Sisters Made Motorcycle History (Then Got Arrested For Wearing Pants)

In 1916, two sisters rode across the country on motorcycles to make history.
Sisters Made Motorcycle History (Then Got Arrested For Wearing Pants)

In 1916, sisters Adeline (“Addie”) and Augusta (“Gussie”) Van Buren set out on a journey that would span 5,500 miles. They were going to make a statement by riding coast-to-coast on motorcycles to prove that women could do anything that men could. 

At the time of the ride, Gussie and Addie, 34 and 27 respectively, were involved in the Preparedness Movement – an effort across the United States to get ready for when the country inevitably entered World War I. Women were not allowed in combat roles of any kind, but the Van Buren sisters, skilled in many daring disciplines, including motorcycle riding, had the perfect role they could fit into. They wanted to be dispatch riders – motorcycle couriers who delivered warzone messages. 

To prove that they had what it took, the sisters planned a major stunt: They were going to ride from New York to California, becoming the first women to make the journey on solo motorcycles. (Effie and Avis Hotchkiss actually beat them as the first women to make the trip by motorcycle in the year prior, but they did so via a motorcycle with a sidecar). 

The Van Buren sisters set out from Brooklyn on July 4, 1916, and planned to arrive in San Francisco in a month by riding on the Lincoln Highway, an early transcontinental road. This would not be an easy path, though, as much of the Lincoln Highway, especially west of the Mississippi, was made up of dirt paths and other tough terrains. Yet, their first major problem on the trip had nothing to do with the trail. 

After passing by Chicago, a police officer spotted the Van Buren sisters on their motorcycles and instantly knew that they were too dangerous to be allowed on the streets. No, they weren’t speeding or riding recklessly or anything like that. Instead, these two scandalous women were dressed like men.

Adeline Van Buren

Wiki Commons

Adeline Van Buren, smiling as though she is NOT breaking societal norms by wearing regular clothes.

Yes, in a move that was too much of a cultural taboo for the time, Adeline and Augusta were not wearing dresses or other “ladylike” attire while on their motorcycle expedition. Instead, they were wearing clothes that, y’know, a motorcyclist would wear: pants, leather jackets, caps, goggles, and boots. This was too much for the eyes of the men, and the sisters found themselves arrested several times afterward for the same crime. 

Besides the persistently irritating pants delay, the Van Burens then had to contend with the conditions that worsened as the Lincoln Highway went on. In Colorado, their bikes became completely stuck in the mud, and they had to walk to the mining town of Gilman to ask for help in getting them out. Later, west of Salt Lake City, the sisters were low on water and found themselves lost until a passing prospector managed to lend them a hand. 

Despite all the setbacks, Augusta and Adeline Van Buren arrived in San Francisco, nearly two months after their start date, on September 2. Still, it did not do enough to change the minds of the public. The Army rejected their applications to become couriers, and much of the press coverage of the time either focused weirdly on the specs of their motorcycles or criticized them for not focusing on activities deemed appropriate for women. 

This did not stop the Van Buren sisters from seeking new opportunities and pushing limits, though. Adeline earned a law degree from New York University, and Augusta became a pilot. In 2002, they were posthumously inducted into the American Motorcyclist Association Hall of Fame. In 2016, there was even a 100th-anniversary celebration where more than 100 women rode across the country to honor the Van Burens. 

So thank you, Augusta and Adeline, for having the audacity to go across the entire country wearing pants.

Top Image: New York Tribune/Wiki Commons

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