Women and Motorsports Part I

Women and Motorcycles – Part I:  The Seminar

Fascinating seminar at Ride West last night. It was titled “Women and Motorcycles –  Street, Race, Tour, and Track.”  I couldn’t be bothered to memorize the order of the 4 descriptive words, so just used them in random order every time I needed to type the title – much more fun.

The guest speakers were amazing.  In alphabetical order by first name – 

Carol has been riding just a couple of years but has already done the California Superbike School and some track days. She rides a Ducati Monster and wants to race some day.  She is the first presenter in my experience to show up with several boxes of home-made cookies!

Deb started out with a Honda Twinstar (remember those?), then a Honda Shadow, and now rides a Suzuki V-Strom. She’s ridden on the street and is now also interested in dual sport riding and seeing how far she can take her growing skills. Deb has amazing skills as an organizer and enthusiast. She put together our Riders for Health Dual Sport Challenge event last summer, and was the catalyst that created this event.

Mary is a legend. She began sports car racing in the late 50’s and was successful in a wide range of sports and formula cars (owned by others) that would be worth $50 million and more today. Moving to motorcycles, she was the first woman road racer in this country, and took part in the first motorcycle road race ever held at Laguna Seca.  She has been there and done that and raced and talked to an amazing catalogue of names now known the world over.  Steve McQueen, for one, is the person who urged her to try desert racing, and that led to adventures on bikes and in trucks in such events as the Baja 500 and 1000. Her list of accomplishments simply goes on and on – long after your jaw drops open the first time. Even better, Mary’s a terrific story teller, polite, positive, and great fun.  She just recently got her endorsement (after 50 years or riding and racing!) and intends to add street riding to her vintage motocross racing endeavors.  Mary lives in Nevada but visits family in this area often. I hope we can hear more of her stories, as well as have her join one or more of our Team Ride West rides.

Tracy began as a passenger behind her husband of the time.  Eventually she transferred to the front seat of her own bike – and then took off.  Originally an avid street rider, she’s now an avid motorcyclist, and spends more and more of her time on dual sport adventures.  She currently owns 4 motorcycles (one is for sale) and also teaches a variety of classes with Puget Sound Safety.

With a panel of guests such as this, the night was made for listening.  I was particularly interested in what challenges the women faced when getting into motorcycles that went beyond what I had experienced.  What I heard was both more and less than what I expected.

I came to this from a childhood with “liberated” parents. My mother the mechanical engineer was a liberated woman decades before those words ever appeared together.  I can recall a conversation I listened to between my mother and a dinner guest – a woman who was a professor of anthropology at a University.  (Most of my parent’s dinner guests were people with very high levels of education and usually quite fascinating jobs – I thought this was normal)  They were discussing how each of them had been shunned by the women in their own neighborhoods, because they 1.) had college degrees and 2.) had jobs.  I think I was about 12 years old, and the inner rage I felt at the gross injustice of their treatment guided a lot of my attitudes and behaviors later.

For example, when I was president of the Lake Washington Education Association from 1976- 1978, I joined the “women’s caucus” of the state teacher’s union.   I wanted to support their efforts for many reasons – some of them self serving. At that time, education was one of the “acceptable” careers for women – the other being nursing. It was considered normal and proper for women to be paid less. That meant than on a school district salary schedule I was being paid at the rate of a woman, so assisting their efforts for change would ultimately benefit me.  I had other reasons which look better in print, but I need to be complete.

I coached many sports during the first 15 years of my teaching career, usually with a degree of success.  I coached both boys and girls in tennis, softball, track, basketball and volleyball.

Somewhere in there I was at the store after leading a practice with a girl’s team. I held my baby daughter in my arms, and the clerk noticed the shirt I was wearing that said “Coaching Staff.” She said – “Isn’t that the way it goes?  Dad’s a coach and gets a baby girl.”   One of the few times in my life I was speechless, but that’s the way it was in those days.

After a season with an undefeated 8th grade boy’s team, I turned down the opening for the 9th grade program because my school fed a high school powerhouse.  I was not happy with what was being done. To me basketball was a sport, not a reason to dedicate your life and that of your family to a 12 months a year obsession.  I decided to switch to head coach of the 9th grade girls basketball team, figuring that a league where all of the players and most of the coaches were female would be more civilized.  Naïve!

