Women-Only Events: Yay or Nay?
BY LYNDA LAHMAN “I don’t go for these all women things. Motorcycling is gender-neutral and that’s what I like about it. Don’t bug me about it!”
She practically spit the words at me, turning on her heels and walking away. I was surprised: not by her lack of interest but by her overt hostility. After all, we were friends, participating in some of the same types of riding over the past several years. She wasn’t the only woman I’d come across with such a reaction; another prominent member of our group had a similar response at an earlier event, thinking it was stupid to have women-only events, books, activities, or celebrations when it came to riding.
What sparked her reaction? I’d asked her if she’d heard of the Women Riders World Relay, and it’s more informal counterpart, the US Ripple Relay. A single baton is currently being passed across the globe (WRWR) over the course of a single year, and other, more informal Ripple Relays are happening within specific countries. Among the goals hoping to be achieved are celebrating female ridership, building friendships within and across borders, and getting the attention of the industry to the growing segment of women riders in order to be taken seriously as consumers. The only absolute is that the baton is to be carried by a female; men are happily welcome as supporters.
Gathering for the start of an eleven-day long-distance motorcycling event where I would be carrying the baton for the first of two legs, I was inviting her to have her picture taken with the baton, by her bike, and to be included in a group photo with the thirteen other women who’d be participating in the competition. My excitement to be one of the two riders taking the baton on the Rally was matched only by sharing it with these other women. Her vehemence was both unexpected and puzzling.
Later I asked another rider the same questions, and she shared she was unsure how she felt about the Relay. But her response felt reasonable: needing a bit more information, wanting time to think about it knowing she valued riding because of its gender neutrality but she also strongly supported other women riders, and appreciating my wanting her to be including even if she ultimately opted out. There wasn’t a trace of the negative, gut reaction I’d seen in the other woman.
I can understand indifference or lack of interest from some women about gender-specific events. Many learned from men who have been supportive, encouraging, challenging, and simply fun to ride with and don’t feel a need to congregate with single sex. For others it’s more philosophical: we’ve fought hard to be seen as equal, and suddenly we want to exclude men? And no matter one’s position, the truth is the bike doesn’t know who’s riding it. Skills vary far more by what’s between one’s ears than by what’s between one’s legs, and we’ve seen for a long time that women are certainly capable of all that men are, and sometimes much more.
So is there a need for women’s only events? Would celebrating women separately suddenly threaten the advances we’ve worked so hard to achieve? Those are valid questions that can prompt good discussions. But I still come back to my original dilemma: what causes some women to react with contempt, dismissal, and outright rage to anything hinting at a single-sex event? It’s the anger that baffled me.
I had a long time to ponder the question as I rode the eleven-day Iron Butt Rally with my husband. A two-person team on two bikes, we covered almost ten thousand miles in those eleven days. I carried the baton on Leg One, passing it on Leg Two to Wendy, the ultimate winner of the long-distance event.
She was honored and excited to represent the Relay and all it stood for, while appreciating being seen as simply a tough, capable rider in a extremely challenging competition. The wildly enthusiastic standing ovation she received, from men and women equally, at the Finisher’s banquet attested not only to the respect she deserved for her outstanding skills, but for finally breaking the glass ceiling as the first woman to win the Rally.
My husband and I had numerous conversations about my friend’s reaction over those long days in the saddle. “It’s a lack of empathy,” he concluded. “She can’t see the need for single-sex riding for herself, therefore she can’t understand it may be of value to other women. Maybe she had to fight to be taken seriously as a rider, and doesn’t want to be diminished by being seen as merely a women in what’s been for so long a man’s world; maybe she wasn’t allowed to join a men’s only group and resents the idea of excluding anyone based on gender.” I could see his point; was it the inability to put oneself in another’s shoes that made these women so hostile? Did it really come down to a type of tunnel vision?
“What about curiosity?” I threw out. “Maybe it’s a lack of curiosity about the needs of other riders, what their experiences have been, why it feels important to them to ride with women leading the way instead of always following a man.”
“Is that different than empathy?” he asked.
“I think it’s the precursor to empathy. The desire to understand what causes someone to take the position they are taking. Before being able to empathize, or see something from another’s point of view, it might be important to want to know how they formed it, what experiences led to it, and why it matters to them. Curiosity leads to that understanding.”
“Valid point,” my husband replied. “Ok, so curiosity and empathy. If someone lacks both of those, then they only have their history to draw on, and can’t comprehend that others may have different backgrounds with different solutions. If we add to that that perhaps they’ve had some negative experiences, such as being singled out as female, or even only positive experiences of being seen as one of the gang, it might make sense they’d think it was dumb.”
“I think there’s one more piece,” I replied several days later. “Objectivity. What, factually, is of help. Do some women learn better in all-female groups, do they serve a valid purpose, or are they bogus? Is it okay that sometimes women simply want to be in the company of their own sex? Can the person who is hostile to the concept be open to the idea that it works for some but not for them, and be moved to a place of personal indifference versus contempt?”
In the days leading up to the Iron Butt Rally, I tried once more asking my friend what prompted her anger, genuinely wanting to understand and broaden my views, but she just became dismissive and irate. I gave up; no matter what caused her to have such a reaction, she in essence validated my conclusions. She wasn’t curious about other positions, didn’t want to hear anything objective, and at least as far as I could see showed no empathy towards those whose needs were different than hers.
I respected her wishes, but my internal dialogue didn’t. I kept wanting to tell her about women who are continuing to be harassed, dismissed, or marginalized simply because they’re female; the ones who have to endure the sexist, demeaning, and misogynist comments from men they thought were supportive, and even worse behavior from those they don’t know. I wanted to share the experiences of women who have reached out to me after the publication of ‘The Women’s Guide to Motorcycling,’ the ones who have enthusiastically joined mentoring groups, Facebook pages, and women-only events and riding clubs. I had to resist the desire to pull out my phone and show pictures of the women in events I’ve participated in, their unbridled joy as they felt, sometimes for the first time, the freedom to just be themselves without worrying about the reactions of men. Photos of women mentors, who would never say things like ‘you can’t lift that bike because you have lady muscles,’ and instead tip it over to demonstrate how to do it by themselves. Friendships formed, trips planned, and tips shared that encourage each other to continue ride, without the ‘are you sure you can do this?’ implied or voiced, that all too often comes from men.
I grew up in an era where there weren’t women in most roles of power and leadership; where riding ‘bitch’ was the norm and only weird, unfeminine, and pushy girls might want their own bike. It was difficult to see myself in any of the pictures of adventurers because they were all men. Today, it’s hard to scroll through my Facebook feed without articles about women taking off solo, across town or across the globe, and sharing their stories of connection, competence, and joy. I credit those bold women who defied stereotypes as well as those who created women-only groups for getting us to where we are now. I believe the need for these many paths is still true today.
But in persisting, I’d be asking my friend to change her mind because I believe her to be wrong. In pushing my agenda, I’d want her to finally see my point, let go of her hostility, and embrace my views of sisterhood. What right did I have to impose that on her? Taking my own council, I opted to let it go and move to empathy: her feelings were valid based on her experiences, she had no requirement to share those with me, and she was entitled to hold whatever views she wanted.
But I did walk away a little bit sadder, knowing there were conversations we would never have, not because I wasn’t open to them, but because she wasn’t.