First-Wave Feminist Struggles in Black Motorcycle Clubs
M. Shelly Conner
Racially segregated and virtually unchanged since their beginning, motorcycle clubs offer a rare view into an American subculture intent on maintaining many of the practices eradicated by first-wave feminists. Although many motorcycle clubs now allow women to be full members, outlaw clubs, older clubs, and those that seek to align themselves with the former either exclude women completely or consider them to be property of the club. Often female club members are not allowed to vote on club matters or hold high-level officer positions. Although this is true of black and white motorcycle clubs alike, I focus on the sub-subculture of the black motorcycle community for the following reasons: 1) I am a member of a black motorcycle club; 2) As a person of color and a woman, opportunities to observe/participate in white clubs are relatively non-existent; and 3) this is an area that has been greatly neglected.
Perhaps the reason that drives me the most to write this paper is the third. There is very little research available on the subject of black motorcycle clubs. I’ve located a few mentions in the works on white outlaw clubs (mostly reiterating the exclusion of people of color), some articles, and a couple of books. In these few resources, virtually none make mention of female motorcycle clubs. This is contrary to my experience as a member of one. Sturgis, a predominantly white motorcycle rally started in 1938, has claimed attendance numbers as high as 500,000 for its two-week event in recent years. Yet Black Bikers Week lasts for half of that time and has reported attendance numbers of over 350,000. Started in 1980, it is widely considered to be the third or fourth largest motorcycle rally in the country (“Black Bikers Week”). Additionally, the National Bikers Roundup, a predominantly Black annual event that selects a new location every year and runs concurrently with Sturgis, has maintained attendance numbers of 50,000 for over 30 years. There are hundreds of black female motorcycle clubs and many black female motorcyclists are full members of co-ed clubs.
I seek to explore the
rationale behind the exclusionary practices involved in subjugating women in
the black motorcycle club community. In this masculine space, women are objects. Men, and even motorcycles, hold the subject position. What
does the future hold for these clubs and their female members? Although this inquiry is grounded in
evidence from articles and books, a large part of the information comes from first-hand
Most of the personal information that I include is derived from my experiences in the Chicago motorcycle club community, a very active conglomeration that may not reflect the African-American motorcycle club communities in smaller, rural areas. Much of the motorcycle club praxis is predicated on geo-politics, to which this essay only hints in the section describing black outlaw motorcycle clubs.
Much can and should be
written about black outlaw motorcycle clubs and their members. They deserve their place in the
historical archives alongside records of the Hells Angels, Outlaws, Bandidos, and Mongols Motorcycle Clubs. Still, as a motorcycle club member
sanctioned by the governing outlaw club of my state, I am obligated to keep
confidential the events of which I have knowledge concerning outlaws. As a woman, there is not much that I
have been privy to regarding them anyway. Yet it is by inhabiting this particular subject position and the lens it
affords me that I seek to examine the current role of black women in African
American motorcycle clubs, their motivation for joining them, and what the
future holds for the clubs and their female members.
In discussions of “outlaw” motorcycle culture, black riders have been marginalized. In the motorcycle club community at large, “the term outlaw is used to describe motorcycling organizations that are not affiliated with the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA)” (Dulaney). Historically, it was this organization that sanctioned motorcycle clubs and permitted their participation in motorcycling events. Yet failure to register with the AMA does not inherently create an outlaw club. Instead, outlaw clubs claim the “outlaw” or “one-percenter” (1%er) image, which is based on a claim, mistakenly attributed to the AMA, that 99% of all motorcyclists are good, decent law-abiding citizens. It is the remaining one percent, “the outlaws [that] are responsible for the motorcycle’s sinister image” (Thompson 166).
Outlaw bikers predominantly ride Harley-Davidson motorcycles. This is not to say that all Harley-Davidson riders are outlaws. Harley-Davidson, founded in 1903, has been an emblem of motorcycle culture since the early 1940s. Returning WWII veterans viewed the Harley-Davidson as an American symbol. However, “By the end of the forties and into the fifties, outlaws claimed Harleys as their own” (Joans 13).