I took over a program that was awful and had been for years. That first year I watched an opposing coach, who was female, leave her starters on the court for virtually the full game, running a full court press that nobody on my team had the skills to defeat, even though the outcome of the game was obvious half way through the first quarter.  I was stunned, but in retrospect I should not have been all that surprised, and her behavior was echoed by many other coaches that year.

I couple of years later I had inherited some terrific players and had the best team. I taught my team the “more than 10 and less than 20” rule I had developed with the boys’ team. I wanted to win each game, and if possible by more than 10 points but always by less than 20. The players on the other team have to get up in the morning, and what good does running up the score to for anyone?  I spent a lot of my bench time that year effectively controlling the scoring of both teams by substitutions.  My players got it, and I think some of the girls on the opposing teams got it – but the parents did not. I was routinely chastised, both to my face and behind my back, for not winning by “enough.”  Remember, this is 9th grade.  Parents wanted their daughter’s stats to look good, and Becky sitting on the bench for most of the 2nd half of a game we would win by 36-25 did not allow her to score the 25 points she “needed.”

My last coaching experience was as an unpaid volunteer assistant for the Juanita High School fast pitch softball team, and I barged into that one after a father told the 1st year teacher and coach  (the previous year she was an academic and sport All American at Iowa State), and I quote  “This is Juanita. If you don’t go to state you probably won’t be back.”  Said in November to a 1st year teacher and coach 3 months before the season!   I decided she needed an older colleague who did not mind offending offensive parents to stand between her and them, and that worked well because Michelle was a fine person and an excellent coach – both of the girls on the team and of me in my role as assistant. We did go to state.

Sorry for that long digression, but this is intended to be a series of essays and I need to establish my bona fides, if possible, up front. 

Back to women getting into motorcycles. I assumed they would have depressing stories of sexist behavior from both men and women, but really that was not the case.  Mary had one story she could recall of an official not wanting to let her race ‘because you are a woman,” (well, you can’t argue that logic can you?) but she could not recall other instances of bias in 50 years of competition. She did point out that there may have been other instances, and that she was simply oblivious to them.

Some of her sexist experiences were amusing to her in retrospect. After competing in a race she was invited to an awards ceremony.  She and her husband dressed up, as one does for these things, and she found out later that the organizers simply wanted to see what she looked like in a dress, as they had never heard of a woman road racing.  Sexist, yes, but enraging? No.

After hearing her recount various adventures with the likes of Steve McQueen and Malcolm Smith  (and so many others), it occurred to me to ask if she appeared anywhere in “On Any Sunday,” the sort of documentary movie that launched motorcycles to previously unheard of levels of popularity in this country.  She told me she had nothing to do with that film, and I asked if that were by accident or by design. She told me she thought it was by design of Bruce Brown, who made the film.  “Really?”  I croaked. Mary added that she had run into Bruce just recently, and although much older he is still a sexist pig!

So sexist treatment did not seem to dominate the personal stories of any of these 4 women, nor the women in the audience who added their own experiences.  Of course they have all experienced sexism, but the level of it as applied to their interest in motorcycles was less than I would have expected. The “sexism” they resent was of another sort.

Simply put – motorcycles and motorcycle clothing are not made to fit women.  The level of bitterness expressed here surprised me, even though not all of the women were all that vehement. I’ve been aware that the availability of motorcycle gear designed for women has been increasing in the past few years, and I assumed women would be happy about it. 

Notice how many assumptions I have made in the past few paragraphs?  There is a lesson here.

Women are not happy about the design of motorcycles or motorcycle gear – at all.

There is more to be listened to, and more to be learned, and I intend to create more seminars and discussion groups for and with women on these topics.

In Part II we’ll take a look at the economics of designing, producing, and selling motorcycle gear for women.  I’m afraid I have bad news…

Copyright 2012                                                       David Preston



About david

I am a 73 year old motorsports nut who lives in Snohomish, Washington. After a 31 year career as an English teacher, I segued into a self-created job in the motorsports business. Now retired, I was involved in customer relations for Ride West BMW in Seattle, after almost 10 years of similar work for the Cycle Barn MotorSports Group. I own, at the current time, a Triumph Rocket 3 (2020) and a 2016 Ford Focus ST. What else would you like to know?
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