A Proud Tradition
A look through the personal collections of riders from the past shows that women have always been a part of the Harley-Davidson family. As early as 1920, Motor Company advertising and photos frequently featured women in riding attire, posing with the latest motorcycles, ready to set off on their adventures. More details on the influential roles inspiring women have played in shaping the sport of motorcycling can be found in the stories and photos within this section.
Select any of the trailblazers to your left to learn more.
1912 Chicago Motorcycle Club picnic.
Julia Avery and mother traveling in Europe. Story featured in the September issue of The Harley-Davidson Dealer.
c. 1932 photo of the Milwaukee Motorcycle Club.
Daytona 1989. Image used in the 1990 flyer "A Woman's Guide to Harley-Davidson"--information on H.O.G. and Ladies of Harley.
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Effie N. Hotchkiss and mother Avis, first women to ride cross-country on a motorcycle from NY to San Francisco. Photo from the September 1915 issue of The Harley-Davidson Dealer.
In the 19th Century, America was a vast country. There were still sections of the nation regarded as frontier, and traversing large sections of land, much less the entire continent, on your own was a bold and dangerous endeavor. At the turn of the 20th Century, the gasoline engine revolutionized travel. America started seeming smaller with each passing year.
Numerous efforts to cover ground quickly on Harley-Davidson® motorcycles were to be made in the coming years. On May 2, 1915, the mother-daughter team of Avis and Effie Hotchkiss left Brooklyn, New York on a three-speed V-Twin with a sidecar, with the intention of reaching the West Coast and returning.
The team had no intention of gaining medals, money, or fame by taking the trip. In the words of daughter, Effie, "We merely wanted to see America and considered that the Three-Speed Harley-Davidson for myself and sidecar for mother and the luggage best suited for the job."
In September of 1915, The Harley-Davidson Dealer magazine reported that the team faced "bad roads, heat, cold, rain, floods, and all such things with a shrug of their shoulders." They had crossed the San Marcos pass in California, enduring temperatures in excess of 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The Hotchkisses claimed in The Harley-Davidson Dealer that, while in New Mexico, they had run out of spare inner tubes. Having thought ahead for this predicament, the women cut a blanket down to inner tube length, rolled and shaped it into a doughnut, and stuffed it into the tire. This got the bike through to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where they were able to re-supply inner tubes.
In August, the team dipped their wheels in the Pacific Ocean at San Francisco. By just making the trip one way, Avis and Effie Hotchkiss became the first women to cross the United States on a motorcycle. They immediately began the return leg, which included crossing the deserts of Nevada and Utah, and the cities of Reno, Salt Lake City, Omaha, Davenport, Chicago, and Milwaukee.
Avis and Effie Hotchkiss finally returned to their home in Brooklyn in October of 1915. Although they were looking forward to their next trips, they had already ridden their way into the record books and earned themselves a place in motorcycling history.
Ask any motorcycle history buff to name some of the most enthusiastic and active women in motorcycling in the last century and chances are, the first person they will name will be Dorothy "Dot" Robinson.
Dot was born Dorothy Goulding, the daughter of sidecar manufacturer and Saginaw, MI Harley-Davidson dealer Jim Goulding, on April 22, 1912. Working in the dealership at age 16, she met her future husband (and future Harley-Davidson dealer) Earl Robinson. They married in 1931, bought the franchise from her father, and moved it to Detroit. The five feet two inches tall Dot spent many weekends through the 1930's competing in endurance runs in the Great Lakes region of the United States. Her first victory was in a 100-mile endurance run, in which she earned a perfect score. Even more impressive was her second place finish in the brutal two-day "Jack Pine" enduro in 1937. Less than half the entrants even finished the contest that year. In 1940, Robinson returned to win the contest.
In addition to competing, Dot Robinson acted as co-owner of the Detroit dealership, managing its financial books. To add to those responsibilities, she worked as a motorcycle courier for a private defense contractor during World War II. In tandem with Motor Maids founder Linda Allen Dugeau, Robinson spearheaded the expansion of the membership growth of the club, and was elected its first president, a position she held for over 25 years.
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Written on the back of the original photo--
"This was taken at the Laconia Gypsy Tour in June 1940. Dot Smith, San Francisco, Harley 61 / Linda Degeau, Providence, Harley 45 / Dot Robinson, Saginaw, Harley 74."