Outlaw clubs are all-male and rarely racially-mixed. In what is perhaps the most well known outlaw club, the Hells Angels, “no African Americans are to be found--‘none has ever tried to get in’ says one Angel” (Serwer). In Bike Lust: Harleys, Women, and American Society, Barbara Joans devotes her final chapter to addressing “Bikers’ Dirty Little Secret: The Racism Rap.” Yet it only examines the white motorcycle club community contending that “most bikers are white Christians” (Joans 248). While Joans’s book focuses on Harley-Davidson culture and riders, the omission of Harley-riding, black motorcyclists outside of the white motorcycling community presents an incomplete picture of the American subculture that she claims to study. The reader might be fooled into thinking that Joans’s claim, “It’s easier to see when there’s white racism against blacks ’cause it’s so common, but the reverse happens as well” will segue into a brief inclusion of black motorcyclists but this does not occur. In failing to do so, she renders the black motorcycle club community invisible and reinforces the very images of motorcycle culture that she critiques. Ann Ferrar echoes this sentiment in Hear Me Roar: Women, Motorcycles, and the Rapture of the Road when she claims that “the majority of women motorcyclists are Caucasian and heterosexual” (Ferrar 5). To her credit, she notes that “women of color and lesbian riders are more visible than in decades past” (Ferrar 6).
Neither Joans nor Ferrar notes that, unable to gain entry into white clubs, African Americans began to form their own. The East Bay Dragons MC, one of the oldest remaining black motorcycle clubs, was formed in 1959. Formerly the East Bay Dragons Car Club, they modeled their motorcycle club after the Hells Angels (Levingston 77), riding only Harley Davidson motorcycles and prohibiting women from becoming members. Women were a part of the early years of motorcycling, riding in the Women’s Army Corp (WAC) during WWII and as part of the Motor Maids, established in 1940 as the first motorcycling organization for women in North America. Some early black motorcycle clubs included both male and female members. However, as Joans notes, a change occurred. “By 1948 all the Harley ads showed women in the rear. The Harley campaigns featured big, unsmiling, tough-looking men on their bikes. They rode solo or with their women perched upon small, high, ass-viewing seats on the rear bumper… Gone were the smiling faces of riding women. The new Harley rider was a biker and he was tough” (Joans 65, emphasis mine). As white and black clubs began to establish themselves, this is the image that configured their development.
Like their white counterparts, African-American outlaw clubs claimed “outlaw” status, rode only Harleys, and were all-male. In addition, outlaw clubs in the African-American motorcycle community are the ones who sanction other motorcycle clubs based on their geographic location (Fullbright). The black outlaw clubs are those who through various means have carved out geographic territory that they govern. They are considered the majority club in an area and must have large numbers to maintain control of their territory.
It is the black outlaw
club that defines the space in which black bikers—members of clubs or
otherwise--exist. It is a powerful
position and any who accept its membership must also accept that “the demands
of the organization are superior to the needs of the individual, which includes
the individual’s family and occupation” (Dulaney).
The black motorcycle club set is a masculine space. “In critical ways, becoming a biker satisfies a number of masculine criteria. It separates the men from the boys. It separates the men from the women… It provides an avenue by which men can express bravery, male solidarity, and acceptable aggression” (Joans 85). Black outlaw clubs regulate the formations of clubs and maintain club adherence to strict codes. To be respected in the black motorcycle club set, a club must demonstrate a commitment to this mandate of masculinity. Most motorcycle clubs either admit women to the club as “property” or associate members. “Property” denotes that women are considered to be property of the club or property of a specific male member in the club. Women in this position wear a property patch on their vests and the name of the male member to which they “belong.” Associate members are non-riding members of a club. Most female members of co-ed clubs are non-riding members. In Chicago, even female members of co-ed clubs who ride are not safe from gender distinctions. Outlaw clubs have mandated that there must be some distinction between male and female members’ colors. Female members must either be “property” or have some physical difference illustrated on the colors. Some motorcycle clubs, struggling between fulfilling the mandate and supporting their female members, simply selected a different outline color for the patch and/or text on the vest. Still, few allow female members to serve as president, vice-president or sergeant-at-arms. They are likely to serve as business manager or secretary of the club.
Women riders are faced with difficult decisions when seeking to become a member of a motorcycle club. If they do not wish to be property, then there are few choices available. They can join an all-female club that has been sanctioned by the outlaws, which would also allow them to hold high officer positions. Yet, these clubs are not considered valid because they are all-female.
