Iron Horse Cowgirls: Louise Scherbyn and the Women Motorcyclists of the 1930s and 1940s
By Linda Back McKay and Kate St. Vincent Vogl
McFarland Publishers, 2023
ISBN-13: 978-1-4766-6946-5 (print edition)
ISBN-13: 978-1-4766-5115-6 (electronic edition)
The story of Louise Scherbyn, the founder of the Women’s International Motorcycle Association (WIMA) is strikingly rendered in the forthcoming book Iron Horse Cowgirls: Louise Scherbyn and the Women Motorcyclists of the 1930s and 1940s by Linda Back McKay and Kate St. Vincent Vogl, McFarland Publishers (Fall 2023). The authors overlay the acts of writing with riding (driving) motorcycles and one woman’s quest for freedom from gender constraints of the early and mid-twentieth century.
It’s a clear, and often used comparison (writing and riding) we see in books like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values by Robert M. Pirsig (1974), or The Perfect Vehicle: What It Is About Motorcycles by Melissa Holbrook Pierson (1997), and other personal biographies or memoirs that explore riding and the self. Iron Horse Cowgirls differs from these in that the authors weave together the historical, political, and cultural reality of women in the 1930s with the burgeoning field of motorcycling through archival research, oral history, visual evidence, and thoughtful questions. McKay and Vogl employ an incisive historiographic approach as they piece together Louise Scherbyn’s motorcycle experiences, her life’s journey, and “raison d’etre.” Iron Horse Cowgirls paints a colorful, dimensional picture of Louise and her fellow-women motorcyclists – from their first ride to their struggles to be recognized as worthy to ride (drive) on their own. The authors explore the relationships between American exceptionalism, competition, and feminism.
What comes through the pages is an engrossing tale of Louise’s challenging of rules, confronting traditions, and protesting ideas about the “fairer sex.” While the story hinges on Louise’s individualism and single (track) path toward the creation of an ideal club, McKay and Vogl include histories of other motorcycling women (mostly American, mostly white) who also sought equal footing in travel, competition, and performance on two wheels. Louise Scherbyn’s story is one that parallels historic figures such as Amelia Earhart, Pancho Barnes, Lillian La France, Bessie Stringfield, and other early twentieth century explorer (daredevil) women who conquered gender boundaries by physically and intellectually competing with male counterparts. Scherbyn’s motorcycle adventures are backgrounded by her affiliations with the American Motorcycle Association, The Motor Maids, and other motorcycle clubs. Like many motorcyclists of the early twentieth century, Scherbyn racks up significant miles (riding solo and with other female and male motorcyclists) traveling roads that were unpaved and less established than contemporary roads. Details like this are highlighted by the authors, emphasizing Louise’s enduring spirit and proficient technique. Surprisingly, Louise’s story (the results of her efforts to establish an International Women’s Motorcycle Association) takes wing to Eastern Europe during the cold war.
The authors take great care to pave the road of Louise’s journey, illustrating it through thick description, dynamic narrative, adroit motorcycle discourse, and incredible photographs. The collection of photographs (from Louise Scherbyn’s personal archive) intricately guides and traces an extensive history of Scherbyn’s progression from novice motorcycle enthusiast to avid rider (driver) to motorcycle expert and motorcycle magazine editor. The authors are clear to make the distinction (as Scherbyn argued for throughout her life) between the rider-driver and the rider-passenger. The featured photographs are part palimpsestic and part evidentiary, offering unique glimpses into American life in the 1930s and 1940s.
In addition to emphasizing Scherbyn’s accomplishments, McKay and Vogl explore Scherbyn’s disappointments and failures in her life. The result is a poignant and multi-dimensional narrative; a carefully written, richly detailed account of one woman’s vision to create a more equitable and inclusive future for all women motorcyclists. Scherbyn’s legacy lives on through WIMA and on the pages of Iron Horse Cowgirls.
Sheila Malone is a media artist, scholar, and educator. Malone received their PhD in Theater and Performance Studies from UCLA and an MFA in New Media from CADRE Laboratory for New Media at San Jose State University. They work across disciplines in theatre, performance, installation, and film, focusing on issues of gender, technology, and queerness. Their documentary films San Francisco Dykes on Bikes® and Annie Sprinkle’s Amazing World of Orgasm have been shown all over the world. Currently, Dr. Malone is a Professor of Theatre Arts at Chaffey College. In addition to teaching, Dr. Malone is a company member at Ophelia’s Jump Productions where they design projections and lighting. They are the managing editor of The International Journal of Motorcycle Studies (IJMS). Dr. Malone’s writing has appeared in IJMS, Lateral: Journal of the Cultural Studies Association, Contention: The Multidisciplinary Journal of Social Protest, Rhizome, Artshift, and Switch.