1947 photo of Dot Robinson and an unidentified rider on their motorcycles, wearing their Motor Maids club uniforms. Black and white photo with uniforms colorized.
Dot Robinson in Daytona, 1984.
In her time with the Motor Maids, Dot Robinson logged up to 50,000 miles a year to help increase the visibility of the club and motorcycling in general. Near the end of her riding days, she estimated having logged over 1.5 million total miles on motorcycles in her lifetime! It might be said that few women have done as much for motorcycling as Dot Robinson. In 1998, she was inducted into the AMA Hall of Fame.
Dot Robinson passed away in Orlando, Florida on October 8, 1999, at the age of 87. Her impressive accomplishments had earned her the nickname "The First Lady of Motorcycling." More information can be found about her life on the Motor Maids website.
Bessie Stringfield, who started riding when she was 16, was the first African-American woman to travel cross-country solo.
In the 1920s, it was a rare sight to see a woman riding a motorcycle down the road. It was even rarer to see an African-American woman in the saddle. But Bessie Stringfield never let that stop her.
Known as the Motorcycle Queen of Miami, Bessie Stringfield started riding when she was 16. She was the first African-American woman to travel cross-country solo, and she did it at age 19. Bessie traveled through all of the lower 48 states during the '30s and '40s, then later rode in Europe, Brazil, and Haiti.
Throughout her expeditions, Bessie encountered racism, bigotry and sexism. "If you had black skin, you couldn't get a place to stay," Bessie once told a reporter. "I knew the Lord would take care of me and he did. If I found black folks, I'd stay with them. If not I'd sleep at filling stations on my motorcycle."
The outbreak of World War II provoked thousands of women to volunteer for their country. Bessie again showed her individualism by joining a motorcycle dispatch unit of the army. For four years, Bessie made runs across America as an enthusiastic courier, her saddlebags stuffed with classified documents.
In 1990, Bessie Stringfield was honored in the American Motorcyclist Association's (AMA) inaugural exhibit, "Heroes of Harley-Davidson." Ten years later, the AMA instituted an award bearing her name, which honors women for their contributions to, involvement with, and accomplishments in the sport of motorcycling. In 2002, Bessie was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame.
Bessie, who lived a full life during which she owned 27 different Harley-Davidson® motorcycles, died in 1993 at age 82. Although Bessie was instructed by her doctor to stop riding because of heart complications, she once told a reporter, "If I don't ride, I won't live long. And so I never quit."
In the 1910s, '20s and '30s, road trips demanded an adventurous spirit and a strong constitution. The early pioneers of touring made waves in newspapers, and first-hand accounts filled the pages of The Harley-Davidson Enthusiast. Vivian Bales was one of these courageous and spirited pioneers.
Bales (1909-2001) was born in Florida, but moved to Albany, Georgia with her family as a baby and spent the rest of her life there. She was proud of being a "Georgia Peach." She also took great pride in the fact that she taught herself how to ride a motorcycle, especially since she was only 5'2" and weighed a mere 95 pounds.
Bales' other great passion was dance. She took lessons as a girl, and became a teacher as soon as she graduated from high school. The money she earned financed the purchase of her first motorcycle, a Harley-Davidson single cylinder.
In 1929, vivacious 20-year-old Vivian Bales made history and rode a Harley-Davidson motorcycle from her hometown of Albany, Georgia to Milwaukee and back, a journey of about 5,000 miles. With permission from The Harley-Davidson Enthusiast, Bales billed herself "The Enthusiast Girl."
Harley-Davidson did not officialy finance her trip, but arranged with dealers to provide free accommodations, fuel and bike maintenance. A dealer rep also took Bales to a police convention in Atlanta. As a result, Bales enjoyed personal police escorts everywhere she went, attracting the attention of numerous newspapers.
Scroll through the images while you listen.
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Bales' trip is one of the best-documented road trips of all time. She not only wrote a two-part article about the trip for The Harley-Davidson Enthusiast, but also filled several scrapbooks with snapshots, postcards, telegrams, and clippings from newspaper articles.
After her adventure, Bales remained a loyal lifelong Harley-Davidson fan. When Bales passed away in 2001, per her final wishes, the funeral included a motorcycle parade (organized by the Albany, Georgia Harley-Davidson® dealership).