In addition to the restrictions of outlaw clubs themselves, a governing body of motorcycle clubs imposes further regulations on the African-American motorcycle club community. Member clubs decide on club set nights, annual dances, and general protocol of the community. This governing body is called the coalition and typically covers a specific geographic location, usually a state. Officers of member clubs usually attend meetings. I once served as business manager for the co-ed motorcycle club of which I was a full-riding member. In attending my first coalition meeting, I received a lot of advice from male and female club members on what to do and not to do. “If you have anything to say, tell it to your vice-president and he will say it for you… Don’t speak unless spoken to… A lot of the coalition officers don’t acknowledge women in the meetings. Don’t take it personal,” the previous business manager advised. It was an eye-opening experience. The coalition officers presided over the meeting from an elevated stage area that allowed them to look down on some fifty representatives from various clubs. The meeting opened with a prayer and commenced with the designation of calendar dates for various clubs’ annual dances. Then the presiding coalition president announced, “All right, time for the real business. Bitches leave!” As every woman present--club president or otherwise--quickly grabbed their belongings and exited, I caught the full brunt of what had previously been just a snapshot of the sexism that permeates the black MC set. To outlaw MCs and older bikers, the term “female motorcyclist” is an oxymoron. As Joans explains, “The biker was male and the woman’s place was behind him in the bitch seat” (138).
I’d wager that every woman rider has heard some
variation of the question posed to me by my grandmother, “Why you wanna ride that bike?” In the act of riding a motorcycle,
women riders respond, “Why not me?” A woman on a motorcycle is perceived as one of two
things: trying to be a man or
being (on a motorcycle) for a man. My grandmother continued, “You ride a bike but your brother don’t want
no parts of one. Seems like you
should’ve been the boy.” This
commonly held perception makes a women rider what Joans labels a “gender traitor” (Joans 89), exhibiting
behavior that is contrary to the gendered construct. “[T]he sight of a woman awheel has been tied to a slew of
conflicting messages about her femininity, competency, power, and liberation” (Ferrar xii). Yet women ride motorcycles for the same
reasons that men ride. It provides
them the same adventurous stimulus and airborne sensation. For the most part, women join
motorcycle clubs for the same reasons as well: a sense of camaraderie with
others who share a similar passion. Yet misogyny in the black motorcycle club community is inescapable. Women who join co-ed motorcycle clubs
are limited. Most co-ed clubs
limit the numbers of female members based on the ratio of male-to-female
membership. Most officer positions are reserved for male members. Those who want to experience this
without the hassle of sexism within the club join an all-female club. However, the lack of male presence in
an attempt to integrate/infiltrate this patriarchal subculture can be
uncomfortable for all-female clubs. The objectification of women is entrenched in the structure of the motorcycle
community, which concurrently promotes the degradation of women as well as
their salvation from brutish men (or "true" motorcycle club members). Women are subjugated to men in relationships that
resemble that of pimp to prostitute, instead of their professed relationship of
club brother to club sister. Similarly, the female motorcycle club member is both victimized and
protected by her associations with male club members.
Roles in Black MCs
The roles of women members in black motorcycle clubs vary depending on the type of club that they join. “Property” members prefer to be aligned with the most powerful clubs, the outlaws, as property rather than hold full membership in a regular motorcycle club. Outlaw clubs and many other clubs that designate “property” consider their female associates as property of the club, regardless of whether the women are riders or not. These women believe that the motorcycle club is a masculine entity and accept their role as objects. Many view it as a mutually constitutive relationship where the women’s role as property is to take care of the men’s various needs in the club, and the men’s role is to protect and provide for the women. It is a view that is reminiscent of those thought to be eradicated by first-wave feminists who fought for basic human and civil rights for women. To seek out and accept the label of “property” is to embrace the concept of woman as Other.
Historically, human understanding has been based on a system of binary oppositions, “dual, hierarchized oppositions” by which “thought has always worked” (Cixous 90-91). Our understanding of gender is predicated on socially constructed male-versus-female divisions. Culture assumes a dominant normative group by which to measure others. African Americans have long occupied the space of Other, hence the omission of the black motorcycle club community from motorcycle culture is not surprising. However, the black motorcycle club community utilizes the same process to deny the visibility of women.
