By Team EarPeace
by Lauren Sarazen
In 1929, women weren’t authorized to ride in American Motorcyclists Association-sanctioned races. Motorcycle racing was not just a male-dominated sport. It was masculine, full stop. Generally speaking, you were more likely to see women in sidecars, rather than gripping the handlebars of their own machines, and even that was fairly scandalous. In 1930, 18-year-old Dorothy “Dot” Robinson changed all of that when she participated in the Flint 100-mile endurance run and won.
Born in Australia in 1912, Dot Robinson would one day go on to found the all-female riding club The Motor Maids in 1940 and become known as the First Lady of Motorcycling. While Robinson may be a familiar figure to motorcycle historians, it’s high time to explore more of her legacy as one of the 20th-century pioneers of women’s motorcycling.
Her passion for riding came from her father James Goulding. Sidecar designer, mechanic, and racer—you name it, James Goulding did it. The story goes he even picked up his wife and infant Dot from the hospital on his motorcycle, bundling his family into his sidecar. When Goulding immigrated with his family to the United States in 1918 to expand his growing business, he settled in Saginaw, Michigan where he opened a Harley Davidson dealership.
As a young girl Dot grew up around motorcycles and her family had no problem with teaching their daughter to become an able mechanic and an enthusiastic rider. Working part-time in the shop throughout high school, Dot even met her future husband, motorcycle racer Earl Robinson, when he came in to buy parts and stopped to flirt by talking shop with 18-year-old Dot.
"Every day after school, Earl would come to the shop to buy one part or another," Robinson said to the American Motorcyclists Association. "By the time we were married, Earl probably had enough parts to start his own store."
Robinson took racing seriously, successfully lobbying the American Motorcyclists Association to allow her to participate. She was one of the first women to do so in 1930, opening up possibilities for future women riders. Dot and Earl married a year later in 1931 and began riding and competing together as a team, as well as entering races as individuals. In one 1940 race, Dot even broke the transcontinental record for sidecar riding—with Earl riding shotgun in her sidecar—and going on to win for the second time in 1946.
While it almost feels reductive to assert that women riders can be, well, women, this was no joke in mid-20th-century America. It was hard enough to endure the cookie-cutter stereotypes of what it meant to be a wife and mother without willfully steering away from mainstream femininity in favor of an exhilarating, albeit highly masculine, sport. At 5’2”, Dot had to fight to be taken seriously in the masculine world of motorcycle racing, but she wasn’t willing to dispense with her style.
Photos of Robinson over the years certainly paint a pretty picture. She strongly believed that you could be stiff competition and look good while doing it and upheld this throughout her life. It was rare to see Dot without a full face of makeup, even while riding. According to the Motor Maids website, she would even change clothes after competition before joining her fellow racers. After a grueling two-day race, featuring riding through mud and whipping past brush, the guys piled into the local bar only to realize Dot was missing. “I’ll never forget the picture: Dot walking into the bar in a black sheath dress and a pillbox hat,” Hap, of the Sarasota, Florida Honda Dealership recalled. In the 1950s, Dot even began favoring all-pink riding ensembles, rejecting the trademark black leathers Hollywood chose to dress bad boy motorcyclists in on-screen. While hyper-feminine styling was part of Dot’s M.O. (later in life, she even customized her pink touring Harley to include a dedicated compartment just for her lipstick), her true focus was about encouraging women to ride—no matter what they wanted to wear while doing it.
In 1940, Dot teamed up with her future friend Linda Dugeau to found The Motor Maids with this exact goal: to let women know that they can be fervent motorcyclists and show that they were welcome on the road. Inspired by stories of the Nintety-Nines, a women’s aviation club founded in 1929, Dugeau dreamed of a similar association to bring female motorcyclists together. After meeting at the 1940 Laconia National and hearing Dugeau’s ideas, Robinson was sold. The two women founded the club within the year and worked tirelessly to legitimize motorcycling as a pastime for women as well as men. Together, Robinson and Dugeau spread the word about The Motor Maids at competitions across the United States, with Dot riding about 50,000 miles around the country each year to increase visibility. Dot was eventually elected as the club’s first president, a role she served for 25 years. While joining a riding club isn’t necessary to enjoy the sport, The Motor Maids paved the way for other women’s riding collectives and made riding motorcycles something women could publicly enjoy and be proud of it. Unsurprisingly, The Motor Maids took off and still exists today with about 1,300 active members and counting across the United States and Canada.
It’s estimated that Dot Robinson rode over 1.5 million miles on her motorcycles, celebrating 1 million miles in 1968. After riding for most of her life, she eventually retired from riding due to health issues. After knee surgery made it difficult to climb on and off her motorcycle, she called it quits at age 85. Inducted into the AMA Hall of Fame in 1998 at 86 years old, Dot quipped that despite her accomplishments as a female rider, she “made the fatal mistake along the way—I got old!” She passed away a year later in Orlando, Florida, leaving behind an impressive and inspiring legacy for women riders interested in busting through gendered barriers and embracing their passion.