A hundred years ago, Adeline and Augusta Van Buren believed women should have the right to vote and to serve their country in the military – unknown political concepts in pre-1920 United States. Women were told they hadn’t earned the right to vote because they hadn’t served in the military, yet they were turned down when they tried to enlist.
Astute, principled, and patriotic, the sisters recognized their best chance to serve was to become motorcycle messengers, but they had to prove themselves first. So in 1916, as the U.S. was preparing to enter World War I, they rode their Indian motorcycles across the continent, from New York to San Francisco, becoming the first women to do so. Read more about them here.
They still weren’t enlisted – proving themselves clearly as capable as men clearly still wasn’t enough – and it would be another four years before women could vote federally. But they set in motion a legacy of overcoming obstacles, seeing beyond colour, creed, and gender, and pushing personal boundaries, even when it’s not acceptable.
“Defeat was not a crushing blow to them,” says great-nephew Bob Van Buren. “They just moved on to bigger things.”
A few years ago, motorcycle journalist and adventurer Alisa Clickenger dreamed of leading a group of women across the United States. She knew it would change the way they see the world and themselves, just as it had for her. Learning about the Van Burens, she saw a perfect opportunity to marry her dream and celebrate history, and the Sisters’ Centennial Motorcycle Ride was conceived.
On July 3rd, 68 riders, mostly women, left Brooklyn for a three-week trip, following the sisters’ route as closely as possible. Among them were some direct descendants: Bob Van Buren and his daughter Sarah, Adeline’s grandson Dan Ruderman, his daughter Sofié, and son Skyler with fiancée Anna Bottcher.
When Victory and Indian Motorcycle invited me to join for a few days, I eagerly accepted, meeting up in Greensburg, PA and riding to Columbus, OH.
There are many ways to take part in the ride. Some people bought packages that include hotels and meals while others just join for a day or a week. There’s also a choice of self-guided or guided rides, where groups are divided into manageable sizes by riding style and gas tank capacity and led by ride marshals.
I prefer to tour solo and was reluctant to ride with others I didn’t know, but curiosity took over as I heard their stories. As a solo rider, I’d have felt a connection to the land as I rolled down Route 30, the Lincoln Highway, through beautiful forested parts of Pennsylvania, but I’d have missed the connection with this extraordinary, diverse, and inclusive group.
Motorcycles are healers as well as teachers. In the short time I was with them, these women taught me about resilience, strength, and perspective.
Erin Sills, a 12-time motorcycle speed record holder, was there to support Alisa, be part of history, and honour the Van Burens. “We get to go a little bit faster than they did,” she said with a smile. “It’s an opportunity to slow down and appreciate things like the Lincoln Highway Museum, the AMA Museum, and ascending Pike’s Peak. Even more than that, it’s about the experiences and minor misadventures we have along the way. Andy, my late husband, taught me that life was about the journey, not the destination. This ride is dedicated to him and his family, and the motorcycle community that’s helped us along the way.”
Holly Ralph, from Ancaster, Ontario, has been riding for 50 years and actively involved with the Canadian Motorcycle Association for most of those, initially as a racer. She’s 5’2″, will be 72 next month, and rides her 250 Yamaha Virago with significant osteoporosis and a custom ankle brace. The fusion the surgeons recommend would only impede her riding. “I still hear people say women are starting to ride now, and all my life women have been riding,” she explained. “We’re riding because those early women did it when it was a heck of a lot harder to do than it is now.”
As a white woman, it wouldn’t occur to me to feel threatened riding alone through unfamiliar terrain, but that’s not the reality for everyone. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say I wasn’t apprehensive in this climate about being a scout that rides alone ahead of the pack,” said Porsche Taylor, founder of Black Girls Ride magazine, who rode ahead of our group. “But it doesn’t stop me in 2016 from exercising my freedom. I’ve had not one issue and even in my cautiousness, I’m happy to report my country is not letting me down. The Van Buren story is so trailblazing, and also lends itself to cross-country rider Bessie Stringfield and what she accomplished.”
Bessie was born in Jamaica in 1911 and adopted as a child by wealthy American-Irish parents. She began riding at age 16 on a 1928 Indian 101 Scout, and owned 27 Harley-Davidsons until her death in 1993. To plan her trips, she’d toss a penny on a map of North America and wherever it landed is where she’d go. In World War II, women were allowed to enlist in the military and Stringfield served as a dispatch rider, just as the Van Burens had attempted 30 years before.
Porsche’s friend Sarah Moreau will have completed 18 continental crossings when she reaches San Francisco, outdoing Bessie who never let the prejudice of race or gender stop her. “The Sisters’ routes were documented. Bessie’s were not, so to make sure I beat her record, I’m counting round trips.”
Lisa Niner was the first and only female flat track racer in AMA District 7 when she started in 1975. She retired recently from the Maryland Army National Guard after 30 years as a helicopter mechanic and three deployments, the last in Afghanistan. “It was not good at all,” she says, shuddering. “I need to do this for me, but I’m on this ride because of Marjorie.”
The lifetime friends have supported each other through hard times. Last year, Marjorie White rode cross-country in honour of her son who was killed the year before in a motorcycle accident. This year, Lisa is along with her.
Sarah and Sofié bear a striking resemblance to their famous ancestors. They also captured the sisters’ spirit when they spoke at the AMA Museum. Sarah, who began riding last November just for this ride, recounts, “It doesn’t matter who you are from the spectrum of humanity. You can be inspired and you can take risks.”
“Thank you for being so strong and so tough for doing what you believed in,” followed Sofié, “even if your opinions are marked as wrong later. That level of determination is what I aspire to.”
Momentum is increasing as the ride moves westward. This Friday, they’ll summit Pike’s Peak, then continue west, culminating with a parade across the Golden Gate Bridge on July 23 and a reception for an expected 250 people. Follow the ride here on its website, and here on its FaceBook page.
Adeline and Augusta may have been turned away from the U.S. Army but their message has endured, and it’s as relevant today as it was in 1916. Thank you sisters. Ride on!