Adeline (1884–1959) and Augusta Van Buren (1889–1949)
It was 1916; the world was embroiled in the First World War, and Theodore Roosevelt’s Preparedness Movement had swept the United States.
Two sisters, descended from the eighth President of the United States, Martin Van Buren, were dedicated to the cause and endeavoured to become dispatch riders in order to help the war effort and free up men for other tasks. They also had another agenda, and that was to prove that women could ride motorcycles as well as men, and deserved the right to vote.
To prove their point, on 4th July 1916, 32-year-old Gussie and 27-year-old Addie Van Buren departed from Sheepshead Bay Race Track in Brooklyn, New York, in an attempt to cross the continental United States. They rode 1,000cc Indian Power Plus motorcycles (costing $275 each), complete with gas headlights and Firestone ‘non-skid’ tyres and, rather scandalously, wore military-style leggings and leather riding breeches – a point of social contention for the police they met en route, resulting in numerous arrests.
Over 60 days and 5,500 miles, they faced poor roads, bad weather and even becoming lost in the desert near Salt Lake City (they were saved by a passing prospector but not before running out of water). Notably, during the journey, they became the first women to reach the summit of Pikes Peak by any motor vehicle.
After arriving in Los Angeles on 8th September they were lauded by many, however others criticised them and their journey, with a motorcycle magazine calling the journey a ‘vacation’ and praising the bikes but not the riders. Another newspaper accused the pair of using the national preparedness as an excuse to escape their housewife lives and ‘display their feminine counters in nifty khaki and leather uniforms’.
Despite their incredible journey, the sisters’ applications to become motorcycle dispatch riders were ultimately rejected.