Even today, in our supposedly enlightened and progressive times, motorcycling is still very much a male preserve. Women still tend to be used simply as scantily clad “eye candy” at motorcycle shows, MotoGP grids and in the pages of some motorcycling publications. Nonetheless, even in the early years of motorcycling, a few intrepid young women embraced this impractical, dangerous, dirty and smelly mode of transport. Bessie Stringfield stands out among them for her fearless will to live life to the fullest.
Bessie Stringfield – Early Years
Betsy Leonora Ellis – her full name – was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1911; her father was black and her mother was a white Dutch woman.
When she was still a very young child, the family immigrated to Boston, in the United States. Tragically, she was orphaned when she was five years of age after both her parents succumbed to smallpox. Fortunately she was adopted by a wealthy Irish Catholic woman whose name she never revealed. Stringfield was the name of her third husband. For the anecdote, when they divorced, he told her to keep the name because she had “made it famous”.
As she entered adolescence, Bessie became fascinated by motorcycles and, despite motorcycling being deemed unladylike — let’s face it, at the time, women were even frowned upon when they drove cars — her straight-laced mentor bought her a 1928 Indian Scout for her 16th birthday, even though “good girls don’t ride motorcycles” according to her. However, the devout Catholic added that it was “God’s will” for Bessie to have a motorcycle – faith and begorrah!
Navigating By Coin Toss
Bessie very quickly taught herself to ride the imposing beast. When she was 19, she set out on her first of many long distance, cross-country rides. Her method for choosing her destination was somewhat unexpected: she would toss a coin and went wherever it landed on the map.
Stringfield didn’t have an easy time on the road. Not only was she a “mere woman”, but she was also black, which in a segregated America meant that she could rarely expect to find hotel or motel accommodation. She therefore had to rely on the generosity of the local African-American community (who regarded her suspiciously – as mentioned above, “good girls don’t ride bikes”) or else sleep rough by her bike, often in petrol stations.
The fact that she was black also meant that she was subjected to acts of racist violence; on one occasion, she was deliberately run off the road by a “good ol’ boy” in a pickup truck. She nonetheless took all of this in her stride, fortified by her devout Catholicism and faith in the “man upstairs”.
Bessie Stringfield – Motorcycle Trick Rider
When on the road, she earned her keep by doing trick riding in state fairs and county fairs, as well as taking part in hill climbs and other competitions. However, here also she was subjected to racism and was often denied participation and prize money; this also happened in the flat-track races she competed in – disguised as a man – when organisers discovered she was, in fact, a woman.
None of this dampened her enthusiasm, though, and in all Bessie Stringfield undertook eight long-distance rides across America, as well as going on to ride in Brazil, Europe and even Haiti. When World War Two broke out, Stringfield found employment as a dispatch rider for the US Army, delivering documents to army bases.
In the Fifties, she moved to Florida, where she qualified as a nurse. After having been harassed and told that “nigger women aren’t allowed to ride motorbikes” by various police officers in Miami, she visited the police chief and after displaying her riding skills to him, she had no further trouble from police.
Stringfield Founds the Iron Horse Motorcycle Club
Meanwhile, she also found time to found the Iron Horse Motorcycle Club, and earned the nickname “Motorcycle Queen of Miami. Later in life she developed a cardiac malformation and was advised by doctors to stop riding; she didn’t take a blind bit of notice, and continued riding until her death in 1993, aged 82. Despite spending a lot of time on the road, she found time to get married six times, and had three children from her first husband, all of whom unfortunately died in their infancy.
In 1990, the AMA (American Motorcyclist Association) featured her in their inaugural “Heroes of Harley-Davidson” exhibition, since she had owned 27 of the Milwaukee-based manufacturer’s machines. Later, in 2000, the AMA inaugurated the Bessie Stringfield Memorial Award, which recognises outstanding achievements by female motorcyclists. Two years later, in 2002, she was inducted into the AMA Hall of Fame.
Interested in reading about more legendary motorcyclists? Check out the amazing story of Burt Munro and how he set a landspeed record in his sixties on a bike that was over 40 years old! Or read about Moto GP-turned-F1-racer John Surtees or learn about Clancy Stearns, the first man to ride a motorcycle around the world.