When I started working at Harley-Davidson and riding motorcycles way back in 2001, it was unusual to see women riders on the road, at rallies or just about anywhere. Today, any driver who looks out for motorcycles (hint, hint) notices the dramatic increase in women riders.
Some pretty blatant negative stereotypes existed years ago on where women stood in the motorcycle community, where women literally took a "back seat" to men both on motorcycles and off them.
After the motorcycle boom years of the 1980s and ‘90s, wise minds of both genders in the Harley-Davidson marketing department realized sales and public relations potential in making motorcycling more friendly for women. This was not always an easy task in a culture that was about as testosterone-centric as it gets.
Harley stretched outdated women’s marketing concepts like Tupperware or fancy candle parties into the biker culture. "Events like Women’s Garage Parties are like a girl’s night out with motorcycles," said Dianne Crowley, marketing and events manager at Wisconsin Harley-Davidson. "We also feature Riding Academy classes for women only."
From a numbers standpoint, women motorcycle riders increased 35 percent from 2003 to 2012 with 25 percent of all riders being women, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council.
Elizabeth Kay, morning radio co-host of 99.1 WMYX FM radio in Milwaukee, is one of those thousands of women who have taken Motorcycle Safety Foundation endorsed courses in recent years. She passed the course with other women at Wisconsin Harley-Davidson in Oconomowoc last fall. While Kay isn’t riding her own Harley yet, it’s only a matter of time.
"The women in the class were all different ages and backgrounds, but all supported each other," Kay said. "The confidence I feel now is incredible. If I can do it, anyone can do it. I’m all in now."
Kay currently rides as a passenger with her fiancé, but expects to have her own bike soon. "I enjoy riding on the back, but am also tired of being a cheerleader," Kay said. "I highly recommend the course for riders and passengers as a way to increase safety."
While women have also increased their participation in other more traditionally male-focused sports, hobbies and activities such as hunting, fishing or golf, there is something different about women and motorcycles, according to Crowley. "Recent studies have shown so many positives for women when they ride a motorcycle," Crowley said. "They become more confident, feel more attractive, have more energy and have a more positive outlook overall."
Genevieve Schmitt has rode on and written about motorcycles for women during the last 15 years of growth. Her Beginner’s Guide to Getting Into Motorcycling page at womenridersnow.com is designed to help women get ready to ride.
"The reality over the last several years is that more women are riding than ever before," said Schmitt. "This is fact. And the perception that goes along with this growth is that motorcycling for women is more accessible than ever. More women in the saddle of their own motorcycles show others that, ‘If they can do it, so can I."’
There are obviously significant differences between men and women on motorcycles, but they also tend to ride for similar reasons of enjoying the freedom, confidence and independence of the journey.
The average height of women is 5 feet, 4 inches while men are 5 feet, 9 inches, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. However, when it comes to the fit and frame of a motorcycle, there’s more to ergonomics than just height. Both female and male riders can adjust and personalize their motorcycle to their comfort level in areas like seat height, handlebar length and foot pedals.
"My best advice for women taking up motorcycling has not changed because the best advice has proven to be time tested and that is if you want to take up motorcycling, enroll in a motorcycle class, then buy a motorcycle, in that order," Schmitt said. "The class exposes you to all types of motorcycles that are out there and allows you to get a feel for a motorcycle. After the class, you have a better idea of the size and style of motorcycle on which you want to spend your first 100, or first 1,000 miles."
With more women riding motorcycles, there are many who enjoy the more scenic view from the passenger seat. However, there’s nothing stopping them from riding up front if they want.
Wisconsin Harley-Davidson Honoring Veterans: Motorcycle riders have long demonstrated their patriotism and support of those serving in the military. One of the many local events this Memorial Day weekend is the Honor Celebration Ride on Saturday, May 23, from Wisconsin-Harley Davidson in Oconomowoc to the War Memorial in downtown Milwaukee. After a pancake breakfast from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., riders will join WWII veterans in Jeeps. Following a ceremony at the War Memorial, riders will head back to Wisconsin Harley to celebrate, including a showing of the inspiring "Honor Flight" movie after dark.
Mike Morgan rides retro, whether on his 1976 Harley Aermacchi 250 or Heritage Softail. Mike has been a motorcyclist since 2001 having ridden in Sturgis, Daytona Beach, the California coast, New England and everywhere in between, including in the last three Milwaukee Harley Anniversary parades.
Mike worked in communications and marketing at Harley-Davidson for more than 12 years, writing and editing all kinds of content, including award-winning media kids in 2009 and 2012. He had ridden the Harley several times before Brewer games at Miller Park, and ran in one of the last sausage races at the old County Stadium when he was Communications Manager for the Stadium District Board.