Back to Top

c. 1900s - 1950s

Bad girls on bikes

In the early 20th century, these women enjoyed a good ride

Marjorie Dare (Doris Smith) riding hands free around 'The Wall of Death' sideshow at the Kursaal amusement park in Southend, Essex, 1938. (Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Without any doubt, the invention of the bicycle in 1817 and its popularization in the late nineteenth century played a significant role in the cause for women’s rights. The bicycle was cheap, simple to use, and necessitated relatively loose clothing. 

In the words of Susan B. Anthony in 1896:” The bicycle has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world.”

But it was with the motorcycle that things started to, er, accelerate. 

Early motor-bicycles and motor-scooters were literally that—bicycles and scooters with motors attached. Cheap and economical, they allowed women to experience more and different possibilities, just as bicycles had done before them.

In 1915, Avis and Effie Hotchkiss, a mother and daughter, biked from New York to San Francisco on a Harley and sidecar. Then in the 1940s, the first women’s motorbike club was formed, the 51-strong Motor Maids.

Yet despite the fact that motorbikes are ridden by women of every stripe, they are still regarded by many as inherently masculine machines.

Members of the Motor Maids club—still going strong—would likely disagree. Current membership: 1,200. 

c. 1905
A woman on a moped.
Roger Viollet Collection/Getty Images
A woman in motorbike clothing
Ullstein Bild/Getty Image
c. 1910s
A woman on an Indian motorcycle.
Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis/Getty Images
c. 1916
Florence, Lady Norman travelling on her motor scooter to the offices, which she supervises as a war-worker, London.
Paul Thompson/FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images
“When I first saw a motorcycle, I got a message from it. It was a feeling – the kind of thing that makes a person burst into tears hearing a piece of music or standing awestruck in front of a fine work of art. Motorcycling is a tool with which you can accomplish something meaningful in your life. It is an art.”
Theresa Wallach, the first ever woman motorcycle dispatch rider
c. 1920s
Two women on a bike with a man in the side-car.
Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
Amelia Earhart and a motorized scooter.
Corbis/Getty Images
c. 1930s
Clara B. Brown of Leamington, England. “[She] learned to ride a motorcycle when she was over 50 years of age. She takes frequent solo drives to London, and spends her vacations touring the country.”
George Rinhart/Corbis/Getty Images
c. 1935
A woman riding a BMW motorcycle.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Marjorie Dare (Doris Smith) riding hands free around “The Wall of Death” sideshow at the Kursaal amusement park in Southend, Essex.
Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
c. 1940s
WWII: An English woman mail carrier.
A group of seven motorcyclists ride though Griffith Park, Los Angeles. In the foreground: Lucille Meeker (on a Triumph), Betty Drafton (on a Velocette), and Cecilia Adams (on a custom-made bike).
Loomis Dean/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
c. 1950
The “Motor Maids of America” on their motorcycles.
Douglas Grundy/Three Lions/Getty Images
see more from