Misogyny and the Art of Motorcycle Riding

Back in the early 70’s, I told an acquaintance I wanted to buy a motorcycle because I couldn’t afford a car. Their response was: “Girls aren’t supposed to ride motorcycles.” That was the absolute wrong thing to say, because here’s a picture of me a couple of years later on my trusty Honda CB400F, en route to a campsite in South Australia’s Flinders Ranges.

Rest assured that was not dangerously flowing water, but just a big puddle left over from seasonal rain. Also, excuse the blurriness, the photo was taken with an inexpensive point-and-shoot camera.

Over the next six years, I managed to clock up tens of thousands of kilometres on motorcycles, and had a few close calls that still send shivers up and down my spine just thinking about. Fortunately, my single (minor) concussion came from ploughing into a hole obscured by bulldust on a 600 km stretch of unsealed road between Broome and Port Headland in outback Western Australia. There were no mobile phones back then, and even if there were, there’d be no coverage. My partner was riding way ahead. He didn’t see me fall.

After I woke up, I had to bend the front of my bike back into shape, then ride it to the nearest roadhouse where I spoke to the flying doctor who advised I rest for a few days before continuing on.

What do you notice that’s different about the above two photos?

Picture One: Jeans and ski jacket. Clearly female.

Picture Two: Full length, padded leathers.

The leathers were great. They saved me from gravel rash when I fell. They also hid my gender because, when riding on country roads by myself, I did so because I wanted to be alone. Why? Well, my gender sometimes attracted unwanted attention. If I refused to “cooperate” I’d be left feeling unsafe.

Yes. More unsafe than being on a two wheeled vehicle with only a crash helmet, jeans, ski jacket and a pair of army-disposal flying boots between me and the road!

A friend once told me of how she was approached by another motorcyclist who planted himself in front of her, complimented her Moto Guzzi 750 and asked for a date. “Sorry, I already have a boyfriend,” she said. After she took off, he proceeded to follow her, right up close, taking every turn she took, matching her speed, even when she deliberately slowed down to let him pass. Luckily it was in the city, so she managed to lose him.

I myself had a similar experience from a car driver at a petrol bowser, though fortunately I wasn’t followed. Instead, I was spat at, for not responding to a wolf whistle.

“Snobby bitch,” he said. For a long moment, I almost believed I’d deserved it. Hence the leathers.

My grandmother was born in 1898, and when she talked about a woman she disliked, she’d finish her complaint with a sexist insult. I don’t believe she specifically hated women, but when she grew up, sexism went mostly unchallenged.

“It’s a man’s world,” she used to say. On some days she’d sound like a feminist. On others she’d sound as if she hated feminism, and on others as if she’d given up.

My experiences as a motorcyclist — and also of hearing misogynistic comments from women who themselves suffered prejudice — have all contributed to the ways in which I represent misogyny in fiction. In the 19th century world of THE ETERNAL MACHINE, misogyny turns up a handful of times, but only from the mouths of narrow-minded servants (not all of my servant characters are narrow minded, BTW), and also from a heat-of-the-moment insult uttered by my novel’s antagonist, Sir Ambrus, a wealthy, narcissistic sociopath (not all my wealthy characters are narcissistic sociopaths, either). Later, after a brief and rare moment of honest self-reflection, he concedes that an original judgement was wrong, and the woman in question was:

“…simply a woman who understood how her uniqueness brought censure. Much like himself, he mused. An undeserving outcast, unfairly judged.”

No doubt that piece of dialogue comes from life. But more importantly I wrote it in solidarity with every non-conforming woman who has been criticized, slut-shamed and punished for standing against oppression. I see it as my own personal choice, ie, the choice of a woman who has both faced and observed misogyny in its many forms. It was part of my past. Part of all women’s pasts, regardless of their race, class, culture and sexual orientations. Sadly, it is part of our present and futures too. If I were to pretend it didn’t happen, I’d be as good as gaslighting myself, rewriting my own history, dismissing all the slurs I was taught to ignore in my younger days to avoid arguments, but now speak up about and call out.

Furthermore, I did enjoy Robert Persig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I read it in a tent, back in the day, on one of my biker trips.

PS. Here’s my mum…