Although it can be noted that women in the motorcycling community as a whole are subject to inequalities, there is a marked distinction in the rationale for this bias in the black motorcycle club community: as a black social institution (alongside the church, school, and family) it is a battleground for the reclamation of black manhood.
Key phases of black empowerment movements from the Civil Rights era to the present have demanded the subjugation of black women to black men in an effort to establish patriarchy in families and community organizations. "The flawed and erroneous assumptions about gender and liberation provide a perfect rationale for the continued subjugation of black women, almost as a matter of principle. That is, if Black Power is defined as redeeming black manhood, and black manhood is defined uncritically as the right to patriarchal heads of black families, and the exclusive defenders of the black community, black women are, by definition, relegated to a marginal status” (Ransby and Matthews 66).
The aggressive reinforcement of the subordination of black women has been highlighted in discourses examining hip-hop and rap lyrics and other elements of African-American culture. Negative stereotypes of black women cover a range of traits: they are promiscuous, bitchy, and dominant. “A significant amount of the gender imagery in rap simultaneously celebrates and condemns the kind of Black woman who is presumably undeserving of either respect or protection, the bad girl, Jezebel, whore, bitch” (Ransby and Matthews 64). These stereotypes are reinforced within African-American social institutions. They all can be described as characters who have and wield power. Yet the very task of attributing them to women makes them undesirable and threatening. Tobie Gene Levingston, founder of the East Bay Dragons MC, made the decision not to have women members for similar reasons. In Soul on Bikes he writes, “I’m not saying that women don’t have good ideas when it comes to groups and organizations. I’m just saying that women, particularly strong black women, have a tendency to push their way into things” (Levingston 79). In fact, these very traits are those coveted by men in black motorcycle clubs. Thus, the “biker bitch” is an aberration, just like the video “ho” in rap music.
Women in the motorcycle community--viewed as objects and considered to be property—are like one object placed upon another, an accessory to the motorcycle. Advertisements often show women scantily clad and draped across the motorcycle. Naked, she becomes visible--not as a female motorcycle club member, but as object along with custom seats, Jardin pipes, and leather saddlebags. Barbara Ransby and Tracye Matthews write similarly of women in rap videos: “This prototype is described as a possession, a thing like a car, jewelry, or clothes” (64). Few female motorcycling authors can get past their first chapter without similar testimonials. Karen Larsen notes that “popular culture … often portrays a woman on a motorcycle as a sex kitten, dominatrix, lesbian, or whore, and the prevalent image is more about high heels and bikinis and women draped over the backseat of a bike driven by some … man, than it is about capable women who drive their own bikes wearing sensible boots” (6). To intentionally join a community where these stereotypes are propagated, as women motorcycle club members do, is to invite an extensive amount of verbal, physical and emotional abuse.
The female motorcycle club member is as non-existent in the black motorcycle community as the black motorcycle club is non-existent in the motorcycle world. It is a phantom existence: there but unseen. Voided. Every step the black female rider takes into the black motorcycle club set is doomed to become what Xavière Gauthier describes as woman’s attempt to write in a language that works through the very binary oppositions that inherently subordinate women. It “becomes compromised, rationalized, masculinized,” and racialized “as it explains itself” (164). The woman who does not ride but desires to be part of the black motorcycle club community cannot simply be a passenger. She must occupy “the bitch seat,” a label so damaging that no male rider dares to passenger on another’s bike. If she is not a club member then she is considered available and often receives aggressive attention from male club members. If the woman is affiliated with a club, this can still occur unless she claims to be with a male member of her club. One female member of a co-ed club offered an illustration:
It was my first time going to an annual dance for a club. I was still a probie. I remember this ______ comes up to me and says, “You need to come with me to my car.” I didn’t want to disrespect him or my club. He was an outlaw. But I didn’t want to compromise myself either. ’Cause I’m a person before I’m a biker. So I told him that I had to tell my president and I’d be back. When I told my president, he said, “Just tell ______ that you’re with me.” I did and that was the end of it.
