Women shift gears in motorcycle culture: ‘It’s about being on the front of the bike’

Riding motorcycles and the culture around it, with the talk of “bitch seats” and women as “property”, has seldom seemed very conducive to the empowerment of women.

But, organically and spontaneously through social media – especially Instagram – a new generation of female bikers are finding and inspiring each other with a shared set of ideals: adventure, companionship and the freedom of the road.

“I think we’re seeing a kind of onset of a kind of powerful women being trendy,” said Lanakila “Lana” MacNaughton. She and four more female riders were handpicked by Harley-Davidson and given motorcycles to ride 9 000 miles across the country, re-creating a 1915 ride pioneered by the mother and daughter team Avis and Effie Hotchkiss.

“I don’t think that’s really ever been seen,” said MacNaughton. “For us it’s about, for us – being on the front of the bike rather than being on the back of the bike, and establishing ourselves as strong women instead of in the background.”

MacNaughton’s reference to the back of the bike might be how women are most widely associated with motorcycles – as the subjugated companions of outlaw biker men, sporting “property of” patches on leather jackets.

“You see 10 girls rolling down the street together, you get a lot of head-turns and people taking pictures and stuff,” said Jessica Haggett, the 25-year-old founder of the Litas, a female motorcycling collective based in Salt Lake City, Utah.

MacNaughton said: “This ride is a representation of shifting perspectives of women in society right now … Definitely there’s a nod to feminism, but I think, for me, at the root it’s about sharing it with the motorcycle community.”

Truly, it’s the sharing that brought female motorcyclists across the country together and into loosely bound groups such as the Litas or Brooklyn’s Miss-Fires. Female-only riding and camping events, such as Babes in MotoLand in north-west Illinois and Dream Roll in Washington state, are cropping up.

“I started it back in December, so recently, and it’s crazy – like, there are so many girl riders that just came out of the woodwork,” said Haggett. She, like many other female motorcyclists the Guardian interviewed, rode alone until recently. “I’ve been riding for six years, and then I rode alone for four, and then I met guys who ride, and rode with them, and just in the past year started riding with other girls.

“Instagram was part of it, which sounds so stupid. It’s just social media, but at the same time the visibility into who’s doing what – six years ago I wasn’t really on Instagram, didn’t post any bike photos, and so honestly I didn’t see girls around riding, and I didn’t know girls riding, and so I didn’t really have a choice,” Haggett said.

The emerging collectives (Haggett says that the Litas, for example, do not comprise a club, but rather a way for female riders to find each other) is hardly confined to the US: up to 600 female motorcyclists are expected to converge at the Ace Cafe in London to attempt a world record for the most female motorcyclists in one place. The existing record was set only last year, according to the motorcycle-centric MotorbikeWriter, when 221 Australian women on 190 bikes set the female group ride record.

Commercial interests are also beginning to take notice: the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, the largest provider of basic riding courses in the US, prominently features photographs of female instructors and riders, and Harley-Davidson has begun female-centric marketing campaigns.

“These girls come along in their late 20s or early 30s, their mom rides a motorcycle – it is kind of like a second generation, if you wanted to say that,” said Thompson. Unlike their mothers, Thompson said, “they’re not wrestling with ‘Should I get a job? Should I have a career?’ They’re going to do it all; that’s the norm.”

Thompson said industry estimates are that roughly 10% to 12% of riders are women of all ages.

Only in the 1990s did a substantive number of researchers even begin to look at how women spent their free time, a 2007 Journal of Leisure study found. At that time, academics attempted to look at “leisure” and “women” as specialties, before recognising the vast diversity of half the population.

Since then, researchers like Thompson have attributed the barrier breakdown in sports and hobbies to women’s declining financial dependency on men; others have pinned it to a new generation of women who were always taught to pursue a career or personal interests, whatever they may be.

“I just feel like there’s nothing new under the sun,” said Nina Kaplan, who undertook the 9 000-mile “Highway Runaways” ride with MacNaughton. “Women in motorcycling has been around for a very long time. I think very much it’s just how we are interpreting things; there’s much more individualism through social media.”

Ultimately, whether the emerging phenomenon is about breaking through the boundaries that exist in women’s leisure – boundaries that seem arbitrary since many women are no longer dependent on men’s financial support – or about individual expression through social media is hardly relevant.

“There’s just something crazy about, you know, straddling a 1 200 [cubic centimetre] engine, and have it pull you in and out of traffic and up canyons,” said Haggett. “It’s a little scary, which is fun, there’s kind of a thrill to it, and it’s also therapeutic being outside.” – By Jessica Glenza in New York

Image – Members of the Litas, based in Salt Lake City. (@thelitas_/Instagram)