International Women’s Day 2017: Progress in Motorcycling and Protective Gear for Women

Today is International Women’s Day.

A day to both celebrate women, highlight our unique contributions to our daily and global worlds, and call out the structures and social behaviors that still in many ways place women behind or second to men rather than alongside men. There are so many aspects I could discuss, but I thought this time, it would be interesting to look at women internationally through the lens of motorcycling, and through my own experiences since I began riding a few years ago. There are the female trailblazers, like the Van Buren sisters Augusta and Adeline who rode across the United States in 1916 to prove women were capable, and Elspeth Beard who launched on her around the world journey in 1982. Now motorcycling is becoming more accessible, and women have a community of other female riders to connect and share the experience with should they choose.

This 2017 International Women’s Day campaign is #BeBoldForChange, to move toward gender parity. When I think about equality and balance of diversity within the motorcycling community, we still have a ways to go. When I take off on my own, it is still primarily male motorcyclists I meet on the road. At the same time, those male motorcyclists have been encouraging, always willing to help lend a hand or even coach; from men, I have felt a welcoming into the motorcycling world. Even an older gentleman commented to me once, “You belong to that? You pilot that? Oh good, you’re not a seat cover. Nice bike.”

In other countries, even those with strict restrictions on different aspects of women’s lives, women are challenging not just norms but laws. Just last month, after three years of pressing the sports ministry of Iran and finally receiving permission, Behnaz Shafiei and fifteen other women competed in the country’s first ever female motorbike race.

#BeBoldForChange – the motorcycle literally can be a vehicle for change.

But if we want to be bold as we ride these vehicles, we should ride protected. When I started riding a few years ago, I researched what the academic literature (which analyzed outcomes of motorcycle accidents) recommended for effective protective motorcycle gear: helmets, boots, abrasion protection across all skin, armor at shoulders, back, elbows, knees, and hips. But hip protection in women’s riding pants was difficult to find even a few years ago. At one company’s shop, which sells attractive, fitted gear, I asked the salesman why that company did not put hip protection in women’s pants. His answer was that hip protection was unattractive on women. I was appalled. I emailed the company to ask if what the salesman said was truly the company’s reason, and they assured me it was not, but said the reason that their women’s pants did not have hip protection because women had complained that armor was too uncomfortable. I was appalled again. I told them protective gear is never comfortable, that women deserved to be as well protected as men, in the ways the research shows is more likely to keep skin and bones intact. I did not buy their product, but instead went with REV’IT. The design of REV’IT gear reflects values of protecting women as fully as men are protected. (Note on comfort: I have since had a chance to product review REV’IT’s Ladies Airwave 2, which was so light and comfortable I had to check to make sure I was actually wearing protective gear; I now know comfortable protective gear is actually possible.)

Looking at women’s motorcycle gear catalogues now, take for example – there are so many more protective gear options for women compared to even a few years ago. The important hip protection is even becoming more common of a feature in women’s pants just as it is in men’s, even in women’s denim motorcycle pants. We still have a ways to go – just as my brother has complained that women’s clothing stores easily outnumber men’s clothing stores at shopping malls, so do men’s riding gear options significantly outnumber women’s riding gear options. Parity for women in the context of International Women’s Day means equally valuing and giving attention to the protection of women in their pursuits. This is an example of a structural aspect that contributes to the gap between genders, a gap which is narrowing in the motorcycling world.

An example of a social behavior that creates the male-female disparity would be a comment a male motorcyclist told me after watching me ride the beautiful, winding Beartooth Highway 212 along the border of Montana and Wyoming. He said he would never ride with a woman, but I had changed his mind and he would make an exception: he would ride with me. Inherent in my interaction with him was both the social norm that devalues women (he would never ride with women) – but also the beginnings of change in his thinking and behavior (there is now one woman, me, he would ride with). Hopefully he’ll start making more exceptions.