This female negotiation of a masculine space is what Carolyn Heilbrun describes as liminality. She writes,
The word “limen” means “threshold,” and to be in a state of liminality is to be poised on uncertain ground, to be leaving one condition or country or self and entering upon another. But the most salient form of liminality is its unsteadiness, its lack of clarity about exactly where one belongs and what one should be doing, or wants to be doing. (qtd. in Miller 61)
the “Caucasian majority of women motorcyclists,” described by Ferrar and Joans, are creating
literary spaces to attest to their motorcycle journeys with books like Lois
Pryce’s Lois on the Loose and Karen
Larsen’s Breaking the Limit, black
women riders are racially and sexually marginalized and have yet to recount
their tales of boundary transgression in print. In searching for their stories, I learned of Bessie B. Stringfield, the legendary African-American motorcyclist
“who refused to let barriers--either gender based or racial--keep her
down. She rode alone, through an
era and through areas where it was considered ‘unladylike’ for a woman to ride
a bike, but even shocking, perhaps, for a black women” (Ferrar 30). Even the books written by
white women bare the tale of the solitary journey of women in motorcycling, as Ferrar believes that “in so many cases, a woman’s mastery
of a motorcycle was metaphoric for her ability to surmount other obstacles” (Ferrar x). The
books are aptly subtitled “One Woman’s Motorcycle Journey Through North
America” for Larsen’s book, and “One Woman, One Motorcycle, 20,000 Miles Across
the Americas” for Pryce’s. Taking Ferrar’s observation further, I would suggest that while
the white women writers/motorcyclists use distant highway travel as a journey
of self-discovery, black women riders join motorcycle clubs for similar
reasons. It, too, is a solitary
journey filled with obstacles. Yet
unlike the writers’s journeys, the journey of black
women club members does not simply function as a form of escapism. Larsen sought the open road after a
cancer scare, while Pryce roamed after becoming embittered with her job. Black women riders may enjoy some
distraction from home and work; however, in doing so, they knowingly enter a
space that brings with it (in many cases) the continuance of racialized, sexualized, patriarchal hegemony that they face
at work and home.
of Black Motorcycle Clubs
Tracing the pathology of sexism within black motorcycle clubs, although crucial, is ineffective without a proposed solution. Like supporters of rap music that denigrates women, black women are at odds on how to provide cultural support without compromising themselves in black motorcycle clubs. In “Popular Culture and the Transcendence of the Patriarchal Illusion,” Ransby and Matthews argue that racial uplift will not arrive with a divided effort. The omission of women from the black empowerment movements and exclusion from socio-cultural organizations, such as motorcycle clubs, is detrimental to the very institutions that reject them. Justifying the gender politics of black motorcycle clubs as a way of strengthening patriarchy is ludicrous. Barbara Ransby and Tracye Matthews argue against the same practice in other African-American patriarchal institutions. It “is not an… assertion of Black manhood. It is a…debasement of Black womanhood, and by extension Black personhood” (Ransby and Matthews 67). Black men in the United States still have higher unemployment and incarceration rates than black women (U.S. Census Bureau), which curtails leisure time and spending. With increased numbers of female riders and companies like Harley-Davidson marketing to women and African Americans, black motorcycle clubs will either evolve and welcome the inclusion or wither away as another lost treasure of African-American history.
In an effort to simultaneously introduce this sub-culture to a larger audience and petition for more inclusionary practices within it, I write with the hope that the information in this essay begins to fill the lacunae in motorcycle culture regarding African Americans, yet acknowledge that much can be addressed that falls outside of the scope of these pages. I have tried to limit discussion of black male motorcycle clubs as well as comparisons between them and their white male counterparts. They are mentioned only to describe the foundation of the hegemonic paradigm by which black female motorcycle club members are marginalized. Additionally, just as I advocate for more positive interactions between gender identities within the motorcycle community, I also encourage the same positive integration between black and white motorcycle clubs. These essential cultural issues must make their way into motorcycle studies.
1 Probationary members have not earned the full set of “colors.” Typically, their vests consist of the club name and city--also known as the top and bottom rocker respectively--because of their positioning on the back of the vest. Probationary members are required to attend a certain number of functions per week and are assigned most of the “manual duties” of the club.
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Miller, Nancy K. “On Being Wrong.” Profession (2008): 54-65.
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