THE VAN BUREN SISTERS
Words by Shelby Rossi
Some people never feel the urge to leave their house. They’re content staying in the city they were born in, the couch they sit on, and the 360 degrees that immediately surround them. Then there’s the rest of us—the people who can’t sit still, who want to witness new places, to discover foreign cultures, and who always have a map handy.
Researchers have traced this inherent urge to explore back to one gene, DRD4-7R, a derivative of the gene DRD4, which is associated with dopamine levels in the brain. This gene has been named the “adventure gene” because of its correlation to increased levels of curiosity and restlessness. Studies have found that 7R makes people more likely to take risks; to explore new places, ideas, relationships; and generally to embrace movement, change, and, most importantly, adventure.
Augusta and Adeline Van Buren, sisters, must have carried this gene.
In 1916, the Van Buren sisters were the first women to each ride her own motorcycle across the continental United States. They rode 5,500 dangerous miles from Brooklyn, New York, to San Francisco, each on Indian Power Plus motorcycles. In hopes of encouraging others to embrace change and new ideas during World War I, their mission was to convince the military that women were fit to serve as dispatch riders, a job seen as suited only for men.
Augusta was the elder sister, born in March 1884; Adeline was born in July 1889. The sisters inherited the “adventure gene” from their father, Frank, who raised their family in New York City along with their brother, Albert. Despite losing their mother at a young age, Frank offered an energetic and athletic upbringing characterized by swimming, skating, canoeing, wrestling, and sprinting. It’s no surprise the Van Buren sisters naturally took up motorcycling during their early adult years. It was this free-spirited childhood that would shape two of the most inspiring women that motorcyclists have known to this day.
When the sisters decided to make their motorcycle journey across the States, women were suffering from extreme limitations placed upon them by Victorian society. They didn’t have the right to vote, nor were they considered equals to men. Men of the early 20th century believed women were too occupied with domestic duties to consider political debate, and that women weren’t smart or strong enough to handle the responsibilities of voting. Another notorious argument declared that women should be denied a say at the polls due to their lack of participation in military efforts and because they weren’t risking their lives for their country.
Not only were Augusta and Adeline members of the suffrage movement—organizations of women across the nation fighting for women’s right to vote—but they were also involved in the National Preparedness Movement, a campaign started by former president Theodore Roosevelt that began prior to the United States’ entry into World War I. The movement was started to convince the U.S. of the need for American involvement in worldly affairs and that the country must prepare itself for war.
The sisters’ ride had a dual purpose. The National Preparedness Movement was an effort to get the United States ready for the inevitable. Augusta and Adeline believed women could directly help the cause by becoming dispatch riders—which had transitioned a year earlier from men on horseback to men on motorcycles—freeing up men to give combat support. This would eliminate one of the arguments for denying women the right to vote: that women were historically non-participants in war efforts. They would have to prove this point by showing that a woman could handle the difficulties of motorcycling over long distances and tough conditions. Being a dispatch rider was a dangerous job. Performing basic maintenance was unavoidable, navigating difficult trails was a given, and, most importantly, staying clear of opposing forces was a matter of life or death. Most would see such obstacles as defeat, but Augusta and Adeline saw them as opportunities to define their mission. Thus, their plan was conceived...