortableness in participating in male dominated activities changes my own perception of the naturalness of the situation. I was the only girl playing football with the boys at recess growing up; I was a female coxswain on the lightweight men’s crew team in college; the sphere of rock climbing I entered was predominantly male; I was the only female in the three welding classes I took and one of the only females in the shops at which I did welding work studies. And now I am more and more using my bike for what it was made for: adventure motorcycling, which also is a predominantly male field.  Even though I try to view myself as merely a human participating in a human activity, I have to remember that gender is a strong category. So strong, in fact, that it can literally dictate human interaction. In some ways, riding solo and especially without a male means I have the space to make my own calculations and decisions, and the time to process and practice troubleshooting situations. Men tend to jump in to fix a situation before I have a chance to learn and handle it on my own. Male chivalrousness can incapacitate women.

When I ride solo, it almost always men and not women who comment on the fact of my riding. Women who are a “seat cover” will pretend I do not exist and not even make eye contact with me when their male partner dismounts from their motorcycle and chats with me about it being a nice day for a ride. When I ride with a male, each of us on our separate motorcycles, men will still comment to us, verbally referencing both of us, but primarily make eye contact with the male I am with, as if the male is the spokesperson for our pair.

I have been invited to join a motorcycle gang as a token female (though it was pointed out to me when I later told the story that a real gang would not have politely extended an invitation). The men asked me because women were interested in joining their group, but the women were uncomfortable doing so unless there were already women in the group, and these men thought perhaps I could be that first female to join and that that would cascade into other females joining. I think it is ridiculous that women will only join if there are other women already present, but I have to remind myself that my biases come from my biography of shunning gender norms and doing what I am interested in regardless of whether or who is participating. Then there is the side of female-only riding groups. I inquired about and considered this once, but have never been able to comfortably bring myself to participate in a purposely all-female anything, even though a motorcycling group of females could be different than the average mix of women in the all-female groups I found unpleasant. Maybe it is some of the feminist, sociological idealism I picked up in college, but to me all-female groups collude with and perpetuate gender norms by their very existence, and I do not want to participate in and thereby contribute to gender dynamics if I can help it. To my understanding, women gravitate towards all-women situations such as women motorcycle groups and rides in order to not have to deal with the fears and lack of confidence they feel when men are in the group. Maybe for some women it creates a safe enough mental, physical and emotional space in which they can improve their skills, to then later ride with males. However, I still see all-women groups in the context of the American culture I live in, as often being too protective and thereby preventing women from gaining confidence to exist in the situations they fear; how will women ever learn to be comfortable in groups with males if they are not practicing or working to become comfortable in an actual group that contains males? “Ride your own ride,” was a statement given to me twice at the beginning of my learning to ride a motorcycle, first by a man, and later by a woman. I repeat this to myself when I am riding with others; it does not matter if it is a male or female or heterogeneous group I am with – I aim to keep up, but ultimately go at the pace I am comfortable with; I am “riding my own ride”. And I repeat this to myself if I feel pressure otherwise.

Physically, being female and of my stature on the type of motorcycle that I ride reminds me constantly that these bikes were very likely designed by men, for men. That and the challenge of finding full coverage protective gear for female bodies comparable to the full coverage protective gear that is designed for men; let me tell you, chivalry and protection of women shows its limits with the current women’s gear selection on the market, if one is looking for options and full, quality protection. In terms of strength, I am told I am strong for my size, but that strength men naturally have more easily than women is something I find I am always wishing I had a little more of.

These limitations have not kept back women, thankfully. Although I do not like highlighting the differences between women and men because it frequently perpetuates gender norms, the paradox is that these dynamics need to be surfaced and become conversations in order to be challenged and reconsidered on personal and societal levels. Hence, I discuss it.

One of the women who did not accept the prescribed limitations was Elspeth Beard, an Englishwoman who in her early 20s, traveled the world by motorcycle in the 1980s, solo. Another woman, Lois Pryce, also an Englishwoman, took off on a motorcycle in her late 20s and rode the length of the Americas solo in 2003, and since has done other trips. I am sure there are others. These women are a couple of the standouts because they covered significant distance and did not go on their trip with a male significant other. I had not heard about them until a bit after I started riding, and I am glad it happened in that order at least for me. It should not matter whether or if other females are doing something; just do what is compelling and see where it leads. Being inspired by the potential of what women are capable of by knowing their stories, however, does engender the imagination of possibilities. And, hopefully, stimulates questioning of the notions men and women hold of women.

See the rest of the Motorcycle Diaries