Milady of the motorcycle seems to me to breathe the spirit of the modern woman who is tearing down the ages-old bars of prudishness. She is the advance-guard. She is showing the way, as is the lady lawyer, lady doctor or business woman. [...] Timidly but gradually they are coming—lady riders of motorcycles. May their number multiply immensely.
The above quote from the November 1921 issue of The Harley-Davidson Enthusiast is charming if somewhat inaccurate. Though often mistakenly seen as latecomers, women have been riding motorcycles since the beginning—certainly long before 1921.
These early women riders were strong and adventurous. Some were motorcycle enthusiasts, others simply counted it among their activities. They all sought freedom wherever, however, and whenever it pleased them—many hoped to expand minds about what it meant to be a woman, a motorcyclist, or both.
Effie and Avis Hotchkiss
In May 1915, Avis and Effie Hotchkiss needed a break from New York City, which led them to becoming the first women to go across the country (and back) by sidecar. Their tale was the first story printed in the first-ever issue of The Harley-Davidson Enthusiast magazine.
"The day I resigned from the Wall Street office I felt like a bird let loose, but my employers were horrified. 'You are crazy,' one exclaimed. 'The thing is suicidal. It will kill your mother. You simply don't realize what you are undertaking.'
Probably not,' I replied. 'My horizon has been very limited. Now I am going to broaden it.'"
-Effie, article in The Harley-Davidson Enthusiast, 1916
Lillian Slaughter Heaps
Though featured in company photography, we've learned little about Milwaukee resident Lillian Slaughter Heaps, right. In 1913, newspaper coverage around the country proclaimed her “Wisconsin’s first woman motorcyclist," noting that she'd started riding three years prior.
“I don’t know what prompted me to learn to ride. I just made up my mind I wanted to learn, and did it.”
"I am surely a motorcycle booster from start to finish, and if more girls knew the joy of the sport there would be a great many more girl riders than there are at present. The motorcycle not only bring pleasure, but health, too."
- Lillian, quoted in The Birmingham News, 1913
Della was already well traveled when someone suggested she should try the U.S. by motorcycle. On June 24, 1914, Della set out with a puppy and 200 lbs of supplies. Over 5,378 miles, she gained celebrity and began what she hoped would be an "Around-the-World" tour.
"Many charming and courteous people were met on the way; I gained a knowledge of the country that was decidedly worth while; have a score of happy remembrances of every-day life and, most of all, an abundance of good health. Never for a moment have I regretted adopting the motorcycle and sidecar as my mode of travel, and in my future articles on countries which I visit I confidently expect to be able to say that my motorcycle journeying are always enjoyable."
-Della, article in The Harley-Davidson Dealer, 1915
Crystal Haydel, left, was one of the earliest women to work at Harley-Davidson. Starting as a cashier by 1907, she eventually became a member of the Board of Directors, working closely with the company's founders. She was a motorcyclist and encouraged others to be as well.
"This is what motorcycling does for you. The most fascinating of all sports, the freest, healthiest, and most independent pleasure of all, because it enables you to come and to go at your own free will alone, and yet not alone; for the steady purr of the quiet motor is the best companion you can have. Or, if you prefer, there is the chummy sidecar which enables you to invite a friend to share the joys of the road with you.”
-Crystal, article in The Harley-Davidson Enthusiast, 1921
A woman who enjoyed many outdoor activities including motorcycling, Elizabeth made waves as a female boxing manager for her brothers. She was a tireless promoter, not only for her brothers, but also the sport of boxing, as well as women working outside the home.
“If the entrance of women into politics and all other lines so long held by men is going to do good, I don’t see why a woman managing professional boxers won’t help.”
-Elizabeth, quoted in the Chattanooga News, 1917
Fay Hildabrand and Her Mother
In 1915, Fay and her mother took a sidecar rig from Washington, PA to see family in Tulsa, OK. In Milwaukee, they visited the Harley-Davidson factory and hung out with other female riders, like Crystal Haydel, as well as members of the Milwaukee Motorcycle Club.
"From the day we started out on this vacation trip we were greeted in almost every town we passed through by the local contingent of motorcycle riders. Why at Marion, Ohio, they knew mother and I were coming; and no sooner did we enter the town, than the Marion club members overwhelmed us with their cordial greetings and led us out to the picnic grounds, where a great crowd of riders were gathered. The picnic was wonderful—simply wonderful! It made us feel good to think that we were members of that great genial order of motorcyclists."
-Fay, quoted in Motor Cycle Illustrated, 1915
An accomplished rider, a Harley-Davidson employee, a member of the Milwaukee Motorcycle Club, and an advocate for women: Lillian Hauerwas supported motorcycling and all who enjoyed it. She welcomed riders to the city, encouraged group rides, and helped women join the sport.
"Don't let anyone tell you that motorcycling is not a lady's sport. It is—just as much, in fact, as golf, tennis, swimming or horseback-riding."
“The pleasures I have derived from my motorcycle during the years I have been riding it, are too numerous to try to mention here. Suffice it to say, that it has opened the way to joys untold.”
-Lillian, article in The Harley-Davidson Enthusiast 1921
A Milwaukee-area resident and an avid sportswoman—most notably a swimmer and champion ice skater—Hazel Bilty naturally picked up motorcycling. She wrote about it for the woman-focused issue of The Enthusiast in 1921.
“Motorcycling is the greatest all around sport because all other sports are included under it. It takes you to the old swimming hole and there isn't an angler's haunt that a motorcycle cannot find.”
“Congenial companions are always willing and ready to answer the call of the open road.”
-Hazel, article in The Harley-Davidson Enthusiast, 1921
Nelle Jo GIll
Nelle Jo Gill of Ohio was a competitor through and through, from endurance rides to the H-D sales competition (where she caused a stir showing up male competitors). In 1941, Nelle Jo and a friend rode her bike, named Lotus Blossom, from Columbus to L.A. for a bowling tournament.
“It was so simple when we got these unpredictable urges to leave suddenly. Just grab our things, kick over Lotus Blossom and away we'd go—instant transportation—as comfortable and convenient as a magic carpet. We often think back of all we did and how we traveled. It's great—try it sometime, after the war, of course."
-Nelle Jo, article in The Enthusiast, 1944
In 1929, Vivian embarked on a cross-country trip that would make her one of the first great women riders—even a celebrity. Nicknamed "The Enthusiast Girl," she captured hearts throughout her 78-day trip while meeting other riders, local dignitaries, and even President Hoover.
"It makes me so mad to hear folks always talking gloom talk, saying that a motorcycle is dangerous, and especially that no girl should ride one. I just boil when I hear that. You bet I tell them what I think and don't mince my words, either. I've never one minute been sorry I saved my money and bought my first motorcycle.”
“I'll tell you folks, it's just grand to meet a girl who understands and appreciates motorcycle chatter.”
-Vivian, article in The Harley-Davidson Enthusiast, 1929
Linda, center, started riding in 1932 and quickly began looking for other women to enjoy it with. She felt passionately about motorcycling as an appropriate sport for women and began a campaign to prove it—which eventually lead to the founding of The Motor Maids.
“I am convinced that one way to help the sport of motorcycling remove the silly prejudice which so many people hold against it, because of actions of certain thoughtless members of our fraternity, is to persuade more and more girls to own and ride machines, and to try to change the opinions of older people in regard to motorcycling in general and girls riding in particular.”
-Linda, article in The Motorcyclist, 1940