Over on the Stuff You Missed in History Class Pinterest board, I spotted a photo of Dot Robinson, who became known as the First Lady of Motorcyling. The 1939 portrait (which is also, I discovered, the cover image of “The American Motorcycle Girls: A Photographic History of Women and Motorcycles“) shows Robinson dressed in a natty outfit with bow perched on her head to boot, sitting astride a Harley-Davidson EL Knucklehead. Her Australian father was a motorcycle sidecar mechanic who reportedly scooted her mother to the hospital when she went into labor with Dot. Growing up in the shop, Dot took to the sport and married a fellow motorcycle enthusiast with whom she clocked hundreds of thousands of miles with both on- and off-road.
The same year that memorable photo was taken, Robinson biked her way around the United States looking for other women riders, who were few and far between at the time. From that venture, she cobbled together the Motor Maids, the country’s first all-female, non-outlaw motorcycle group. The group’s biography on Robinson, who died in 1998 at the age of 87, emphasizes her keen attention to always looking “like a lady” while riding, in addition to tooling around in a flashy pink motorcycle fit for a Barbie doll later in life.
Decades prior, the mother-daughter duo of Avis and Effie Hotchkiss were an even more trailblazing anomaly than Robinson. In 1915, 21-year-old Effie convinced her mother Avis to hop into the sidecar of a Harley and ride from Brooklyn, New York, 9,000 miles (14,484 kilometers) across the United States. Buoyed by publicity, the duo bought a new Harley with a custom-made sidebar to comfortably fit the “Rubenesque” Avis, along with necessities including a revolver, medical kit and spare motorcycle parts, and hit the road for the first transcontinental motorcycle trip completed by women.
Soon after in the 1920s, Harley would begin marketing models to women as “The Woman’s Outdoor Companion” for ladies who enjoyed the “git and go” of the motorbike. In fact, Melissa Holbrooke Pierson, author of “The Perfect Vehicle,” found that the early history of motorcycling was more welcoming to women, particularly in competition, than more recently. The sport quickly became gendered as “for men” only, and its association with outlaw groups like the Hell’s Angels wasn’t exactly a selling point to women. And though more women ride today than when Dot Robinson was attempting to round up a few good female riders, they’re still very much in the motorcycle minority, number around 1 in 10 of owners.