#280 The Road To Empowerment

Nancy Irwin is one of 49 women profiled in a new book that was launched this past December at the Toronto Motorcycle Show.

We all walk a path, and it is our own. Life is a journey and, for the fortunate ones, an adventure. Author Liz Jansen covers some of that ground in her recently released Women, and the Road to Empowerment, which is a collection of profiles about 49 women from a variety of backgrounds, whose common denominator is that they are all motorcycle riders. I met Liz first while off-road riding, then later at a women-only demo ride event at an Ontario dealership. Then she “wrote the book.”
I could say I’m biased in favour of the book because I was one of those 49 women interviewed, our stories paraphrased and quoted. Though the self-published work is a bit raw, where else are you going to find fascinating life stories of women riders of great diversity all gathered in one place? The subjects are scattered across Canada, with some from the US. There’s a stunt rider, a racer, and a motocross rider … though the majority are street riders. In fact, these are tales of women we know, who live down the road, now gathered together in chapters such as ‘Leading With Your Heart’ or ‘Sharing the Legacy.’ 
These women’s stories are intertwined with yet another tale. Liz has been on her own road to self-discovery. The book was inspired by an accident that temporarily kept her from riding, and she put that time to good use. Each chapter tells her tale, and is then followed by the stories of women whose life experiences in some way echo her own. This was a wonderful way for Liz to choose to process her own road to empowerment. And along the way she has produced a book that will read as entertainment to many, but may be a beacon of light to those who may never have aspired to achieve the goals. For example, look for the world travelers.
There are also painful stories of oppressed women who barely managed to squeak out from under the burden of being treated like second class citizens, for whom riding a motorcycle is the greatest act of rebellion. Misogyny is even more pervasive than racism on this planet. (Female fetuses are aborted due to gender. Even in Toronto.) How many women were told they could not ride a motorcycle? I certainly was! Some women never heard that, and some didn’t listen.
There’s a point that is made in this book that really struck me, whether it was intentional or not, which is how incredibly restricted so many women have been throughout their lives. I’m hoping “it gets better” (thanks Dan Savage) for the young ones, the new and upcoming generations. I believe it already has. But I will say I was struck by the number of women who seemed to be prisoners. It has made me think how incredibly fortunate I was that my mother could never adequately answer my question, which was always the same. “Why not, Mom? Why can’t I? It was an age-old lament: why was I not “allowed” to do the things my brother and other males could.
My mother tried and tried, but never could come up with a decent answer, and she knew it. I have so much to thank her for. 
I am a strong supporter of women’s rights. And I’m concerned about language. I do not “manhandle” my bike. Only a man’s hands can manhandle. And if I speak of women’s issues, I will speak of women and men, not the other way around. Those are details that distracted me while reading Liz’s tale. It’s my history speaking, and in my opinion, the road to equality is not yet paved.
Liz writes that I started riding in 1979. That’s not quite accurate: the year was actually 1980. I was 20 that summer, and privileged to learn to ride on a friend’s bike. It took a month before I saw another woman riding, which was inspiring because, until then, I thought I was the only one. My confidence grew significantly when I saw that mystery woman ride by. By age 21 I had saved up and bought my own ride—a battered and abused 500cc Triumph. I’ve not been without a motorcycle since. 
One of the more self-possessed, inspirational women in the book, stunt rider Debbie Leavitt said, “I’ve never let other people’s perceptions of what I should be able to do stop me from doing anything. If I had, I would never have accomplished anything.” 
Laura Culic was in art college when she was kicked out of her parent’s home. They learned she had bought a motorcycle (which was stored at her boyfriend’s place) when the insurance slip arrived in the mail. I’d be proud of that history. She’s now a motorcycle instructor!
The woman whose tale most captivated me Meg Thorburn. ‘Meg’s Ride’ is an event that takes place in southern Ontario every year. I keep hearing of it but have not yet managed to attend the special women-only trail ride that raises funds for cancer. Her story truly is inspirational. I especially enjoyed the part where she had to decide whether to race or go for a particular batch of cancer treatments, the outcome of which would be dubious at best. She thought long and hard, and made her decision. It was not to merely race, but to win the enduro championship that year. For me, reading about Meg is worth the price of the book. But I am biased. I’m all about pleasure, and living while living. She talks of battling challenges in the dirt, and what happens when you succumb to fear, or what happens if you learn to compartmentalize your fear, recognize it, and keep moving ahead. It’s easy to forget she’s talking about dirt riding rather than cancer! 
Liz’s book provides an opportunity to meet all sorts of women and learn about what has inspired them. There is a central theme that all women in the book share, which is the positive effect of riding motorcycles. Chances are that everyone reading Canadian Biker already knows that, but it’s nice to be reminded in so many ways.