Have you ever been appalled by the sight of women motorcyclists biking down the road? Probably not. This is because in the 21st Century, women bikers are a commonplace breed. However, back in the day, women riding motorcycles was so rare that when these two sisters did it, it captured public attention and made headlines across the United States. Yes, you guessed it right. We are talking about the Van Buren Sisters, the two courageous women who are remembered in history as the “Suffragist Moto Pioneers.” Although not the first woman to ride a motorbike, these two sisters captured public attention owing to the cause for which they rode.
These two sisters, with their courage and determination, challenged the stereotypical gender roles of early 20th Century America, when in the summer of 1916, they rode 5500 miles in a couple of months in order to cross the continental United States of America in order to prove a point. You might have heard that women go to great lengths to prove a point but this motor ride across a continent seems like a stretch. However, in order to understand the logic behind their journey, it is significant to know a little background of their motives.
Descendants of the former US President Martin Van Buren, the two sisters Adeline and Augusta Van Buren, were nothing like your ‘girl next door’ young American stereotypes. They had an inborn yearning for adventure and self-awareness and these traits led them to fly airplanes, ride horses as well as motorcycles without any fear or care of the world. Their gilded and privileged life did not soften them; rather, it prepared them and polished them for the wonderful history-making adventure that they were about to embark on. As the world witnessed the horrors of the Second World War, the two sisters looked in dismay.
Their patriotic zest prohibited them from acting as mere onlookers as their fellow American soldiers fought on the frontlines. As the US military forces, at that time of American history, did not allow women near combat lines, the two patriotic enthusiasts decided to take matters into their own hands. Society believed that women could not handle the pressure of active combat so, in order to break societal gender stereotypes and prove that women’s capabilities were no lesser than those of men, Adeline and Augusta Van Buren decided to apply for the job of dispatch riders in the military by demonstrating their skill and expertise as motorcycle riders, wheeling from coast to coast; from New York City to San Francisco.
By winning a post of dispatch riders for women across America, they could not only free the men for active combat but also consolidate the eligibility of women for suffragist rights. If you are thinking that the two sisters had an ‘easy ride’ motorcycling from one end of the States to another while the ‘Herculean Men’ fought with blood and sweat, their right to safe existence in the United States, think again!!!
The Van Buren sisters had to face several hurdles during their adventurous ride. Firstly, the roads were far from being paved concrete cement. In fact, the early 20th Century American transport infrastructure was dismally inefficient in terms of being able to assist a motorized journey. Most of their rides were on rough dirt tracks with refueling and refreshing spots few and far between.
It was a time in history when bandits in the desolate parts of the highway were able to confiscate stagecoaches and have their way with them. The concept of two women riding along these dirt roads was appalling and therefore, the two sisters had to be very careful during their journey as they were on their own in terms of protection and survival. Moreover, there were natural barriers like the Rocky Mountains, heavy rains, deserts, murky maps, etc.
Yet the two towering amazons not only survived but also gloriously made history with their arrival at Los Angeles on September 8th. After facing so many tribulations and breaking all gender stereotypes, you would think the nation received them at the finishing line with flowery bouquets and medals. Guess what!! It was quite the contrary.
General US citizenry at the point in time was predominantly traditional conservatives who had a deeply patriarchal and gender-biased perspective on the capabilities and capacities of women. Therefore, when these two victorious motorcyclists crossed the finish lines, they were met with sarcastic newspaper headlines, negative media framing as well as a stern social reprimand. For instance, a renowned media house, “The Denver Post” accused the sister of using the war as an excuse to get out of performing their ‘legitimate duties’ as wives and mothers.
To top it all off, the government of the USA also ignored the subsequent plea by the Van Buren sisters to hire them as courier riders for the US military. On the other hand, one avenue where the girls were praised for their successful riding endeavor was the American Motorcycle Association. The officials of the AMA appreciated the courage, boldness and skill of the two sisters and these were the traits which led the girls to achieve even more success in life.
Addie Van Buren became one IR the first female lawyers of the American society by completing her Law degree from the University of New York. Likewise, Augusta Van Buren went on to become a pilot and joined Amelia Earhart’s Ninety-Nines international women’s flying organization. The story of these two sisters is the one of resilience, courage, and struggle for what one believes in.