It was long before women had the right to vote — a time when the dress code was decidedly buttoned up and skirts made headlines for showing ankle.
The year was 1916. Woodrow Wilson was president. Actor Gregory Peck was still in diapers. Norman Rockwell had just scored his first cover for The Saturday Evening Post.
And a pair of sisters named Adeline and Agusta Van Buren were about to make history in an era when women rarely did. The Van Buren sisters, as they came to be known, were up to something radical — something they hoped would change public perception about women’s capabilities.
They rode motorcycles. All the way across the United States. On their own bikes. By themselves.
That may not seem like a big deal today, but a century ago it was groundbreaking. Not only because the roads back then were unpaved, but because the two sisters were an itty bitty five feet tall, 100 pounds and change and riding some of the biggest motorcycles of their day.
“They were a couple of pretty neat New York women,” said Alisa Clickenger, who plans to recreate the Van Burens’ ride 100 years to the day since the sisters took off from New York on their Indian Power Plus motorcycles.
She’s calling it the Sisters’ Centennial Ride, and it starts July 4th.
One hundred women are expected to take off on the recreated route along the Lincoln Highway from New York to Omaha, Nebraska, and Colorado’s 14,000-foot Pike’s Peak on their way to San Francisco. The Van Buren sisters took 58 days to ride 3,300 miles — about twice as long as they initially estimated. The Centennial sisters will cover the same ground in just 19 riding days in far more favorable conditions we now take for granted.
When the Van Burens crossed the country, “the main thoroughfares between the towns were carved by cars with very skinny wheels or motorcycles, so it was often a choice of the lesser of two evils,” Clickenger said. “Is it easier to go in the mud or is it easier to go in the rut?”
The advantage to choosing the rut? It’s not as far of a fall when you wipe out.
“They were riding, and they were so exhausted that they would fall asleep and tip over on the motorcycle and that would wake them up,” Clickenger said of the Van Burens. “They’d get the motorcycle upright again and start riding again.”
Of course, there were other problems.
Every modern motorcycling woman agrees. It’s a lot easier to straddle a bike in pants — or jodphurs, as the Van Buren sisters wore, with knee-high leather boots and long coats to protect themselves from the elements as they straddled 400-pound bikes laden with banners that read “Coast to Coast” and luggage packed onto their handlebars and rear fenders.
Law enforcement, unfortunately, didn’t appreciate their unconventionality.
“It was still a post Victorian era,” Clickenger said. “Women were expected to be in dresses and comport themselves in a certain way and the Van Buren sisters were … arrested for wearing men’s clothing several times during their journey.”
Shocking as it is in this day of transgender restrooms to think that lady pants could get a person arrested, it’s even more shocking that a pair of petite sisters could take on such a physically grueling journey without their bikes, or themselves, breaking down. But they were physically prepared.
Long before Youtube or television or even radio, the Van Buren sisters occupied themselves with sports. They were avid tennis players who also canoed and ran and swam and rowed and skated and rode horses, until they discovered motorcycles that could travel at a fast-for-their-era 70 mph — at which point that became their favorite activity.
Adeline and Agusta, or Addie and Gussie, as they were known back in the day, were 20something New York City society girls with quite the pedigree. They were descendants of Martin Van Buren, the long-forgotten eighth president of the United States.
Just as President Van Buren bucked the trends of his era — he was an abolitionist decades before President Lincoln — so too were the Van Buren sisters. One was a librarian, the other a schoolteacher. Both were early feminists and members of something called the Preparedness Movement.
Those were “the folks that thought the U.S. should be prepared in case we went and joined World War I,” Clickenger said. “The preparedness people thought we better get prepared and what better way to show the U.S. government that women can help with this effort than for us to ride our motorcycles across the country to show them that we are capable dispatch riders.”
“Woman can if she will,” Gussie was known to say. And what she and Addie hoped to will into existence was winning women the right to carry messages via motorcycle to the front lines of WWI in Europe.
Despite their cross-country motorcycling success, the U.S. government rejected their applications to be military dispatch riders. Adding insult to injury, the sisters’ successful trip was attributed to the competence of their Indian motorcycles, not the tenacity of the Van Burens themselves. The sisters were otherwise derided by the mainstream press for having taken a “vacation” and wearing “nifty” uniforms.
Oh well. Adeline went on to be a lawyer. Agusta a pilot who flew with Amelia Earhart’s group, the Ninety-Nines, which helped establish commercial air travel.
Still, the Van Burens were precursors to the many privileges women enjoy today.
“The Van Buren ladies were women of principle,” Clickenger said. “The real takeaway from their trip is that when you put your mind to it, you can change the world, because look now 100 years later. Women do serve in the military. We can vote. We do on a regular basis ride motorcycles across the country.”
And 100 of them will do just that starting July 4, for the Sisters’ Centennial Ride recreating the Van Buren sisters’ historic journey.