By Mary Jane Black
When you walk into a Harley Davidson dealership, you’ll immediately notice the separation between apparel for men and for women. Male riders choose jackets, t-shirts and boots intended to stand up to the physical demands of riding a Harley motorcycle. Women, however, receive a mixed message regarding their place as a rider in an openly male-dominated world. Searching the shelves and racks, you’ll find a few heavy-duty shirts and leather jackets designed to protect you from the weather and the wind, but you’ll also see plenty of low cut shirts and high-heeled boots. And there’s a lot of sequins and pink.
After getting my first Harley, a police Road King, I often felt frustrated trying to find riding clothes. Those cleavage-showing shirts and tall boot heels are not only impractical, but they are dangerous when you’re balancing a heavy motorcycle at 80 mph on the open road. You need flat, thick-soled boots to get your feet on the ground when stopping, and those ‘cute’ shirts end up being whipped by the wind until they are at neck level.
Before I lowered the rear strut of the Road King, I balanced the heavy bike while standing on my toes like an awkward ballerina. It was the only time I worried I might drop the motorcycle. And the fringed leather jacket I wore while riding behind my husband, Dwayne, on his Harley proved to be a real problem when I rode my own bike; the long fringe flapped in the wind, hitting my skin, and I got off the bike with red marks all over me. I gave it to a woman who wanted to look good but didn’t ride solo.
A common expression among bikers is used to describe the passenger you carry behind you–“riding bitch.” That the passenger is almost always a woman undoubtedly lead to this description, but truthfully, the rare man who rode behind another man was included in the category. The language reflects how many men see women as part of their Harley world; we literally are behind them. When I rode, I’d see lots of men in t-shirts with a common slogan printed on the back: If you can read this, the bitch fell off. After I earned my motorcycle license and bought my Harley, Dwayne bought me a t-shirt which read I am the bitch.
Many male Harley bikers firmly believe that women should only ride the Sportster model with its light weight. It’s known as a girl’s bike to a great many riders. Dwayne – who got his first Harley at thirteen – believed the larger touring models were safer and easier for a woman to ride since the motor sits lower in the frame, making them more balanced. I rode with several groups of women riders, and many of them rode Sportsters at their husbands’ insistence. On every ride together, one or more of them would drop the bike at a stop sign or on a corner. Many times we’d stop at our garage where I’d help them replace a clutch or brake lever which broke during the fall. They didn’t want to tell their husbands about not being able to control the motorcycle.
To be honest, I became almost as sexist as many of the men I rode with. Women form their own biker clubs, and they reflect the split between us as women. A split we created. One group would be filled with female bikers who painted their motorcycles pink and wore those sparkly shirts. They rode short distances and refused to ride in the rain. I felt a stab of irritation when they put on lipstick each time we stopped.
The other type of women bikers rode for the sheer pleasure of pushing themselves to the limit. I rode with Women in the Wind for several years because they were this type of group. When we stopped at roadside parks, we were surrounded by both men and women who were awed by a large group of women riding together on hefty motorcycles, most of them Harleys. A man would always say we rode like men. At the end of a five-hundred mile ride with them, I’d slide off the Harley with triumph, with bugs caked on my face, a sweat-soaked bra, and matted helmet hair.
The battle against sexism often reveals itself through women seeking to prove their levels of physical stamina. We have to overcome the limits of our own bodies to succeed at something we love. I saw it as a sign of weakness to admit I found parts of riding a bulky Harley almost impossible. Truthfully, I didn’t have the upper body strength required to lift the 850- pound motorcycle off the kickstand and to shift the handlebars to an upright position. Pushing it up a sloped parking spot took a tremendous effort. A chivalrous man would always help. I felt irrational anger that I needed the help.
Many times we performed these physical feats of strength in the middle of a biker crowd at a motorcycle rally. If you needed to use your feet to balance the bike out of a parking spot, men jeered that you were “baby stepping” it. I practiced for weeks before my first Sturgis rally to execute smoothly the motion of snapping up the kick stand, pushing up the weight of the Harley and then rolling the throttle to accelerate out of a space without putting my feet down. I did it, but I was aware that a few hundred motorcycles stood to my left and to my right. I saw a few thousand male bikers watching. One turned to Dwayne and said, “Your old lady knows what she’s doing.”
Almost twenty years after I started riding Harleys and nine years after I sold mine when Dwayne became too ill to ride, the only thing left that designates me as a motorcycle rider is the M on the corner of my driver’s license. When I renewed it last year, an employee at the DMV noticed it and asked what kind of motorcycle I ride. I explained I didn’t have a bike now but I used to ride a Harley.
She smiled wistfully and told me, “I’ve always wanted to ride a Harley but my husband says they’re too big for a woman to ride.” Then she asked me if I still wanted the motorcycle stamp on my license to remain.
I assured her, “That may be all that labels me a biker right now, but I’ll never lose it.”
Mary Jane Black studied English and journalism as an undergrad, and went on to pursue a master’s in English with a concentration on creative writing. Teaching writing and literature at the high school level for fourteen years, she nurtured her students’ voices as she hid her own. After long days of teaching, she would spend sleepless nights scribbling stories in tattered notebooks found in her classroom and writing short poems in the margins of her desk calendar. Her first memoir ‘She Rode A Harley’ was published by She Writes Press on October 1, 2019. Visit her at https://maryjaneblack.com/.