Women and Motorcycle History: Rethinking the ‘Hollister Riot’
By BETH HARPAZ
Perhaps you know Hollister as a clothing brand, or as a city in Northern California. But Hollister is also synonymous with a legendary event in motorcycle history known as the “Hollister Riot.” That event gave rise to the image of bikers as outlaws and inspired the Marlon Brando movie The Wild One. New research by Professor Sarah Hoiland (Hostos Community College) published in the International Journal of Motorcycle Studies offers a women-focused look at what really took place.
In the 1930s and ‘40s, motorcycles were marketed to women, and women often rode them both as civilians and in the Women’s Army Corps. But postwar depictions of renegade male bikers “literally pushed” women “from riding their own bikes” to sitting on “the back of the bike,” Hoiland said in an interview with CUNY’s Indoor Voices podcast.
The Hollister Riot story originated with the San Francisco Chronicle. The paper claimed that the bikers caused “pandemonium,” quelled only by “martial law.” The story became the stuff of legend after Life magazine and other national media picked it up.
Hoiland found local press accounts had a different tone. This 1947 gathering over the July Fourth holiday was the first big rally at Hollister’s racetrack since before the war, and 4,000 bikers attended, doubling the town population. Local homes were sought to host the visitors, while bars got a boost in business. Women wrote letters describing the event with a “fun, playful attitude.” And when crowds got rowdy, California Highway Police calmed them with music from a band in a pickup truck. “People just started dancing,” Hoiland said.
Female bikers all but disappeared from most Hollister stories. But with help from the San Benito Historical Society, Hoiland found photos of a group of women who attended the event. They wore black boots, cuffed jeans, and matching shirts with logos from a local motorcycle club called the Tracy Gear Jammers. They boldly stare at the camera, wrestle playfully, and pose with men in sailors’ uniforms. Their “female camaraderie” tells “a different story,” not only from the male misfits, but also from “a decades-long erasure of female motorcyclists and bikers” that parallels “other historical processes to remove women from public spaces and positions of power.”
Hoiland explores that theme further in a forthcoming book called Righteous Sisters.